Vermeer's Paintings Might Be 350 Year-Old Color Photographs


eugenedw's picture

Recent years have seen several attempts by various researchers to prove that the old masters in general, and Vermeer in particular, "cheated" by using various optical devices to create their paintings. Perhaps the most well known of these was a book titled "Secret Knowledge," by the British artist David Hockney.

Hockney's ideas have been roundly debunked (indeed, Jenison himself points out some of the reasons why Hockney is wrong). Jenison may or may not be right with his own theory, but he seems to agree anyway that the fact that his method is consistent with what we observe in Vermeer's work does not prove that this is how Vermeer did it.

Most of the theories that argue that the old masters used optical aids are attempts to solve a non-mystery, namely how on earth the artists managed to paint so realistically. Much time is spent trying to prove that they couldn't possibly have done it without optical aids. These arguments strike me as similar to the arguments of people who claim that the Egyptians couldn't possibly have built the pyramids, so therefore aliens must have done it.

There are currently realist artists producing work that is significantly more realistic than anything Vermeer or his contemporaries produced, and they do not need any optical aids to do it. So why do we think Vermeer must have had such aids? There is no mystery here to be solved in the first place.

It is of course nevertheless possible that Vermeer employed such devices (it is well known that artists throughout the past five or six centuries have been fascinated by and experimented with all manner of optics - it would have been surprising if they didn't), but the notion that highly realistic painting represents some sort of unfathomable mystery in need of a solution is belied by what contemporary artists are doing quite routinely, using traditional methods that have been in existence and under constant development for centuries, and that emphatically do not require the use of optical devices.