Dutch master Johannes Vermeer’s photo-like paintings were likely inspired by a 17th-century pinhole camera that was first introduced to him by Jesuit priests, a new biography said on Friday. The book also reveals for the first time the extent of the influence of the Catholic church on Vermeer (1632-1675), who was born Protestant but later converted, Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum said.
The museum will in February stage the biggest ever exhibition by the Dutch Golden Age painter, whose works such as “Girl with a Pearl Earring” are world famous but about whose life little is known. His home in Delft was next to a Jesuit mission with a hidden church where he “quite possibly first came into contact with the Jesuits in connection with the camera obscura,” says the biography by Gregor Weber, the Rijksmuseum’s fine arts department head.
Used in various forms for thousands of years, the “camera obscura” involves a darkened room or box into which the outside image is projected through a small hole or lens. “Lighting effects which are particular to the camera can also be found in Vermeer’s paintings, leaving little room for doubt that the artist drew inspiration from the device,” the museum said.
Speculation has swirled for years that Vermeer experimented with a camera obscura for his works, which are renowned for their use of light and shade. The Jesuits “regarded the camera obscura as a tool for the observation of God’s divine light” and Weber had discovered a drawing by the priest living next door to Vermeer that shows its effects, the Rijksmuseum said.
The characteristic effect produced by the device, with the centre in focus but other areas blurred, is “precisely what Vermeer achieves” in his painting The Lacemaker, which hangs in the Louvre in Paris, it added. Although Vermeer was baptized in the Reformed Church, he likely converted to Catholicism just before marrying Catharina Bolnes in 1653.
Public Catholic worship was outlawed in the late 16th century by the Calvinist Dutch, but around a third of the population remained faithful to the Vatican. Vermeer’s fame has soared in recent years but he died in relative obscurity, leaving his wife and children in debt. The Vermeer exhibition opens in the Rijksmuseum on February 10, bringing together 28 of the master painter’s works under one roof. – AFP