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  • Giants of Delft: Johannes Vermeer and the Natural Philosophers: The Parallel Search for Knowledge During the Age of Discovery
  • David Topper
Giants of Delft: Johannes Vermeer and the Natural Philosophers: The Parallel Search for Knowledge During the Age of Discovery by Robert D. Huerta. Bucknell Univ. Press, New Jersey, U.S.A., 2003. 156 pp., illus. ISBN: 0-8387-5538-0.

Once while browsing through a video store I came across a film titled All the Vermeers in New York. After reading the box I took the film home. It was not very memorable: as I recall, it was a prosaic girl-meets-boy movie, which I never would have noticed without the title catching my eye. I have spoken with others who rented the movie for the same reason; the name "Vermeer" can do that. But this was not always so. It is hard to believe that there was a time—starting not long after his early death—when Vermeer's paintings were seen as run-of-the-mill Dutch art; not until the mid-19th century, with the trend toward pictures that capture light and color, was there a Vermeer revival. Stylistic trends are fickle: the same happened to Bach and Shakespeare. So today Vermeer's quiet pictures of humans and their artifacts in comfortable rooms are recognized as some of the most serene and breathtaking works in European art. Thus the attraction to anything—including a movie title—bearing his name.

Despite this reverence for seemingly anything related to Vermeer, little is known of his short life (1632-1675). To surmount this problem, historians have looked to the artist's environment, his intellectual and social circle, for clues to penetrating the enigma of those "still life" portraits. Holland in the 17th century was a center of commerce and publishing as well as art and science. Dutchmen invented the telescope and microscope. Much has been written about Vermeer's use of a camera obscura, mirrors and other possible optical and perspective devices. Huerta covers this, too, but draws his circle much wider by encompassing the scientists of the time, primarily Galileo and Kepler (both used the telescope and camera obscura), Hooke and Leeuwenhoek (masters of the microscope), and Huygens (master-builder of telescopes and clocks and discoverer of the rings of Saturn). Using indirect evidence, Huerta makes a convincing case that Vermeer knew both Huygens and Leeuwenhoek. Vermeer and Leeuwenhoek were born within a few days of each other in Delft; Leeuwenhoek was the executor of Vermeer's estate.

The past several decades have seen an abundance of publications on the interrelationship of science and art around the Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries. Huerta draws heavily upon this work: indeed, the book is very much an ingenious synthesis of it. Those familiar with this scholarship will recognize the authors: a partial list includes Samuel Edgerton, Martin Kemp, Phillip Steadman, Arthur Wheelock, Scott Montgomery, Albert Van Helden, Stephen Straker, Svetlana Alpers and James Welu. I found no "gaps" in Huerta's research.

The resulting range of topics not only entails the camera obscura (incidentally, the first illustration of this device shows it being used to view safely a solar eclipse), but also the telescope and microscope, as well as various lenses and mirrors. Hence, scientists who were both superior observers and masters of their instruments enter the story. Not surprisingly, as a master observer, Vermeer is linked with Van Eyck and the Northern tradition of painting minute details and the possible use of mirrors. Such instrument-mediated perception leads Huerta to the topic of perception and art; and here again there is a wealth of material to rely on: that the names of E.H. Gombrich and Richard Gregory arise is not unexpected, since both emphasized the role of mental hypotheses in visual perception and in the act of depiction.

On page 55, Huerta discusses the example of the depiction of a rhinoceros by Dürer as discussed in Gombrich's classic, Art and Illusion. Since Gombrich juxtaposes the drawing with a photograph of a rhino (the African species), this example—often quoted over the years by writers on matters pertaining to art and...


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