The Mystery of Jan Vermeer

Vermeer PaintingThe city of Delft, in the Netherlands, is famous for two things.

The first of these is Delftware, a “porcelain substitute” developed in the city in the 16th century to compete with “real” porcelain, which came from China and was hideously expensive, even for rich people. Delftware is almost always white with a blue pattern on it; if you look in your grandmother’s china cabinet, you’ll almost certainly find some delftware in it – or at least a reasonable copy thereof. Delftware became amazingly popular, so much so that it was even exported into China and Japan. Amusingly, the Chinese made copies of delftware to ship back to Europe, so at some point it was possible to buy a Chinese copy of a European copy of a Chinese original!

The other thing Delft is known for is being the home of Antonie van Leeuwenhoek and Johannes (Jan) Vermeer.

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, until very recently, was credited as being “the inventor of the microscope” in many middle and high school textbooks. But the truth is, microscopes existed decades before van Leeuwenhoek was born. However, van Leeuwenhoek did greatly improve microscopes. He was a glass grinder, and van Leeuwenhoek was a master at making lenses. And, while testing out the lenses, van Leeuwenhoek made many interesting observations that he dutifully forwarded to England’s Royal Society and other scientific groups. Even though van Leeuwenhoek was nothing more than a tradesman, really, he is known in some circles as “the father of microbiology” more than anything else.

Jan Vermeer was, of course, a painter. He is world-famous for his use of light, and he has taken his rightful place at the table of Old Masters.

But did he get a helping hand?

The truth be told, until the mid 1660s, Vermeer was known as a “competent, but not great” artist. When he joined the Guild of Saint Luke (the Netherlands’ “painter’s union”) on December 29, 1653, he could not pay the guild’s admission fee, indicating that he was having a difficult time making ends meet. But then, in the early 1660s, Vermeer met van Leeuwenhoek. And shortly thereafter, his career took off. Did van Leeuwenhoek – the glass grinder – offer Vermeer tips on his painting technique? Or did van Leeuwenhoek, as has been long suspected, provide Vermeer with high quality lenses to make a camera obscura?

A camera obscura (Latin for “dark chamber”), is a device that allows an artist to simply trace (or paint) an exact copy of an image. A small room is painted black and completely sealed to allow no light to enter (by the 18th century, many camera obscuras were portable, allowing artists to take them from place to place). A small hole is then drilled into one end of the room and a lens put in the hole. An image of whatever is outside the room then appears upside down on the wall opposite the lens. All the artist needs to do then is put a piece of paper or canvas on the wall and begin tracing (or painting) the scene.

Did Vermeer use a camera obscura? We’ll never know – the executor of his estate was… Antonie van Leeuwenhoek! And van Leeuwenhoek would easily have been able to destroy (or take back) any lenses he might have loaned his friend.

One Reply to “The Mystery of Jan Vermeer”

  1. Delft is also a beautiful city. I stayed at the Hotel Coon right next to the train station. Other than an excruciating weekend due to a bad batch of buttermilk (don’t ask) and the worlds smallest shower, it was a great place. The town square is gorgeous with a very pretty cathedral. Wish I had had the time to tour the pottery works, though. I did get a cute Delft wooden shoe, though. 😉

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