Vermeer: beyond the perspective frame

The current Vermeer exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge has reopened the debate about the significance of perspective in the construction of paintings.

The Music Lesson, 1662 (source: Wikimedia Commons)

The role of perspective and more specifically the use of a camera obscura in the work of Johannes Vermeer has been explored in recent years by a number of authors. Dubery and Willats (1983) demonstrated that the accurate perspective constructions that underlay Vermeer's paintings made it possible to work backwards from the finished painting and reconstruct the architectural space in three dimensions, using Leonardo's distant point method.

In 2001, David Hockney and Philip Steadman both proposed convincing arguments that indicated that this accuracy was based not on a geometrically constructed perspectival space, but was instead derived from the use of a camera obscura. The camera obscura (literally a 'dark room') is based on the optical principles of lenses and forms the starting point for modern photography. Its use by artists can be identified through the way that highlights and shadows are painted and from the characteristic distortions of simple lenses.

Sixteenth century diagram of a camera obscura

Writing in the Guardian, Jonathan Jones reminds us that whilst a consistent and convincing perspective construction is fundamental to painting of this period, it cannot alone create great art.

'Does this precocious photographic technique explain the power of Vermeer's paintings? Not really.'

'What grips us in his art is a silence full of feeling. The voiceless, unfinished dramas he depicts hold the heart and linger in the imagination.'

However, as Timothy Brook (2011) points out, one should also remember that the tensions and desires that are implicit in these paintings are totally enmeshed in the perspectival gaze of the viewer.  Perspective has a significant role in the construction of the allegory, as well as the geometric space.

The Allegory of Painting, c.1666 (source: Wikimedia Commons)

'Vermeer's Women: Secrets and Silence' is showing at the Fitzwilliam Gallery in Cambridge from 5. October 2011 - 15. January 2012. Admission free.


T Brook (2011) - 'Worldly Desires', in 'Art Quarterly', Autumn 2011, pp36-40

F Dubery & J Willats (1983) - 'Perspective and Other Drawing Systems', Herbert Press, London. Amazon link

D Hockney (2001) - 'Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters', Thames and Hudson. Amazon link

J Jones (2011) - 'Johannes Vermeer goes beyond photography into emotion capture', in 'The Guardian', 27. Sept. 2011

P Steadman (2001) - 'Vermeer's Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces', Oxford. Amazon link

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