Johannes Vermeer, View of Delft, 1660-61, oil on canvas, Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis
Since I’ve taken Jonathan Jones to task for some of his writing before and will no doubt do so in future, I wanted to post one of his columns that I found quite good and I agree with (for the most part). Anyway a nice piece of writing and good to hear feeling referred to in reference to paintings, since so few of them have any nowadays, irony being all the vogue for so many decades now.
I wanted to just pick up on the point he’s making that the use of a camera obscura by Vermeer doesn’t feel “photographic”. This, of course, brings us into the territory of Hockney’s theory that from the time of the invention of optics back to Holbein, Van Eyck, Caravaggio and right up to Ingres artists were using optical devices to aid their painting. We’ve seen the photographs that Eakins used to achieve his compositions and effects, which he’d kept hidden.
The point, as far as I’m concerned, is pointless–so to speak. Whether or not optics were used is inconsequential when one considers the work itself.
There is nobody painting nowadays using optical devices that is coming remotely close to Vermeer, Holbein, van Eyck, etc.
Why is that?
Because painters using optic devices nowadays are using them as a substitute for their own perceptions. They have no deep sensations, emotions, relationship to space and light. They spend their time making deadening literal translations of projected images. They are making paintings about painting.
Vermeer and company were doing nothing of the sort. If optical devices were used at all they were used for quick guideline indications. One can even see this in Eakins where he’s made pinpricks in the canvas. The acute ability to visualize reality on a two dimensional surface is what has been increasingly degraded throughout the 20th century with sense perceptions informed by attachment to grossly diminished visual sources like computer and television screens and artificially lit architectural spaces, etc. .Add to that people are rarely walking in nature but instead inside cars flying through the landscape. (Note to self: I have a Max Beckmann quote I need to find on that subject.)
The reason Rembrandt and Vermeer’s perceptions of light are so acute is because their entire lives were spent living with and observing the effect of natural light in those Dutch interiors or over the landscape.
Just as Turner walked up to 20 miles often, making quick notations for memory in watercolor, the pre-industrial world lit only by oil lamps (I imagine) in Vermeer’s time with illuminated streets at night (as the lamp post was invented by Jan Van Der Heyden a contemporary or Vermeer and a marvelous painter in his own right).
Here’s a quote from The Life of J.M.W. Turner by George Walter Thornbury that gives a good indication of why artist’s sense perceptions were so finely attuned to light and space:
“We rose at seven the next morning in Kingsbridge, and went before breakfast to see the house, at Dodbrook, in which Dr. Wolcot (Peter Pindar) was born. The artist made a sketch of it, and of another house, a picturesque place not far distant. We had now more than twenty miles to travel home. A vehicle was provided, but we walked most of the way, for Turner was a good pedestrian, capable of roughing it in any mode the occasion might require….”