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Using a camera obscura enables artists to represent reality as never before

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The use of mechanical aids has always been a controversial issue in the art world. Jan Vermeer created paintings of exceptional, almost photographic, clarity. Did he use a device called a camera obscura?

Enormous speculation surrounded Jan Vermeer in his own lifetime, when his work was valued for its superb detail and clarity. He was secretive about his own techniques, however, and there is no hard evidence that he owned a device called a camera obscura, but the quality of his work certainly is in keeping with the use of the invention. Two hundred years later, after the invention of photographs, critics consistently commented on his work's photographic quality. In 1861, the Goncourt brothers described him as "the only master who has made a living daguerreotype."

Camera obscura, meaning a "dark chamber," refers to the discovery that, when a tiny hole is made in the wall of a darkened room, under certain lighting conditions an image of the scene outside will be formed, upside down, on the opposite wall. This basic principle had been known since antiquity by astronomers, who used it to observe the sun safely. In the sixteenth century, scientists experimented by placing a glass lens across the hole. The results were startling. The lens inverted the image so that it was right side up, and also brighter and sharper. The "camera" itself came in various shapes and sizes. Some, such as tents, booths, or shuttered rooms, genuinely resembled a chamber. The more practical, portable version of the instrument that was developed later came in a rectangular box, and the image was viewed from above.

A Dutch art lover who witnessed the device in action in 1622 said, "All painting is dead in comparison, for here is life itself, or something more elevated, if only there were words for it. Shape, contour, and movement come

17 The Lacemaker

Jan Vermeer, 1679

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