Puzzling over secret techniques of a Dutch master

Did Vermeer use a camera obscura? How did he make light look like that?


January 18, 2004|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

A pure, clear light falls across the young woman's face and spills over her spotless white collar and russet-colored blouse. It touches the blue and gold cloth wound around her hair and pools in a marvelous concatenation of highlight and shadow on the perfect oval of the large pearl earring hanging from her left earlobe.

Jan Vermeer's luminous Girl With a Pearl Earring, which scholars believe was completed between 1665 and 1667, ranks among the artist's supreme masterpieces and is one of the most beautiful pictures in the world. No wonder it has been called "the Dutch Mona Lisa."

But like the beautiful woman with the enigmatic smile in Leonardo's portrait, the identity of Vermeer's model remains a historical mystery.

Now comes Peter Webber's new movie of the same name to suggest an answer to that riddle. According to the film, based on Tracy Chevalier's best-selling novel of the same name published in 2000, the girl is Griet, one of several female servants in Vermeer's overflowing household, which included not only the artist's wife and mother-in-law but the couple's 11 children as well.

The movie opens at area theaters Jan. 30 and stars Colin Firth as Vermeer and Scarlett Johansson as Griet, the sweet-faced maid hired to clean the painter's studio.

Because so little is known about Vermeer's life, novelist Chevalier felt free to invent the character Griet to serve as Vermeer's model and muse. She then wove a beguiling tale of repressed passion and domestic intrigue that brings Vermeer's hometown city of Delft in 17th-century Holland vividly to life.

Webber's sumptuous cinematic treatment closely follows Chevalier's story and opens a tantalizing window on the painter's art as well as on his short but productive life (Vermeer died in 1675 at the age of 43). In its descriptions of the costumes and social customs of the period, it is remarkably convincing.

But when it attempts to re-create Vermeer's actual studio and working methods as a artist, one feels entitled to ask how accurate a picture the movie paints.

The camera obscura

One intriguing question, for example, relates to a curious instrument in the artist's studio that Vermeer shows to Griet early in their relationship.

It is a large wooden box with a lens mounted at one end and an opening in the other through which one can view the shapes and colors of objects transmitted through the glass. Artist and muse experience their first close encounter when they find themselves cheek-to-cheek in the dark staring at the instrument's dim projected image.

Vermeer tells Griet that this is a camera obscura, an optical aid that had been known to artists since the 16th century. (Unlike modern cameras, the camera obscura provided no means of permanently fixing the image formed by the lens; that would not occur until the invention of the daguerreotype in 1839.)

Vermeer expert Arthur K. Wheelock says the master painter may well have used the camera obscura -- but probably not while creating the Girl With a Pearl Earring.

"Vermeer was probably aware of the camera obscura and used it in his work," says Wheelock, who organized the landmark 1995 Vermeer exhibition at the National Gallery in Washington.

"It's basically like a box camera without photo paper. It has a lens in front that projects an image to the back, upside-down and reversed," he says. "You can also put a mirror in the back to turn [the image] right-side up."

(But, Wheelock points out, when Vermeer and Griet peer into the box in the movie, the image they see is neither upside-down nor reversed; it looks exactly like the scene in front of their camera.)

Vermeer also may have used the camera obscura to help him achieve "the special quality of light" for which his paintings are renowned, Wheelock says. "Vermeer was obviously a very visual person, but even for someone who had those sensibilities, [the camera] added a new dimension."

He notes that in such paintings as the Girl With the Red Hat (owned by the National Gallery), for example, there are elements similar to the out-of-focus effects seen in photographs.

"There, the girl is sitting in a chair and the lion's head finial on the chair is very diffuse, with blurred highlights, very soft in the way the paint blends" Wheelock says. "It's similar to the out-of-focus effects in photographs that are called 'circles of confusion.' Those effects are not normally seen in nature, but they do occur in a camera obscura."

Still, Wheelock takes pains to emphasize that even if Vermeer did use some sort of camera, creating a painting involved a lot more than simply tracing the image it produced.

"I don't mean to imply that Vermeer copied or even painted from a camera obscura," Wheelock says. "Rather, the camera may have provided him with artistic experiences that he then turned into paintings.

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