Did Vermeer use the Camera Obscura?
According to the BBC History webpage, there is no documentary evidence that Jan Vermeer used the camera obscura in his paintings. Nevertheless, it is commonly believed that he did. Nowadays, the only sources of information we have are his paintings themselves. The camera obscura was the predecessor of the photographic camera and it was used by painters in the 18th century. However, did Vermeer use this technique in the 17th century?
At the end of the 19th century, the American Joseph Pennell was the first to state that Vermeer might have used this device in paintings such us ‘Officer and laughing girl’. The officer and the girl sit very close in the painting however, the size of the officer’s head is twice as bigger as the size of the lady’s. Even though the perspective is correct in the geometrical sense, the problem is that the viewpoint is taken from the officer. This was then called ‘Photographic perspective.’ As explained in the BBC website, nowadays we are familiar to the fact that, in pictures, foreground objects appear bigger than those of the background. This is very unusual for Vermeer’s times, his contemporaries would have probably painted the officer and the girl in their actual size.
Another element that suggests that Vermeer might have used this device are the maps that hang on the walls of his paintings like in ‘Officer and laughing girl.’ The maps of the paintings are exact reproductions of the original. Vermeer might have copied them with the help of the camera obscura although he had other alternatives to do the copies so faithfully. All in all, in the book Vermeer and the camera obscura by Steadman, he concludes that Vermeer did use the device although there are still a portion of Vermeer scholars that do not agree.
Have a look at another extract from the film ‘The girl with a pearl earring’ in which you can see Vermeer’s use of the device.
For more information and bibliography:
‘Vermeer and the camera obscura’ in BBC History in depth. Retrieved 13:05, March 31, 2010 from http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/empire_seapower/vermeer_camera_01.shtml