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The Music Lesson by Jan Vermeer (c.1670).

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This picture is taken from an animation of a computer generated reconstruction of the geometry of The Music Lesson. The animation was produced by Antonio Criminisi and his team at the Robotics Department of Oxford University.

It has long been surmised that a number of Dutch painters made use of the camera obscura - newly available in a developed form with lenses - as an aid to their supreme naturalism, and the research of Philip Steadman on a group of ten paintings by Vermeer set in the same space suggests that he set up the far end of the room as a walk-in ‘optical chamber’.  

Steadman’s model of the room confirms the extraordinarily high levels of internal optical consistency in paintings like The Music Lesson - even down to the penumbral fan of shadows beside the mirror on the end wall. It seems likely that the artist laid down the basic disposition of the forms on the basis of their projection through a lens inserted into an aperture in a partition and on to  a screen attached to the opposite end wall.  In such an image, the tones and colours would typically be condensed into a beguilingly unified ‘picture’ on a appropriate scale. The presence of pin-hole pricks at the vanishing points in some of his canvases does not refute the use of the camera, but shows the care with which Vermeer drafted the resulting geometry on the pictorial surface.

What the projected image could not do, however, was to tell Vermeer how to translate the characeristic visual effects of the camera image into the actual substance of paint in such a way that the resulting image stood as a perceptual analogue for the real scene. Our immediate reaction is to think that Vermeer is a master ‘describer’, filling his scenes with meticulously rendered detail. But this is not the case. He had learnt, by a hard-won process of pictorial trial and error, that when the artist wishes to cajole our perceptual system into collaborative action that less is definitely more.

The hues and tones of the generalised patches of paint - virtually abstract on close viewing - are pitched with such deliberative skill within the spatial framework that we irresistibly see more than is actually there. It is like a very complex version of the optical illusions beloved of psychologists of perception. What Vermeer has discovered, using the picture as an experimental field, is that more compelling illusions can be achieved through encouraging our perceptual system do the lion’s share of the work than through the most niggling assertion of detail.

 Yet there remains something uneasy in making such inferences about the artist’s ideas from the pictures alone. There is, perhaps, one crumb of comfort. The great microscopist, Anthony van Leeuwenhoek - who somehow managed to see bacteria in one of his single-lens instruments -  was an executor of Vermeer’s will on 1667. What one would give to hear a conversation from the two great ‘see-ers’ on the business of human vision!

Text taken from ‘Vermeer’s Visions’ by Martin Kemp