12 March 2009

Vermeer and Caravaggio - master painters and ... geeks?

I think it was about a year ago that I encountered a fascinating article at Grand Illusions which discussed the possibility that Vermeer used a camera obscura in the creation of some of his masterpieces. This is the Hockney-Falco thesis, discussed at Wiki, and at the Grand Illusions link.

The painting embedded top above is Vermeer's "Soldier and the Laughing Girl."
Pennell referred to the 'photographic perspective' of pictures such as this one, where the figure of the soldier, in the foreground, is disproportionately large. We think nothing of this shot today, the perspective is quite correct for the 'close up' viewpoint, just the sort of picture you might take with a camera. But for a 17th century painting, this perspective would have seemed unusual, even brutal.
Much more discussion at the link, and also this curious observation:
In the old church in Delft, when you look up the baptismal records for the year 1632, you find Vermeer's name. But on the same page of the records, born within a few months of Vermeer, there is another name, Anton van Leeuwenhoek, the microscopist...

At around this same time Vermeer stops painting the religious paintings that he began his career with, and starts producing the exquisite interiors that he has become famous for, with the aid of a lens. Did he get the lens from Leeuwenhoek?
With that as a tantalizing background, today I found a report in the Telegraph discussing the Caravaggio's use of a camera obscura and other "cutting edge" technology:

Art history scholars have long known that Caravaggio worked in a sort of darkroom, illuminating his subjects through a hole in the ceiling and projecting the image onto a canvas using a lens and a mirror.

But Mrs Lapucci is the first researcher to suggest that he treated the canvas with light-sensitive substances, including a luminescent powder made from crushed fireflies, in order to "fix" the image as 19th century photographers later would...

An "abnormal number" of Caravaggio's subjects are left-handed. "That could be explained by the fact that the image projected on the canvas was backwards..."

[H]is protector, Cardinal Del Monte, was also the protector of Galileo, and they were all fascinated by optics and the new physics."

The Caravaggio canvas image embedded above is "Judith beheading Holofernes." More on that when I gather some more beheading links.


  1. This is very interesting. Maybe you should have a look at Artemisia Gentileschi' beheadings. She painted at least 2 "Judith Slaying Holofernes", in the very same manner Carravagio did.

  2. Carravagio also painted " David with the Head of Goliath" - a very unsettling image that essentially launched Carravaggio's career. Simon Schama's incredible "Power of Art" television series had an episode devoted to Carravaggio, it's an unbelievable story of an amazingly talented yet very troubled young man. I remember Simon saying that one of Carravaggio's breaks with convention was to "paint without first drawing the image on the canvas." I don't think Simon touched upon the camera obscura angle, but it's certainly a very intriguing possibility. I rather tend to agree with David Hockney that artists in the 16th and 17th centuries were using the technique.

  3. Of all the great Masters, Caravaggio and Vermeer would make great photographers. Light and composition was so important to them. I would not be at all surprised if they did use this technique. In fact I hope they did.

  4. Here is an interview with David Hockney, where he explains and demonstrates the use of camera obscuras and camera lucidas in the artwork of the Old Masters from his book “Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters”. very cool!

  5. There's no way even a woman would hold the sword like she is doing in Caravaggio's picture.
    She is pulling the sword across his throat, and she'd have to use her shoulder and back to apply the strength necessary to cut through the windpipe. Yet she's standing like someone buttering bread.
    She'd turn to her right, reverse her grip and push the sword - fingers towards Holofernes - or she'd turn to her left, standing above his head, and lean back to pull the sword - thumb towards Holofernes' head.
    I've always thought the poses contain an error that Michelangelo, e.g., would never have made.


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