left behind few remnants of his life and even fewer of his creative process. No one knows for certain how the 17th-century Dutch artist made his paintings, what he thought about the world around him, or even what he looked like.
That aura of mystery has sent Jane Jelley, author of the new book Traces of Vermeer, searching for obscure materials, testing and re-testing paints, and even gathering pigs’ bladders from butcher shops—all in the name of uncovering the inscrutable master’s process. “The thing is a big puzzle and people do love puzzles,” Jelley, who is also an artist, said. “How did someone do something? We all want to know, and Vermeer won’t tell us.”
American lithographer and etcher
was the first to voice the idea, in 1891, that Vermeer employed some sort of optical aid in his paintings. But it wasn’t until the turn of this century, with the help of
, that the issue went mainstream. In conjunction with physicist and optics expert Charles M. Falco, the British artist published a book detailing the “Hockney-Falco thesis”—that the rise of realism in Western art in the 15th century could be explained by the development of concave mirrors, used by artists including
, and, of course, Vermeer.
Some art historians have pushed back against these claims. “These qualities in Vermeer’s work may have been inspired by an interest in the camera obscura,” wrote Metropolitan Museum of Art
curator Walter Liedtke in 2003, referencing another technology Vermeer may have utilized, “but its importance to the artist has been greatly exaggerated.”
In this unknown lies questions of legitimacy and brilliance. If Vermeer did use these tools, does that undermine his talent? “There are people on one side of the fence who say, ‘No, no, Vermeer can’t possibly have used a lens, he’s too great for that, he never needed to,’” said Jelley. “And on the other side of the fence are people who say, ‘Well, actually, if we look at his pictures there’s a lot of evidence of optical effects which are slightly strange, which suggest he must have used a lens.’”