For more than a hundred years it has been
suggested by art historians that the painter Johannes Vermeer
(1632-1675) used the camera obscura as an aid to composition.
This instrument the forerunner of the
photographic camera, consists of a lens in a box or cubicle, with
which an image can be projected onto a screen.
The image may then be studied and traced.
Up until recently the belief that Vermeer
might have worked in this way has rested on analysis of certain
characteristics of the artist's style. (There is no independent
documentary evidence of his working methods.)
Vermeer's perspective has seemed to certain
critics to be `photographic'; he reproduces some real objects
such as actual maps, and paintings by other artists, with great
precision; and most tellingly, he renders certain passages `out
The suggestion here is that he is copying
artifacts of slightly deficient lenses.
Now Professor Philip Steadman has thrown
new light on this old subject, through a perspective analysis of
some twelve pictures by Vermeer, all of which apparently show the
same room.`The Music Lesson' in the Royal Collection of Her Majesty the
Queen gives the best view. We face a blank wall. Light comes from
windows in the wall to our left - windows which have a very
characteristic pattern of leading in their lower casements.
The floor is tiled diagonally. The ceiling,
where visible, has exposed rafters. By working the conventional
process of perspective drawing bakwards, it is possible to
reconstruct the geometry of the room shown in each painting, with
The absolute scale can be determined by
reference to certain recognisable items - paintings, maps,
musical instruments - which survive today and can be measured.
(All this assuming that Vermeer depicted them at their actual
It turns out that all the dimensions from
the various reconstructions are compatible. This is the same room
throughout. The theoretical viewpoint of each picture can be
located within the space of the room.
In `The Music Lesson' there
is a mirror on the far wall which reflects several items directly
visible in the painting - the girl, the carpeted table - but also
shows parts of the room which we cannot otherwise see, behind us,
behind Vermeer as he painted. In the very top-left corner of the mirror we can just glimpse a fragment of the back wall of
If the angle of view of a picture is
projected back, through the viewpoint, to meet this back wall, it
defines a rectangular shape on that wall. Professor Steadman has
discovered that in at least six cases, these projected rectangles
are the exact sizes of the paintings themselves.
This would seem to be very strong evidence
that Vermeer had a cubicle-type camera, which projected an image
onto the rear wall. Vermeer would then have traced this image.
Professor Steadman has had a scale model of the room constructed
with which to test this hypothesis. A plate camera takes the role
of Vermeer's camera, with its lens at the painting's theoretical
viewpoint, and its plate in the plane of the back wall. This
model has been used to recreate a number of Vermeer's
compositions photographically. The two paintings, with models and
photographs, which are illustrated in this article are, `The Music Lesson' and `The