Metropolitan Museum of Art
 Walter Liedtke
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Frick Milkmaid - Cav & G

For the sake of time I'll read my presentation and describe my approach to this material more plainly than I would to historians of Netherlandish art. I'm in this field firstly because of a fascination with questions of visual perception and with how artists invent (in Gombrich's words) "comparisons that work," by which the late author of Art and Illusion meant artistic "conventions" or analogies to optical experience. In London during the 1970s, when I wrote my dissertation on "Architectural Painting in Delft," the most revealing guides were not studies or scholars of Dutch art per se, but Gombrich himself, B.A.R. Carter ("Sam Carter," a painter at the Slade School who wrote the best history of linear perspective in print (in the first edition of the Oxford Companion to Art), M. H. Pirenne and others who wrote on perception, representation, and photography. At the time I read everything by Edgerton, Gregory, Gombrich, Gioseffi, Ivins, Meder, Panofsky, Parronchi, Pirenne, Wheelock, and (last and least) John White, and a fair number of the early treatises. Regarding the latter, I greatly admire Anthony Grafton's explanations of how new discoveries were blended with inherited notions, which forms a nice anology to Vermeer's own creative process. I've also learned a great deal from Martin Kemp's Science and Art, Jonathan Crary's Techniques of the Observer, and Mary Hammond's dissertation on the camera obscura, which is the only study of the subject I would recommend.

Hammond and Crary are especially critical of what historians of Dutch art (such as Arthur Wheelock) say about the appreciation of the camera obscura in the 17th century. In the 1970s Wheelock attributed to Vermeer's use of the camera both his tonal and intensely colored effects, his blurred forms and detailed passages, his shallow spaces and deep recessions, his silhouetting and cropping, and almost any kind of highlight - pretty much everything but the kitchen sink, and that only because The Milkmaid doesn't have one. But in recent years Wheelock has remarkably tempered his view, and we now basically agree that Vermeer must have admired certain effects of color, light, and focus in a camera obscura, but that he persistently departed from what he actually saw - in the camera, in his studio, or in another artist's work - in accord with his own highly refined aesthetic and expressive goals. Conservators like David Bull at the National Gallery and my own colleague Hubert von Sonnenburg are insistent on this point: that every passage in Vermeer, from blurred contours to pinpoint drops of paint spread like grace notes over loaves of bread, the shadowy sides of boats, or on fancy silks and satins

Red Hat

are for the most part handled with the most discriminating calculation. In creating these "curious" effects - "curious" in the 17th-century sense of wonder or diversion - Vermeer was surely inviting comparison with contemporary masters who were celebrated for their descriptions of light on glass, metal, and luxurious materials (especially genre painters like Ter Borch and Van Mieris, but also the Delft still life painter

Willem van Aelst, 1650 - SL

quite as Vermeer's unexpected turn to high contrast, dark backgrounds [NEXT], and shallow spaces - the seemingly "photographic look" David Hockney discovered in the contemporary Italian painter Cagnacci (another word for the look would be Bolognese) - was his contribution to a Dutch and Flemish fashion in the early 1660s: we find it in Van Mieris, Schalcken, Dujardin, and others:

Sweerts MMA JV

- here in Michiel Sweerts and Vermeer.

V of D detail

The role of contemporary connoisseurs - of patronage and taste - is still underestimated with respect to Vermeer's refinements, quite as the role of courtly dilettantes has been underplayed with regard to optical instruments. Vermeer's paintings are probably more reliable guides to how the camera obscura was admired by amateurs like Constantijn Huygens and Samuel Pepys than vice-versa: that is, they both made marvelous pictures.


One last point, on the question of whether Vermeer simply traced figures and settings that were actually in front of him. This kind of tracing DID occur in Delft, as I have argued in connection with Gerard Houckgeest, whose earliest views of the Delft churches (which date from 1650) correspond closely to the sites as they may be photographed. But Houckgeest himself and that Delft master of light,

Emanuel de Witte OKD 1650

immediated departed from faithful views of actual architecture to paint arbitrary arrangements of plausible motifs - in other words, these portraits of actual buildings, like Dutch landscape, still life and genre paintings (including those by Vermeer), are in good part products of the imagination. And they are also examples of STYLE and TASTE

balance JV Cath Ch EdW

as one sees clearly enough in these two paintings of the mid-1660s, Vermeer's Woman with a Balance and De Witte's Imaginary Catholic Church. (The glowing light effects and velvety shadows are found in many Dutch pictures of the time, including still lifes.

Cav & WL's EdW


...whereas these earlier paintings by Vermeer and De Witte (dating from the mid-1650s) reveal that decade's taste for floods of daylight and strong silhouetting effects.

OKD HvV 1660

Vermeer followed the Delft architectural painters (especially Hendrick van Vliet) in projecting rapid recessions from close to abruptly distant forms, and (as the conservator Jorgen Wadum has shown) in using a nail and strings to construct his perspective schemes. This was one of the many ways in which Vermeer adopted design ideas from other artists:

his silhouetting of figures goes back to Utrecht -

Procuress Honthorst 1625

while his frequent use of a left-corner scheme is a common South-Holland convention,

Koedijck 1648

that is, a regional type of design used in Rotterdam, Delft, The Hague and Leiden . . . here with Koedijck in the newly favored tall format of about 1650 . .

and here with another Leiden artist, Brekelenkam: 1653

Vermeer had an extraordinary gift for blending visual ideas from a variety of artistic sources and making them more realistic through fresh observation

Brek. detail

for example by moving in closer to the subject, and giving more attention to values of color and light.

Music Concert


In closing, I don't oppose the notion that Vermeer in some way responded to the camera obscura, but I DO oppose drastic devaluations of the role of art, which is ironic coming from such an inventive artist as David Hockney. I also regret the neglect of basic historical niceties by amateur historians. ALL RIGHT - NEVER MIND the ABSENCE of supporting documents: NO camera obscura in the extensive inventory of Vermeer's estate or in any other house in Delft (according to Montias's survey of several hundred inventories); and NO mention of any drawing device by the distinguished diarists who visited Vermeer. No, what troubles me is the overwhelming evidence of pure invention in Vermeer, including the fact that rooms like those seen here never existed in Delft. We know from Wilhelmijn Fock's archival and archaeological work that there were virtually no marble tiled floors in all of Holland, except for a few princely public rooms and town hall foyers. And we know that no house in Delft, with one Medieval exception, had ceiling beams running not from the solid side walls but from the front wall with windows. Vermeer, unlike De Hooch, NGL De Hooch liked his ceiling beams parallel to the picture surface and to hell with physics. There are many other real-life objections to the notion that Vermeer simply traced his designs, but what really troubles me are all the objections offered by ART.

DUTCH ART HAS STYLE - Dutch pictures were invented;

very few of them - for example Vermeer's View of Delft - record a scene that more or less existed in front of the artist's eyes. It's not always easy to see this, not as easy as in the case of Italian art.

Let me end with a picture, rather than a thousand words.


In this New Yorker cartoon of a Gaulli or Andrea del Pozzo-like composition, St. Peter stands in the clouds with a camera and says, "Lucy, move - You're blocking Pliny the Elder." Well, Mr. Hockney, Mr. Steadman, could YOU move just a bit? Where you're standing, I can't quite see Vermeer.

Walter Liedtke is curator of European Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and is the Museum's specialist for Dutch and Flemish paintings. His publications include A View of Delft: Vermeer and His Contemporaries (2000), and the exhibition catalogues Rembrandt / Not Rembrandt at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1995) and Vermeer and the Delft School at the Metropolitan (2001). He is currently completing the catalogue of 240 Dutch paintings in the Museum's collection.

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