Laura J. Snyder is an award-winning author of three books and a contributor to The Wall Street Journal, Harvard Magazine, and other publications. She has received grants from the Fulbright Commission, the American Philosophical Society, the Mellon Foundation, and the National Endowment of the Humanities. A former philosophy professor, Snyder is a Life Member of Clare Hall, Cambridge University. She lives with her husband and son in New York City.
- One to One, CUNY TV, May 4, 2015
- The Leonard Lopate Show, WNYC, March 16, 2015
- TED Global 2012
- 2011 Dibner Library Lecture, Smithsonian Institution
- Podcast Interview with Science for the People, September 11, 2015
- Podcast Interview with Science for the People, February 21, 2014
- Podcast Interview with Science Book a Day, June 17, 2013
- Radio Interview on Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio National, October 12, 2006
Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing
W. W. Norton & Company.
Hardcover: March 16, 2015.
480 pages + 16 pages of color illustrations.
ISBN: 0393077462 / 978-0393077469.
Paperback: May 17, 2016
Laura Snyder is both a masterly scholar and a powerful storyteller. In Eye of the Beholder, she transports us to the wonder-age of seventeenth-century Holland, as new discoveries in optics were shaping the two great geniuses of Delft—Vermeer and van Leeuwenhoek—and changing the course of art and science forever. A fabulous book.
Laura J. Snyder’s Eye of the Beholder is an irresistible invitation into the lives and work of Vermeer and van Leeuwenhoek and how the extraordinary intersection of their genius in Seventeenth century Delft awakened our perceptions of how we see the world. It’s a wonderful and vivid book.
Author of The Music Lesson
Eye of the Beholder is a thoughtful elaboration of the modern notion of seeing. Laura J. Snyder delves into the seventeenth century fascination with the tools of art and science, and shows how they came together to help us make sense of what is right in front of our eyes.
Author of Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City
As in The Philosophical Breakfast Club, Laura Snyder tells the tale of a crucial moment in human discovery by focusing on the interplay between the personalities involved, in this case the great Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer and the amateur scientist Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, best known for his miniature microscopes and his pioneering work as a microbiologist. This was an age when artists as well as scientists explored nature, occasionally with the same technical means, such as optical devices. This delightful book is solidly researched but reads like a novel—and a good one at that!
Curator of European Paintings, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
“Elegantly written intellectual history…fascinating.” (Deborah Blum – The New York Times Book Review)
“An engaging and richly detailed work of interdisciplinary history.” (Jonathan Lopez – Wall Street Journal)
“Beautifully evokes the ambience of late-seventeenth-century Delft… revelatory about Vermeer’s aims and methods, helping to explain what is so mesmeric about his work.” (Philip Ball – Nature)
“Vivid and persuasive…. This poetic, inclusive approach to popular science writing makes Eye of the Beholder an unfailing pleasure to read.” (Wendy Smith – The Daily Beast)
“Irresistible…. [Snyder] ingeniously explores the minutiae of her subjects’ lives to reveal sweeping changes in how their world was understood―ones that still resonate today.” (Jonathon Keats – New Scientist)
“Absorbing…. Snyder takes us back through time, beyond the reflections and shadows, to the very heart of Vermeer’s art.” (Roma Tearne – The Independent [UK])
Sally Hacker Prize of the Society for the History of Technology, 2016
A Christie’s Best Art Book of 2015
A New Scientist Best Read of 2015
Featured in New York Times Paperback Row
An interview with Deborah Kalb, April 12, 2015
Q: You write, “The fascination with lenses pervaded both the artistic and the scientific communities, so much so that these communities can be seen as one…” How did Vermeer and van Leeuwenhoek’s work complement each other, and why did you decide to pair them in this book?
A: I find it very troubling that there is an attitude today that science is somehow separate, walled off, even, from the rest of culture. People believe that science is only for the specially trained few, and that it’s not possible to be good at both science and the arts.
In my last book, The Philosophical Breakfast Club, I traced the start of this attitude to the 19th century, when the word “scientist” was invented and the professional scientist was created. For my next book, I wanted to go back to a time and place where art and science were not seen as separate. Seventeenth-century Delft fit the bill.
The natural philosophers (not yet called “scientists”) were being exhorted by Francis Bacon and other writers to “see for yourself,” to go out and examine nature, make observations and perform experiments, not just read the works of ancient authorities such as Aristotle. They were dissecting animals and humans, observing the heavens with telescopes and looking at tiny creatures with microscopes.
At the same time, artists were being told by art theorists such as Samuel van Hoogstraten to “investigate nature,” to think of painting as being “the sister of philosophy,” that is, science. So you have artists using magnifying glasses to peer closely at insects and flowers to create gorgeous and detailed Dutch flower paintings and the studies we call “miniatures.”
Some were using mirrors, concave lenses, and even camera obscuras to experiment with light and learn how to realistically represent color and shadow and perspective. Gerrit Dou, for instance, would look at a scene through a lens set in a frame: it is said that he could see so much detail through the lens that he would have to wait for the dust to settle before he could begin to paint.
Artists and scientists at this time really were engaged in much the same task: to investigate nature, often using optical devices. I chose to concentrate on Leeuwenhoek and Vermeer because of their close proximity, being contemporaries born the same week and living so closely together, and because they are each arguably the most important man working in, respectively, science and art during this period.
Q: Why did Delft become such a center of science and art in the 1600s?
A: That’s a great question. A number of important painters converged on Delft in the 1650s: Carel Fabritius, who was Rembrandt’s best pupil, lived in Delft from 1650 until his tragic death in the munitions depot explosion in 1654, Jan Steen was on the scene from 1654-56, Pieter de Hooch had moved to Delft and married a local woman (who may have been related to Leeuwenhoek), and painters of architectural scenes like Hendrik van Vliet, Gerard Houckgeest, and Emanuel de Witte were there as well.
So when Vermeer came back to Delft after his apprenticeship there was an established community of some of the best artists in the Dutch Republic. As one of the important manufacturing towns—producing both beer and the blue and white pottery still known as Delftware—Delft had many merchants with disposal income for purchasing art for their homes.
On the science side, lens making grew in Delft because some of the best glass in Europe was being made in the Delft glass works. Delft also housed one of the earliest Anatomical Theaters in Europe, where corpses were dissected in front of audiences of natural philosophers and the public.
Many of the same merchants who were collected art also built up “cabinets of Curiosity” where they would have interesting fossils, ostrich eggs, preserved fetuses in jars, Roman coins, even body parts. There was a culture of collecting and studying what was collected that was conducive to both the production of art and the production of scientific knowledge in Delft at this time.
Q: You write, “It is tempting to speculate that Vermeer and Leeuwenhoek must have known each other,” and you note that Leeuwenhoek might have been the model for Vermeer’s painting The Geographer. Do you think this is likely, and why?
A: There are only two paintings we know of by Vermeer that feature a single man: The Geographer and The Astronomer, which were most likely painted as pendants, or companion pieces.
Both pictures feature men who are engaged in scientific tasks—and both of the sciences depicted rely on optical devices. Astronomers were using telescopes by this time, and geographers—or surveyors, as they were called—were using a device similar to a camera obscura for drawing maps of an area being surveyed.
The Geographer is one of the few pictures dated by Vermeer himself, and it is dated the very year that Leeuwenhoek passed his Surveying examination for the city of Delft. Some people believe that Leeuwenhoek may have commissioned these two paintings to commemorate the event. There is no evidence of that.
However, I do think it is likely that Vermeer had Leeuwenhoek in mind as the kind of natural philosopher he wished to depict in these to pictures. And the model depicted could be a very idealized version of Leeuwenhoek as a younger man.
We have some images of Leeuwenhoek later, and he looks fleshier around the eyes, and of course older and less attractive than the man in the Vermeer pictures, but it could be a highly romanticized image of Leeuwenhoek. We will never know for certain.
Q: How did you research this book, and what surprised you most in the course of your research?
A: Besides reading many, many books and articles about the period, I traveled to Delft, and spent time in the Market Square, which made me realize how unlikely it was that the two men lived their whole adult lives around such a small area without knowing each other to some degree.
Even in my neighborhood of New York City, I see the same people every day, and if I don’t know them well I still say hello when I pass them on the street, and I have some idea who they are—this is another mom in my building, and she’s taking her son to that school, this is the man with the long-haired dog who leaves him tied up and barking outside my window sometimes, that’s the man who delivers clothes for that drycleaner on the corner.
Walking in Delft, imagining the lives of Vermeer and Leeuwenhoek, was very inspiring for the book, and the most fun part of the research.
I also spent time at the library of the Royal Society of London, where I perused the original letters sent by Leeuwenhoek, as well as saw the specimens he had sent them over the years. It was truly thrilling to open up little envelopes and see the very slices of the optic nerve of a cow Leeuwenhoek himself had made!
More prosaically, I spent most of July and August in 2012 sequestered in the Science and Business Library of the New York Public Library, reading the hundreds and hundreds of letters written by Leeuwenhoek that have been published in the 15 huge volumes of the Alle de Breiven/Collected Letters of Antoni van Leeuewenhoek.
It’s a wonderful resource and I realized that no one had consulted those volumes for decades, even longer. The books did not even have the electronic theft prevention labels and it took the librarians a couple of weeks even to find them in the offsite location! Over those weeks of reading, Leeuwenhoek’s voice really came through and I had the sense I could hear him in my mind.
It would have been so lovely to have a resource like that for Vermeer, but as far as we know Vermeer never wrote a letter, there are no documents relating to him except mentions in the Delft archives, at his birth and his marriage and after his death.
Vermeer’s documents are his pictures, so I spent as much time as I could looking at them. I studied European art and Northern Baroque art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; they have a wonderful education department.
And I had the immense pleasure of getting to know Walter Liedtke, the curator of the MMA and one of the worldwide experts on Vermeer, who died tragically in February. Having had the opportunity to meet with Walter several times to discuss Vermeer and Delft in the 17th century was truly one of the highlights of writing the book.
What surprised me most about writing the book was how many webs connected Vermeer and Leeuwenhoek: Vermeer’s father was a cloth salesman, as was Leeuwenhoek. Leeuwenhoek’s stepfather and two stepbrothers were members of the artists’ guild with Vermeer.
Both Leeuwenhoek and Vermeer had positions in the city government. They were both working with optical devices. And Leeuwenhoek was the executor of Vermeer’s estate!
Of course, I had hoped to find some “smoking gun,” irrefutable evidence that they knew each other, a letter from someone saying “I had dinner with Vermeer and Leeuwenhoek last night” or something like that.
But the more I studied the more I realized that such evidence was not even necessary. The fact that there were so many different avenues for the two of them to have met shows how closely tied the artistic and scientific communities were at that time and place.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I have in mind a book project that takes place in another time and place, but that similarly shows how science and other parts of culture are intertwined. I can’t say more about it just yet!
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Vermeer and Leeuwenhoek—and the artists and scientists working around them—really did change the way we see the world. For the first time people realized that there was more than meets the eye.
In science, of course, we learned that there was a world of microscopic creatures never before imagined, and a universe of stars we cannot see with the naked eye. But artists also saw the world differently, they saw that colors change in different light, that shadows are not black but green, blue and yellow, that a hand can look like a lump of flesh.
And people realized that the mind plays a role in our seeing. Sometimes we see what we want or expect to see. The scientists had to fight against that impulse, even Leeuwenhoek, who had hoped to see a “little man” curled up in the human sperm.
But artists found they could use that impulse, as when Vermeer painted his Woman in Blue, using a minimum of the expensive aquamarine paint, mostly using black, because he knew the viewer would “see” the jacket as blue.
Today’s development on techniques to see even deeper inside bodies and even farther away—X-rays, PET scans, the Hubble Telescope—grew out of the work done by scientists and artists in Delft in the 1600s. Telling their story gives us insight into how we understand “seeing” today.
The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends Who Transformed Science and Changed the World
Paperback (2012): 0767930495 / 978-0767930499
Hardcover (2011): 9780767930482
The lives and works of these men come across as fit for Masterpiece Theatre.
The Wall Street Journal
A fascinating story, one told with considerable charm.
The Washington Times
This fine book is as wide-ranging and anecdotal, as excited and exciting, as those long-ago Sunday morning conversations at Cambridge. The Philosophical Breakfast Club forms a natural successor to Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men (which focuses on 18th-century chemist Joseph Priestley, inventors James Watt and Josiah Wedgwood, and polymath Erasmus Darwin), and Richard Holmes’s The Age of Wonder.
The Washington Post
Laura J. Snyder deftly recreates this age of marvels through the lives of four remarkable Victorian men. In doing so, she tells a greater tale of the rise of science as a formal discipline, and the triumph of evidence-based methods of inductive reason…Much of the delight of Ms. Snyder’s telling lies in her eye for details…a sure-footed guide to the mores and foibles of 19th-century Britain…The members of the Philosophical Breakfast Club left behind some lavish gifts. This volume offers them up delightfully.
A Scientific American Notable Book
Winner of 2011 Royal Institution of Australia Best Science Book
Official Selection, TED Book Club
Featured Book, Barnes and Noble Review
Q: The Philosophical Breakfast Club tells the story of four remarkable men who transformed science. What attracted you to these four men—Charles Babbage, John Herschel, William Whewell, and Richard Jones?
LS: These men were such fascinating intellects—each was brilliant in more than one field, and together they utterly transformed science. Yet they were also passionate, loving men, whose relationships with each other (as well as with the women in their lives) were intense. I found the conjunction of so much raw intellect with deep feeling incredibly compelling. Mere months after meeting, for example, Charles Babbage and John Herschel were sending each other letters signed, “yours till death shall stop my breath”! This was a true fellowship of minds and hearts.
Q: What is the “transformation” in science that these four men brought about?
LS: At their Sunday morning “Philosophical Breakfasts” at Cambridge, the four men talked about how science had stagnated since the exciting time in the seventeenth century now known as the “scientific revolution.” They imagined a new revolution, one that would modernize science. What is amazing and inspirational about their story is that they brought about their youthful dream and not only transformed science but invented the modern scientist, including creating the name “scientist”—before them the people we call scientists were known as “natural philosophers.” These four men made science modern by promoting an empirical scientific method still used today, by claiming that scientific research should be for the public good, not just for the enrichment of kings or other individuals, by creating scientific institutions, and by initiating external funding for science.
Q: Your inspiring story of intellectual loyalty and friendship spans four lifetimes. Can you describe how these men first met in Cambridge in 1812?
LS: Herschel and Babbage met first, probably drawn together by their shared love of both mathematics and chemistry, in 1810. In 1812 they formed a society for promoting the type of calculus that was being used on the Continent. By late 1812 they invited Whewell to join them; he was then a first-year student and known as a mathematical prodigy who had come from very humble beginnings. Whewell had just met Richard Jones so he brought him along as well. The four men immediately recognized that they shared a love of fine wine, excellent cuisine, and gossiping about the scientific establishment. They would soon share the quest to revolutionize science.
Q: What are Charles Babbage, John Herschel, William Whewell, and Richard Jones best known for?
LS: Babbage is perhaps the most well known, because he invented the first computer. Sadly, he is also known for never having built any of his machines. So his is a tragic story of brilliance thwarted by personality defects—he just could not get along with anyone by the end of his life—as well as by the limits of manufacturing in those days. Herschel is known as an important astronomer. Fewer people know of his central role as the co-inventor of photography; he came up with the method to “fix” photographs, with what photographers still call the “hypo” (for hyposulphite of soda). Whewell is little known today outside of Cambridge, where he is remembered as the authoritarian Master of Trinity College who endowed the buildings called “Whewell’s Court.” But his work in creating mathematical economics and promoting international tidal science still has importance today. By inventing the word “scientist” Whewell gave an enduring name, as well as a role, to the profession. Richard Jones is known in the history of economics as having been an influence on Karl Marx, who referred to his work often in his notes on political economy when he first came to London. Jones was an early critic of David Ricardo and introduced Charles Darwin to the writings of T.R. Malthus—which gave Darwin the linchpin of his theory of evolution, the idea of the struggle for existence.
Q: Tell us about your research for the book. Where did you gather your materials? How are the chapters constructed?
LS: I did a great deal of research in various archives in England. The Wren Library—an absolutely stunning building designed by the seventeenth-century polymath Christopher Wren—at Trinity College has 8000 letters to and from Whewell, including all of Whewell’s correspondence with Jones. The Royal Society of London has an extensive collection of Herschel’s correspondence, and Babbage’s correspondence is collected at the British Library. I also found material at the Science Museum’s archives in Swindon, on an abandoned airfield. It’s amazing to hold and read letters written almost 200 years ago, and we are fortunate to have these resources. I wonder how historians will work in the decades to come—no more letters or diaries to peruse, as it’s all digital now! I also learned much about Babbage’s inventions by spending an afternoon with the Babbage Project Engineer at the Science Museum, Richard Horton, who was part of the team that built Babbage’s Difference Engine number 2 in the early 1990s, based on his drawings, using the technological specifications possible in the nineteenth century. It was such a thrill to see him pull the enormous machine out of its glass case and turn the crank handle, causing the machine to calculate—and calculate flawlessly.
The chapters are mainly organized chronologically, following their friendship over nearly 60 years of their lives, though I occasionally deviate from that timeline to discuss related developments going on concurrently.
Q: During your research, what was the most unexpected discovery?
LS: I think I was most surprised by realizing that Charles Darwin had just attended one of Babbage’s Saturday night soirees when he first wrote in his diary that evolution of species was a real possibility. At these soirees Babbage demonstrated his model of the Difference Engine, and used it to show that God was something like a “Divine Programmer” who preset laws into nature at the start of creation, laws that could include future alterations in the patterns. Babbage explicitly told his audiences that the origin of new species could have arisen this way, rather than by “miraculous” interventions of God each and every time. At this exact moment, Darwin was trying to reconcile the observations he had made while on the Beagle voyage with his faith in God. I think it likely that Babbage helped Darwin to see how evolution could be part of a lawful, God-created world.
Q: It’s been a few years now since The Philosophical Breakfast Club appeared. What was the impact of the book?
LS: The impact on my life was enormous. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to give talks about the book around the country and in Canada and Scotland. It was so much fun to meet readers and speak to them about these four friends and their times. Delivering a talk at the TED Global meeting in Edinburgh was the most amazing experience I’ve ever had. Speaking in front of over 900 people before on a stage filled with lights and cameras—it was like being a rock star! And now my talk has been viewed over 1 million times, which is astonishing to me. Throughout this incredible journey I’ve heard from so many readers who admitted that they never thought they liked science, but that through my story of friendship they were pulled into the story of scientific discovery and innovation. I love that. It’s crucial that the general public understand basics about science—that they become scientifically literate—and if good storytelling and human interest can bring people to science, then books like mine are serving a very worthwhile goal.
Q: Could you give us a preview of your next book?
LS: My next book, Eye of the Beholder, will be published in March 2015 by W.W. Norton. In a sense it is a prequel to the story I tell in The Philosophical Breakfast Club. That book ends with some reflections on an unintended consequence of the revolution in science brought about by the four friends: a separation between art and science, what C.P. Snow would later refer to as the “Two Cultures.” In Eye of the Beholder, I go back to a time and place—seventeenth-century Holland—where artists and scientists were working together, using the new optical technologies of microscopes, telescopes, and lenses, to see the world in a new way. Two men are the focus of my story: the painter Johannes Vermeer, and the father of microbiology Antoni van Leeuwenhoek. Both were fascinating men who changed the way we see our world and our place within it.
Reforming Philosophy: A Victorian Debate on Science and Society
University Of Chicago Press
Paperback (2014): 0226767337 / 978-0226767338
Hardcover (2006): 022621432X / 978-0226214320
Snyder’s book is history of philosophy at its best.
Times Literary Supplement
This is the definitive work and must be on the shelves of any library with pretensions to completeness about the [Victorian] age.
Journal of British Studies
Brilliant. . . . [A]n exciting and comprehensive account of [the Mill-Whewell] debate. . . . Snyder’s outstanding study will be indispensable for commentators on Whewell and Mill. By providing a window on social, political, and moral issues, as well as those at the heart of scientific methodology, she also has much to offer historians of early Victorian culture. For historians of science, there is a bonus in that the receptivity of Whewell and Mill to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution is also excellently discussed.
J. H. Brooke
Annals of Science
Snyder’s impressive achievement is not only to register a significant improvement in our understanding of the technicalities of this debate over the proper method of scientific reasoning, but also to bring the debate alive in a way that illuminates the whole terrain of mid-Victorian intellectual life.
American Historical Review