By Jonathan Lopez. Published in the Wall Street Journal, Mar. 27, 2015.
I was delighted to see this terrific (and lengthy) review of Eye of the Beholder in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal. I’m particularly pleased that the author, Jonathan Lopez, mentioned our colleague Walter Liedtke, whose recent tragic death was a blow to us all. And my son loved the reference to Leeuwenhoek as “the shambling, sighing, self-deprecating Columbo of 17th century science!”
Through a Glass, Brightly
Antoni van Leeuwenhoek and Johannes Vermeer were neighbors in Delft. Still, no one knows if they ever met.
In the 17th century, two men of genius resided within a stone’s throw of each other in the picturesque Dutch town of Delft. Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723), a microscopist, initiated the discipline we now call microbiology when he discovered hitherto unseen organisms—protozoa and paramecia—in a sample of ordinary drinking water. His neighbor, the painter Johannes Vermeer (1632-75) created some of the most highly praised works in the history of art, including the “Girl With a Pearl Earring” (ca. 1665). As Laura J. Snyder recounts in “Eye of the Beholder,” an engaging and richly detailed work of interdisciplinary history, each of these visionaries honed his powers of observation by tinkering with optical lenses, a pastime then at the forefront of scientific progress. But what Van Leeuwenhoek and Vermeer seem never to have perceived, remarkably, was each other. Van Leeuwenhoek, a minor public official in Delft, was appointed executor of Vermeer’s estate after the painter’s death in 1675, a task he performed for a fixed fee as a perquisite of office. But there’s no indication he knew the artist in life.
Yet as Ms. Snyder, a professor at St. John’s University, chronicles, the shared obsessions of these Dutch doppelgängers derived from more than mere happenstance. Their work “exemplified a particular notion of seeing,” Ms. Snyder writes, “one that emerged only in this period with the birth of optical instruments and new theories of vision.” The Scientific Revolution, a movement advanced by the likes of Copernicus, Kepler, Bacon, Galileo and Newton, emphasized empirical methods of research and precise observations of the natural world. And at this early stage in the developing scientific paradigm, the reports of a lone investigator on a promising path of discovery could appear almost miraculously insightful. “The clarion call of natural philosophers (for they were not yet called ‘scientists’),” Ms. Snyder tells us, “became ‘See for yourself!’ ”
A cloth merchant and bureaucrat, Van Leeuwenhoek initially took up microscopic investigations as a diversion from the wearisome routines of workaday life. He amused himself by toying with lenses: grinding them, annealing them and blowing new ones from glass rods. Achieving remarkable clarity and magnifications, he trained his sights on fluids and translucent organic materials. For his studies, he interposed the specimen between lens and light source, much as children of later generations would do when holding their toy kaleidoscopes up to the sky. No prior microscopist, not even the great Robert Hooke, had ever thought simply to look at a droplet of water lighted from behind.
As Ms. Snyder documents, Van Leeuwenhoek could hardly contain his delight as the emerging network of advanced thinkers in Europe gradually realized that he was more astute in this rarefied field than anyone else on the planet. It was Reinier de Graaf, a prominent Dutch physician and anatomist, who put Van Leeuwenhoek in touch with the Royal Society of London in the spring of 1673. Van Leeuwenhoek couldn’t express himself to that organization of learned gentlemen in Latin or English, so he wrote in his native Dutch, and the society’s multilingual secretary, the German theologian Henry Oldenburg, was obliged to translate.
Dilatory and digressive, Van Leeuwenhoek waxed prolix in his dispatches on such topics as his digestion, the weather and sundry banalities before commencing spellbinding disquisitions on the cellular structure of organic matter, the capillary ascent of water, and those mad, spontaneous movements of cilia and flagella that propelled his beloved microbes. Never failing to interject apologies for his inadequate technical training and pedigree, Van Leeuwenhoek was the shambling, sighing, self-deprecating Columbo of 17th-century science, and his audience ate out of the palm of his hand. He continued his lively correspondence with the Royal Society at regular intervals for the next 40 years and was welcomed into the small but distinguished ranks of its non-British fellows. His home in Delft became a destination for dignitaries traveling through the Netherlands. Peter the Great of Russia alighted there in 1698 to see the extraordinary show of minute living creatures that Van Leeuwenhoek prepared for him; he also tried, without success, to purchase one of the Dutchman’s microscopes. A magician must guard his secrets.
Fame did not come so readily to Johannes Vermeer. Some painters of Vermeer’s era lived large—Rubens and Van Dyke worked for princes and popes—but Vermeer was a quiet soul who stayed home with his family and fiddled with the camera obscura, a precursor to photographic cameras but without the light-sensitive film. “The box-type camera obscura is a light-tight wooden chamber with a hole or lens on one side,” Ms. Snyder explains. “It projects an inverted or reversed image of the scene either upon a glass plate or oilpaper on the top of the device or onto a nearby wall or canvas (by the use of a mirror the image can be made upright).”
Vermeer did not simply copy what he saw in the camera obscura. Rather, he used the device to understand how we come by visual knowledge. Our brains continuously interpret the images projected on our retinas by the lenses of our eyes, but the camera obscura is less nimble, offering just the raw information produced by a stationary monocular lens of fixed focal length—a snapshot, as it were, of the data our minds must decipher to give us our take on visual reality. Many distinctive features of Vermeer’s work—selective focus, spherical highlights, limited depth of field—derive from the camera obscura’s spare and simplified way of seeing. The moment of a glance is suspended long enough for us to contemplate what a glance truly means, endowing Vermeer’s pictures with a meditative and dreamlike quality.
Art can imitate life; it can also play games of make-believe. The black-and-white stone floors that figure in Vermeer’s paintings and those of other Dutch Golden Age artists were seldom present in actual Dutch homes of that era. (No extant Dutch 17th-century domestic interior contains such a floor, although some august public buildings of the period do.) They developed into a stock motif for Dutch artists largely because of the popular prints of Hans Vredeman de Vries (1527–ca. 1607), an ingenious draftsman whose architectural capriccios portrayed unlikely and often amusing combinations of fountains, piazzas and statues, rendered plausible by the artist’s absolute mastery of perspective. Checkerboard floors and pavements—favorite motifs of Vredeman de Vries—became the default convention by which Dutch artists established recession into depth, a trick of the trade that was second nature to Vermeer. The camera obscura allowed him to extend his repertoire: Mimicking the optical effects of artificial lenses, Vermeer translated shadow and brightness into globules of color that cohere at a certain distance but lusciously dissolve into confusion upon close inspection. Now you see it, now you don’t.
Vermeer’s paintings orchestrate a symphony of gestures and glances that bind individuals into nuanced relationships—a maid delivering a letter to her mistress, a chaste beauty playing a musical instrument to delight her suitor, a model shyly turning her head to meet the artist’s inquiring gaze. Love, if only tacitly acknowledged, animates Vermeer’s theater of the imagination much as it animates daily life. The figures who populate Vermeer’s stolen moments remain in a state of perpetual yearning—it’s the price they pay for being immortalized—but their bittersweet predicament underscores a crucial theme that runs through virtually all of Dutch art: Seize the day, for whatever restraint decorum demands, our hold on life is fleeting.
During the 20 years of his working career, Vermeer earned the esteem of colleagues and patrons, but he painted slowly, completed relatively few pictures (only about 35 of his works are now known to exist) and never became a major figure in the 17th-century Dutch art market. After he died, his works were dispersed, and many were eventually ascribed to better-known painters, like Gabriël Metsu (1629-67) or Pieter de Hooch (1629-84), who portrayed similar subjects. Vermeer’s masterpiece, “The Art of Painting” (1665-68), now in the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, once sported a spurious De Hooch signature applied by the mercenary hand of an art dealer who hoped to enhance the picture’s value. While Van Leeuwenhoek remained revered among scientists for centuries, Vermeer came perilously close to being erased from the annals of aesthetic memory.
During the past 150 years, a great succession of scholars have labored valiantly to rescue Vermeer from oblivion, beginning with Théophile Thoré (1807-69), whose landmark publications of the 1850s first awakened broad public interest in the artist. Philip Leslie Hale (1865-1931), a painter and descendant of Revolutionary War hero Nathan Hale, opened many American eyes to Vermeer with his outstanding monograph of 1913. And the important work of securing the Delft master’s legacy has continued down to the present day with sterling efforts by figures like my good friend Walter Liedtke, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, whose writings on Vermeer are widely and justly admired. Walter, who provided a glowing endorsement for the back cover of Ms. Snyder’s book, died last month in a commuter rail disaster just north of New York City—a tragedy I have yet to comprehend or accept.
Making sense of the world we inhabit is sometimes quite difficult. “The natural philosophers and the artists of the seventeenth century,” writes Ms. Snyder, “taught us that instruments could be used as extensions of our eyes, and that we could learn to see with them, even if what we saw with them was not like anything we could see with the naked eye.” But while technological advances have greatly enhanced our sensory perceptions, we still receive only flickering glimpses of the big picture, and we can seldom feel certain that we have seen rightly or enough. Until such time as all is revealed, it seems that the old rules still apply: Life is short, art is long and beauty is in the eye of the beholder.