Eye of the Beholder; Johannes Vermeer, Anthoni van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing

Eye of the Beholder; Johannes Vermeer, Anthoni van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing by Laura Snyder. W.W. Norton, 2015.

Johannes Vermeer and Anthoni van Leeuwenhoek were born within days of each other in 1632, and their births were registered in the same local church in the Dutch city of Delft. As adults both of them, Vermeer the painter and Leeuwenhoek the lens-grinder and device-maker, would experiment with the new technology of lenses as an aid to seeing. There is no evidence that they knew each other, though the author, Laura Snyder, makes a strong case for its probability; Delft was then a city of 24,000.

Delft, Amsterdam, and the rest of Holland had been made wealthy by the shift in European trade and economic power from the Mediterranean and Italy to the North Sea and the nations on its edge. The Dutch trading empire included posts and in some cases settlement colonies in Africa, South America, North America (New Amsterdam), South Asia, and the East Indies (present-day Indonesia.) Delft was a manufacturing town known for its, beer, tapestries, and china (Delftware).

Given the wealth of the city, it was a reliable market for the paintings of Vermeer and other local and regional artists. Probate records suggest that by the mid-seventeenth century there were as many as 50,000 paintings in Delft homes. The author argues that well-decorated interior spaces may have been the result of the strong Calvinist admonitions against the public display of wealth.

Because of this demand for art, there were Delft firms which supplied the materials and served the artists in various ways. Vermeer often bought canvases that were stretched and prepared, his oil paints already mixed. Vermeer’s father was an art dealer, and Vermeer took over his father’s business after the latter’s death in 1652.

In the absence of a capitalist structure, the art community was organized into – and regulated by – a strong guild organization. Vermeer joined St. Luke’s Guild and served as its head for several terms. The guild included oil and water colorists, glass blowers, tapestry makers, embroiders, engravers, sculptors, booksellers, map makers, and art dealers.

The degree to which Vermeer used viewing devices to lay out his paintings and in particular to obtain their photographic realism is the subject of some controversy. Snyder contends that Vermeer used a camera obscura. The devise could be as large as a room or as small as a box. With its lenses, the artist could obtain projections on a sheet of paper or a canvas placed at various distances from the devise. The camera obscura projected an image true to the color and other attributes of the subject and also a three-dimensional representation that could then be traced.

Antoni van Leeuwenhoek’s family was from the same socio-economic class as Vermeer’s. He, like Vermeer, had had an apprenticeship in Amsterdam. His father was a draper, someone who oversaw the manufacture and sale of fabrics. A steady income as a city employee allowed Leeuwenhoek to pursue a second livelihood/hobby, his blowing and grinding of lenses and their incorporation into microscopes. He was also a biologist and a believer in the importance of observation, which the microscope now facilitated.

He used his own body as a field of study, viewing with the new device his blood, teeth plaque, and semen. He discovered that water taken from Delft’s canal, when observed under his microscope, housed a world of here-to-for unseen, single-celled animals.

Human reproduction was not fully understood in Leeuwenhoek’s time. Most thought that the sperm only activated, rather than fertilized, the female egg. Leeuwenhoek, on the other hand, promoted the notion that the sperm, when viewed in a powerful enough microscope, would reveal a small organism that eventually became a fetus; the female egg providing only its nourishment.

He explored the mammalian eye’s physiology and how it functions as a light receiver by dissecting and viewing cows’ eyes obtained from a local butcher.

The Royal Society of London was then the premier organization for naturalist, and Leeuwenhoek began a correspondence with the organization to communicate his observations, but also to establish a priority for the results of his peering into nature. Natural history at this time was strongly influence by Francis Bacon and particularly his insistence on openness and replicability. Leeuwenhoek, aware of other claimants to being ‘the first’, was reluctant to part with his ‘secrets.’ His relations with the Royal Society were further complicated by three Anglo-Dutch Wars between 1652 and 1678.

I found most interesting Snyder’s account of Vermeer’s depiction of shadows. At first glance shadows appear to be uniformly brown or black – dark. But there are subtle colors within that darkness, blue, even yellow, used to replicate how the eye sees the varying intensities of light striking the shadow.

Laura Snyder has written a well-integrated history of science and a description of the lively art world of the seventeenth century. She mentions and it would have been interesting had she explored further the comparable impact on painting of photography in the nineteenth century and electronics in the twentieth.

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