The “Master of Light” Johannes Vermeer used a camera to paint his works

Vermeer could achieve his hyper-realistic scenes with a camera obscura

Vermeer could achieve his hyper-realistic scenes with a camera obscura

New research suggests that “Master of Light” Johannes Vermeer used a forerunner of the camera to paint his works.

Known for his paintings including Girl with a Pearl Earring, it has been speculated that the Dutch artist achieved his hyper-realistic scenes with a camera obscura, a box that displayed images that could then be faithfully traced.

Vermeer most likely possessed such a device, according to research that suggests the 17th-century painter became a “Master of Light” through technology.

New evidence suggests that a Jesuit priest and artist living in the Dutch city of Delft owned a camera obscura, and that after his death in 1656, the item may have been passed on to his neighbor, Vermeer.

“It is in this very year that his (Vermeer) paintings feature camera projection features for the first time,” argues art expert Gregor JM Weber in his new biography of the painter.

A small hole in the camera obscura allowed the light from the stage to pass through and be projected onto the inner surface - Frans Sellies

A small hole in the camera obscura allowed the light from the stage to pass through and be projected onto the inner surface – Frans Sellies

Such a camera obscura (Latin for dark room) in Vermeer’s time would be a box with a small opening on one side that would allow light from the stage to pass through and be projected onto the inner surface with perspective and colors intact, albeit upside down.

An angled mirror can then be used to reflect this image onto a piece of paper, allowing the artist to trace it and copy the colors to create an extremely accurate image without having to paint with the eye alone.

Mr. Weber’s research has shown that a Jesuit priest and painter living in Delft during Vermeer’s lifetime, Isaac van der Mye, created a painting of St. Apollonia using one of these devices. The artwork appears to have been made on thin tracing paper and shows signs of being made using a reflected light source rather than a completely natural light source.

Lacemaker's blurred foreground suggests that the image may have been passed through some kind of lens

Lacemaker’s blurred foreground suggests that the image may have been passed through some kind of lens

The head of the fine arts department at the national Rijksmuseum in the Netherlands, Mr. Weber, says this is clear “evidence that the box camera existed and was used for artistic purposes in the immediate vicinity of Vermeer.”

The art expert argued in his book Johannes Vermeer. Faith, Light, and Reflection that the painter had strong ties to the Jesuit community and would therefore be in contact with Van der Mye and familiar with the technology.

He also argued that Vermeer’s style changes to a much more “photographic” one that captures extremely subtle differences in light, precisely after Van der Mye’s death in 1656, suggesting that the camera obscura may have been passed down to him.

Mr. Weber stated that it was a natural fit, as “Vermeer had already shown an extraordinary sense of nuances of light and color … the camera obscura images must therefore have been of particular interest to him.”

The theory seems to support speculation that Vermeer used this type of device to create some of his works, including the 1670 work The Lacemaker, whose blurred foreground suggests the image may have been passed through some kind of lens.

Vermeer achieved only moderate success in his lifetime (1632-1675) and his limited artistic output appears to have depicted scenes set in only a few rooms in his hometown of Delft, but these few paintings would lead to a reappraisal in the 19th century that ensured place him as one of the great Dutch masters.

Stolen in 1990 and worth £166m, Vermeer’s Concerto is the most expensive lost work of art, and the painter was played by Colin Firth in the 2003 film Girl with a Pearl Earring where he was shown using a camera obscura.

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