Camera obscura

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Camera obscura

From Virgil Elliott

Published before 2005


Arthur Wheelock, of the National Gallery (Washington D.C., not the one in London) is one of the theorists who believe Vermeer had some use for a camera obscura at some stage in the development of some of his paintings, so he is the man behind this video, I'm sure. He is speculating, as are Hockney and Steadman and anyone else who buys into this idea of Vermeer having used an optical device. It is no more than conjecture. Furthermore, there are indications to the contrary that are every bit as compelling as the slender clues these non-artists construe as "evidence." Painters make a name for themselves by painting, and what an artist knows about painting is readily discernible by looking at his/her paintings. Scholars make a name for themselves by writing something that hasn't been written before, so they are looking for something to say that will bring them into the public's eye, and I contend that this motive is of greater importance to them than any concern for actual truth. What they actually know about their subject is not so readily discernible if they are skilled enough at writing to give the impression that they know more about it than their readers do. Should any of them produce paintings they have painted that demonstrate a high level of understanding of the art and craft of painting, I would assign a higher degree of probability to the possibility that they know what they are talking about. I have not seen anything of that nature from any of them, so there is good reason to doubt their expertise.

One of the reasons I find this so galling is that so few people seem to be applying sound logic to this issue. There is a distinct difference between a theory and a fact. A theory is no more than a hypothesis, a guess, in layman's terms; conjecture; speculation. To be considered a fact, proof is necessary. Proof in this case would be inclusion of a camera obscura in the inventory of Vermeer's studio, and contemporary accounts from people who knew Vermeer. An inventory was made upon his death, and no such device was mentioned in that inventory. That constitutes evidence AGAINST the theory. There are no contemporary accounts mentioning any camera obscura in connection with Vermeer. Had he been in the habit of using it, it would be reasonable to expect some mention of it by someone contemporary with him, as he was well-known in Delft, and well-respected. Furthermore, his canvases have pinholes at the perspective vanishing points, indicating his method of working out the perspective using string pulled from the vanishing points to establish the angles of lines resolving at those vanishing points. The use of any projection device would have precluded the necessity of this procedure. Thus the pinholes are also evidence against the theory. I find it particularly disturbing that so many people are willing to accept these wordsmiths' speculations as sufficiently compelling to estabish an unproven hypothesis that is full of logical holes as fact in their minds.

The level of talent demonstrated in Vermeer's paintings warrants the utmost degree of respect. What he did cannot realistically be attributed to any device. Any Master-level artist deserves the benefit of the doubt where allegations of this sort might bear on his work and his abilities, and there is plenty of doubt in this case. I consider it terribly disrespectful to entertain any notion other than that Vermeer was a great talent, when there is no good reason to believe otherwise, and that talent is sufficient, all by itself, to explain excellence.

Virgil Elliott