Did Vermeer Use a Secret Optical Device to Make photo-realistic paintings, about 350 years ago?

Penn & Teller have what sounds like it could be a very good film in the works about long-lost artistic skulldugggery (or what some would probably call cheating). David Hockney and a few others charged that Vermeer could not possibly have painted the amazing realism of his paintings without some sort of optical aid like a camera obscura, but they couldn’t quite figure out the details of how these gizmos were supposed to work. 

In other words, did the artist who painted the famous picture below use some sort of photographic lenses or mirrors?


Yup, he certainly did, I am now convinced.

Look carefully at that image (which may take time to load) of a detail of the “Girl With an Earring” – about which another movie with supposedly the most beautiful girl of our time (not that I or anybody I know ever got a chance to vote on that) was just made. Now compare that with one by a much more prolific artist, Rembrandt van Rijn:



Notice that the brush strokes on the first one nearly disappear, even though the resolution of the first photo is much higher. I am not claiming that Vermeer invented photographic paper! I am saying he essentially made a process that anybody could use if they had an enormous amount of patience and a very steady hand and a good eye. No ability to draw objects or lines is needed.

The second one is clearly done with brush and paint and required very different skills.

A completely unartisctic fellow who has quite handy with tools figured out how Vermeer actually did it, and made a device that would produce the correct results essentially FROM SCRATCH, and using only materials available back around 1650. This tinkerer  takes several years learning how to grind paints and lenses and mirrors the way they used to do; makes his device, builds a replica of the room in which another celebrated picture,”The Music Lesson”.was painted 350 years ago, and then he NAILS the replica of the painting. 

It’s just brilliant. It’s not a simple technique, but it is feasible, and there is no doubt in my mind any longer that Vermeer used a secret device he invented to get his effects.

I had thought painter David Hockney, who first made such claims, but who really had only a suspicion that Vermeer used opto-mechanical aids, could not give any details. There were counter-charges against Hockney, and I was convinced, mostly, that Hockney was wrong. I kinda thought he was jealous because modern painters like him tend to not be able to (or else don’t care to? Which is it — though there are exceptions) draw and paint in a realistic manner. 

I was completely wrong, Hockney was right, Vermeer was a very clever and hard worker, but HIS TECHNIQUE WAS HIS SECRET. No way was he going to write down the details of how he did it; nor was he going to pass on the secret to anybody else by even letting them into his studio.

H may have produced so few paintings because he didn’t want any apprentices to give away his secrets… craftsmen of old were careful to guard their trade secrets… Even mathematicians of the era would often not publicly demonstrate their results; instead, they would publicly announce that they, themselves, were the only person in all of the known world who knew how to solve <something hard> and challenge anybody else to do so – a math duel in which only if someone else called your bluff would both “players” have to “show their cards”, as in various forms of poker today…  

However,  Vermeer’s fame didn’t seem to spread very far, possibly because it took so long to make a single painting, so only a few entered the market, and because he could not make protraits of really wealthy and powerful people, because they would be surrounded by courtiers and flunkies who would see what Vermeer was doing. And powerful people would not want to sit for long periods for an artist who would show them as they actually were, during one instant of  well-lit time, rather than how the bigshot wanted himself to appear to be…

However, it is possible that some other painters of his day produced similar effects with similar devices. This very persistend and determined tinkerer figured out almost exactly how it was done. It is to the credit of Penn and Teller in funding and filming this project, wherein many thousands of hours of documentary video of the project get boiled down. I certainly hope it will not be like the fake and poorly-acted and crassly-edited snippets of video that passes for reality” on “reality” shows. I ha en’t seen any previews. We will see. 

Even though I agree with probably a majority of the viewpoints expressed in the past by Penn & Teller in their series “Bullshit!”, I often cringe because of their unevenly heavy-handed hammering of his ideas and painting everybody who disagrees with him as a fool (I guess they learn from Limbaugh & company, whom I can’t stand at all).

I hope P&T don’t yell (or pantomime) “You f^&*ing Moron!” at the artists who disagree with them in this movie, which comes out in about 3 months (Feb 2014). 

The optical device sounds very interesting, but I really, really want to see a diagram and how it operates in practice!

A great quote from a recent article about the project:

When we first met, he told me he was 80 percent sure Vermeer used an optical apparatus and a procedure something like his own. After he finished his picture, his confidence was up to 90 percent. Lately, after examining a high-resolution scan of the painting provided by Buckingham Palace, he’s 95 percent sure. The most doubt-inducing part of the mystery for him remains how Vermeer kept the trade secret secret. “That’s the killer argument. That’s the best one there is. I’ve got a file of counterarguments to my own theory.”

But his collaborators aren’t fazed at all by the conspiracy-of-silence issue. “How much of history is lost!” Teller says. “We’re not talking about an age where people put things up on the Internet. There are magic tricks whose descriptions don’t exist.” And Jillette is emphatic, as he tends to be: “Tim’s device is Vermeer’s device! I have no doubt. Tim can give you all the doubt you want, but I have none. It’s not the kind of thing you write down! The photo-realistic painters of our time, none of them share their techniques. The Spider-Man people aren’t talking to the Avatar people. When [David] Copperfield and I have lunch, we aren’t giving away absolutely everything.




Published in: on December 4, 2013 at 11:02 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Part of Hockney’s work involved collaboration with Charles Falco, a condensed matter physicist and an expert in optics . While the use of optical aids would generally enhance accuracy, Falco calculated the types of distortion that would result from specific optical devices; Hockney and Falco argued that such errors could in fact be found in the work of some of the Old Masters.


  2. Very good


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