VERMEER'S CAMERA: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces

Philip Steadman, Author . Oxford Univ. $25 (207p) ISBN 978-0-19-215967-0

A professor of "urban and built form studies" at London's University College, Steadman has worked for more than 20 years on the question of whether 17th-century Dutch genius Johannes Vermeer might have used an optic device called a camera obscura (literally, a "dark room") to help create his paintings. Lucidly and with admirable concision, he discusses how the camera obscura works and how it affected painting in nine short chapters such as "Who Taught Vermeer About Optics?" (probably Antony van Leeuwenhoek, a pioneer developer of the microscope and other optic tools) and "Reconstructing the Spaces in Vermeer's Paintings." Steadman shows how Vermeer's paintings reproduce focal distortions and details of perspective that a camera lens would show, but that do not ordinarily come clear to the naked eye, such as when two people sitting next to one another seem to have heads of dramatically different sizes. Steadman built miniature and full-size versions of the rooms shown in Vermeer's paintings (!) to see how the light would be captured and reflected had the painter used a camera obscura. The results yield no final answer to the question of Vermeer's techniques, but the book is a must-read for specialists in 17th-century Dutch art. Those with a more general interest in Vermeer will want to try the standard studies by Lawrence Gowing and A.K. Wheelock. (June)

Reviewed on: 05/14/2001
Release date: 06/01/2001
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