Videos on Vermeer by Nigel Konstam:

Part 1

Part 2 with Anne Shingleton

Vermeer's use of mirrors

“Vermeer's Camera” by Philip Steadman, published by Oxford University Press in 2001 has become generally accepted by the art historical establishment. The case for the use of the camera obscura (a mechanism that projects an image of reality onto a surface) is well argued but it fails as an explanation because it does not account  for the unique quality of Vermeer’s painting. Vermeer is the great master of light. No other painter was able to mix colour and tone with such precision that it went down on the canvas almost without modification. He has a unique technical perfection in painting light, including light out of focus.

 The intensity of natural light is so much greater than the range offered by the artist’s pallet that the relationships cannot be copied, they have to be reduced proportionately.  Normally, this is done by  guess-work and the guesses have to add up to a believable whole. Vermeer guessed better than any other master, what was his secret?
Steadman suggests an elaborate system of opening and closing the window shutters which is thoroughly impractical. Not only would ones eyes have to adjust to the marked changes in the level of light, the image thrown by even a modern lens would prove inadequate to paint from. We can assume the lenses available to Vermeer were well below the quality needed for his immaculate observation. The small dim image obtained from a 17thC camera obscura is the first objection. The size of studio necessary to use one is a second and clearer reason for dismissing the camera obscura as the main tool of Vermeer.

There is no doubt in my mind that he did used the camera obscura because both Wheelock and Steadman both point to a number of instances where he observes light out of focus. It was this which interested Vermeer about the camera. The human eye subconsciously adapts focus, unfocused light can only be observed with a lens.

Steadman is the first to admit that the perspectival complexities can equally well be pinned down by other means than the camera obscura. But as the camera is nearly useless for colour and tone it is strange that Steadman is so insistent that this was the apparatus used. I am not concerned with his method for the drawing, which could have been the camera obscura. I am concerned with how he judged colour and tone.

This objection has now been diminished somewhat by “Tim's Vermeer”. Tim Jennison has invented or reinvented a very simple apparatus that would have enabled Vermeer to paint his pictures if he had had one. But it was unknown before Tim. The explanation is best followed in a recent video in which Tim explains and demonstrates the effectiveness of his apparatus. He uses a concave mirror to concentrate the light.

 It also explains how he could have seen minute details of decoration on a harpsichord at a considerable distance. This increases the chances of the camera obscura being one of Vermeer's secret weapons if aided by Tim's apparatus; the camera obscura becomes unlikely but possible again.

I published an article (The Artist Magazine UK version Jan. 1980) showing how useful two 17thC mirrors would have been for the judgement of colour and tone for which Vermeer is rightly revered. Taking his painting “ Ars Pictoria” (Vienna) as a starting point in which we see the figure of the artist from the back, I deduced that he must have used two mirrors. By experiment I further discovered that two mirrors, a small one one his easel and a larger one behind him was his technique for the great majority of his paintings. The evidence for this is his frequent use of drapery in the bottom left or right hand corner of the painting where the direct reflection of the artist's face would have blotted out other subject matter and the equally frequent appearance  of a curtain that was normally used in his time to cover a mirror when it was not in use (because light causes the silver to turn black). These two features occur in a good number of Vermeer paintings. Furthermore, “Ars Pictoria” held a special place in Vermeer's opus: he never sold it and it is the biggest of his paintings. I interpret it as a cryptic description of his painting technique. What two mirrors cannot do unaided is read maps or minute decoration at 10 foot distance. Tim's apparatus makes this possible.

The particularly useful thing about 17th C mirrors is that being backed with silver rather than mercury they quickly deteriorate, loosing up to 30% of their light. So bouncing light  between two 17th C mirrors is a direct way of  reducing the light, thus being able to match  the light of nature with the artists’ colours. One simply matches by holding up the colour mixture on the pallet knife next to the colour required in the mirror on the easel.

 Interestingly, the image on the easel mirror is very nearly the same as the actual scene to Vermeer’s left because by reversal twice one returns to that seen directly, thus giving considerable advantage over the camera obscura which turns the image upside down. By fixing one’s eye-point one can also trace the perspective on the glass and this can be transferred to the canvas quite satisfactorily.

On my second point, Steadman’s arrangement requires a very large studio (6.5m long), whereas my two mirrors requires no more than a studio just over 3m in depth. The artist in the painting is sitting inside the picture space. Vermeer is unlikely to have been able to afford Steadman’s studio. He paid his baker with a painting and died in debt. Imagine the cost of heating such a studio in winter in Holland. Is there really sufficient length in Vermeers house for such a studio? I cannot abandon my theory in spite of Tim's exciting new evidence because there is too much direct evidence in the pictures themselves in favour of my theory.

 Interestingly Steadman cannot explain the two Vermeers that are the foundation of my research: “Ars Pictoria” and equally important “The Love Letter” in which the observer at first feels he is looking through a doorway but on closer inspection the doorway proves to be a reflection in the very back mirror that I had proposed. One can distinguish that for two reasons:
1. the frame at the right is a mirror frame not a door-frame, nor is there any indication of the thickness of the wall that would be seen to divide the two rooms if it was indeed a doorway.
2. Nor has the foreground this side of the supposed door any logical relation to the space of the room beyond (because it is a skewed reflection).
My explanation alone makes these faults understandable.

There are three videos under my name on YouTube. Two dealing with an experiment I made with Anne Shinglton. The third deals with the size of Vermeer's studio. Tim was a newcomer to the debate. The film “Tim's Vermeer” in which Tim, a scientist, uses a device unknown till he invented it (but using material available in Vermeer's day) has changed my view only somewhat. I have only seen the picture, the result of his experiment, on a tv screen so cannot comment on its quality. The apparatus required immense concentration on minute detail and took Tim 153 days under uniform electric lighting. Vermeer himself  was of course subject to the changing light of nature. Vermeer must have had recourse to judgement of each value in relation to the whole, not Tim's bit by bit approach.
 As a result of this new evidence I no longer dismiss the camera obscura as beyond practical application in producing a painting. Tim's apparatus shows it is feasible, if complicated. His effort, ingenuity and staying power are much to be admired but there are still two objections to his method:
1. Doubts that Vermeer actually had Tim's apparatus and
2. the concentration of light using a concave mirror which makes the camera obscura more plausible in one way must surely make the harmony of tones much more difficult; particularly in Vermeer's conditions of variable daylight.
The two paintings mentioned above which cannot be explained by Steadman and which are the centre pieces of my argument for two mirrors remain very solid evidence.
 There is a sceptic on YouTube who insists that concave mirrors were not available till the 18thC because Newton did not have one for his telescope. But we know that convex mirrors existed well before (c.1400, cut from glass bubbles). One need only surface the other side of the convex glass to get a concave mirror.
It seems to me now that Vermeer may have used both methods in combination. We have made progress but there is still some mystery about Vermeer's actual procedure. Whatever optics he used they were in the interest of his heroic investigation of light. They certainly did not save him trouble.

Illustration Anne Shinglton's version of  “The Art of Painting – Ars Pictoria” using two mirrors for the YouTube video.  See Video Vermeer Part 2 with Nigel Konstam and Anne Shingleton.