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Know your Artist

  • Know your Artist

Often when an artist of the Renaissance age or later comes to mind, their paintings are of expansive interiors, women in flowing gowns, men with their floppy Medieval hats, all of these in an ornate frames. The aspect ratios and perspectives are near perfect, each artist out doing the other in achieving what best they could in photo realism.                                      

If Leonardo Da Vinci, Michael Angelo, Raphael drew inspiration of the world around them or from biblical mythology, some took the domestic scenes around them as if to chronicle life of those times for posterity.

Johannes Vermeer (October 1632 – December 1675) was one such artist who portrayed domestic and banal events beautifully  in photo realistic effect. While Rembrandt's portraits made him the most popular

Dutch artist of the 17th century, Vermeer was a lesser known artist, untrained, without a gallery presence. His fame even in his life time did not go beyond the small town of Delft or The Hague. But he had a keen eye which made his paintings stand out and also helped him collect art.

His obscurity and confinement to Delft was compounded by the fact that he painted not more than 64 works, of which only 34 can be attributed to him. 

Some of his works such as: The Music Lesson, Girl with a Pearl Ear Ring, The Milkmaid are masterpieces.

These are paintings of ordinary daily life in a typical Dutch household of those days. But extraordinary in composition, treatment of light, use of colours especially ultramarine blue, perspective and realistic texture of objects.

What made them special? Could Vermeer have achieved such detail with minimal training? Often such exemplary skill is gained over years of experience, with several paintings and of course training under a master. Vermeer had none of these prerequisites. Yet his paintings were absolute masterclass. 

These paintings and their later day analysis made the world rediscover Vermeer. Or should we say Vermeer's techniques. If you analyse Vermeer's paintings, you will discover a fine mesh of detail, unlikely for the late 16th century. Soon controversies and theories sprouted on the artist's extreme detail. Was he using special optical tools? Did he use a camera? (Camera and photography as concepts were still two hundred years away from Vermeer's time).

As these camera theories criss crossed art debates, his paintings became even more intriguing, drawing in non-art people into the discussion on a bygone era and and an asynchronous technique.

Tim Jenison a techie from Texas was one such interested people drawn into the debate on Vermeer's techniques. Tim Jenison owned a company that made visual editing software. And there ended the commonality between him and art.

He was not an artist.

Yet he was taken in by this construct of a camera in 17th century. He took it upon himself to rediscover Vermeer and rebuild his painting style. He built a Camera Obscura-a primitive form of a camera which operates on a single concave lens, which he presumed that Vermeer could have used to make his paintings. 

What he did next surprised the art fraternity. He painted or rather copied Vermeer's "Music Lesson" using the camera obscura contraption that he painstakingly built. What emerged was a brilliant reproduction. What shocked the world was the fact that Tim knew nothing of art and how to paint. Watch this video Tim's Vermeer, an award winning documentary on how Tim Jenison recreated the "Music Lesson".

Now did Vermeer actually use a camera like device to achieve such brilliant plays with light? Why were all his painting -almost all-of them indoors? And that too in the same room, adjacent to a window? Was it his 'camera studio'? Did he know what a lens was? Several questions remain unanswered to this day. 

At least the last question, whether Vermeer knew what a lens was has been answered.

Vermeer had few friends and Antonie van Leeuwenhoek the inventor of the microscope was one of them. Probably, Vermeer borrowed a lens from Leeuwenhoek and experimented with light and image projections. Maybe that's why his paintings are brilliant for their transparent shadows,photo quality skin tones, folds in the tapestry or cloth. Maybe the lens helped him capture the myriad details in the room. Most of Vermeer's paintings are on a 16x20 inches canvas frame. Was that the size of the projection that the lens allowed?

The theories are still around. Vermeer still draws awe and inspiration. From an obscure town in Holland, his style has captured the imagination of the world, albeit with a mere 34 paintings.


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