771: Vermeer’s Camera by Philip Steadman

by Gerard


771: Steadman, Philip. Vermeer’s Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2001. 165 pp. ISBN 0-19-215967-4.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 700: Fine Arts and Recreation
  • 770: Photography, photographs, and computer art
  • 771: Techniques, procedures, apparatus, equipment, and materials

There have been many times I’ve looked at a piece of art and wondered how they created it. From Escher’s mind-blowing drawings to Calder’s amazingly delicate mobiles, how artists engineer their art is almost as interesting as the art itself. In Vermeer’s Camera, Philip Steadman painstakingly details the use of the camera obscura in Vermeer’s paintings. His investigations not only gives us a peek at the artist’s technique and practical knowledge, but also illuminate the very intriguing intersection of science and art.

Steadman’s history of Vermeer’s works start with the invention of the camera obscura, a room or a box which focuses light from a scene onto a wall or canvas for the artist to trace and paint against. Many of Vermeer’s paintings are set in the corner of the same room and different scenes are depicted. Officer and Laughing Girl, The Concert, The Music Lesson, The Geographer, and Lady Standing at the Virginals all seem to show the same room, but from slightly different angles. Steadman first traces the exact building Vermeer used through historical maps and tax documents, then geometrically analyzes the works to derive exactly where Vermeer would have set up his camera. The science and research presented are astounding (but I would not expect anything less from the Oxford University Press).

In the end, Steadman work finds a way to put the reader more into the paintings than the paintings themselves do. The writing is technical but still readable. The history of the camera obscura was actually more lengthy than I though it would be. Vermeer’s work now seems a bit more masterful after reading this, and puts him in the class of the American painter Thomas Eakins, who used both still and moving pictures to aid in his art. If you’re at all interested in classical Dutch painting, this one is a very good book. A classy and enlightening read.