And speaking of Vermeer……
Defining Virtuality in 17th Century Dutch Art
A number of scholars of 17th century Dutch art have used the phrase “virtual reality” to describe the startling realism of many of the paintings of the period; the art seems to possess a kind of “reality effect” making it seem more than painted materials applied to a surface. A painting like Van Hoogstraten’s Interior of 1662 encourages such comparisons: with the aid of computer magnification you can take a “virtual” walk around this spacious interior, loosing yourself in the strange angles and through-views as you navigate Dutch pictorial space. In her book, The Virtual Window: From Alberti to Microsoft, Anne Friedberg discusses the term “virtuality” and its development in the seventeenth-century:
“In seventeenth and eighteenth- century optics, “virtual” was used to describe an image that was seen by looking through a lens or that appeared in a mirror. The term “virtual” first appears in English in the writings of Sir David Brewster about the properties of refraction in his Treatise on Optics (1831). Best known for his 1816 invention of the kaleidoscope (an optical device that demonstrated the principles of reflective symmetry), Brewster described the differing properties of an image seen by the eye and an image seen through the mediation of a lens. A “real image” is formed by the convergence of rays of light and is visible to the eye, but will also appear on a surface that is placed in a plane with the image. A “virtual image”- perceived in the brain- is visible to the eye but will not appear on a surface placed in its plane. Hence a “virtual image” in Brewster’s optics is not recuperable to representation. This meaning of “virtual” suggests an intangible, uncapturable, ineffable appearance- more imago than pictura.”
Following on from this, Friedman concludes that the virtual image “has no material existence (appears in the brain, or on the retina) and the virtual image that is formed in representation signifies a subtle shift in its materiality.” It is interesting to think of the artist’s studio in relation to this distinction between imago and pictura, specifically Vermeer’s studio as it appears- or doesn’t!- within his masterpiece The Art of Painting. Other painters in Vermeer’s hometown- Delft- used scientific methods in the construction of compositions. Carel Fabritius who came to Delft from Rembrandt’s studio, in the 1650s, employed a lens in his view of Delft; Samuel van Hoogstraten is his wonderful perspective box in the London National Gallery (1655-60) devises a series of virtual worlds that are only visible through the peephole of the camera obscura.
The Virtual Studio and the Art of Painting.
In an essay on the “imagined studio” of Vermeer, H. Perry Chapman ponders whether we are actually looking at Vermeer himself or the idea of the painter in The Art of Painting (1665-7). In this celebrated work Vermeer shows an artist from the back which Chapman believes could indicate Vermeer’s wish to efface himself from the painting, to negate his persona and artistic identity. As Chapman says, the anonymity of the painter makes him the ideal painter, not a specific one. Vermeer was known as “the Sphinx of Delft” since his biographers do not really reveal him, probably because there wasn’t much textual data on him. Attempts to give Vermeer and his studio an identity, like in the movie The Girl with the Pearl Earring, really are romanticizing an enigma. The film shows Vermeer in his studio, but he never shows himself, except maybe in the Procuress (1656) and there he is clothed in the kind of period garments that the painter wears in the Art of Painting, which doesn’t help to place him in a specific social situation. Even when the curtain to the painter’s refuge is drawn back in the Vienna painting, the artist’s rear view seems to act as a barrier to entry to the studio, an idea that crops up in many artists’ studios examined in this series. If we need proof that Vermeer’s strategy is completely different we need only compare the allegory with another complex meditation on self-representation. As shown a few weeks ago, another 17th century painter Johannes Gumpp turns his back on the viewer, but he shows his own features through a complex system of representation involving canvas and mirror, not self-effacement at all. Vermeer’s artist does no such thing and that rejection of the viewer could support Chapman’s theory that this figure is an idea of painting, not Vermeer himself, or even a physical artist in a studio.
Chapman’s reading is persuasive and might help to explain why Clio- the muse of history- is present instead of some allegorical figure representing Pittura or painting itself, as this work is supposed to demonstrate the art of painting. An example of this in 17th century Dutch art is a woman painted by another artist, Frans van Mieris the Elder, Pictura (1661) an un-idealized female dressed in eye-catching garments, holding a sculpture- a reference either to the paragone, or the triumph of painting over sculpture. Yet if the painter sitting in the Art of Painting is a masculine version of Pittura, and the female muse is History, where is the painter himself? Could it be that he is an invisible presence revealing the studio to the spectator, and that the seated artist is a simulacrum of the painter, a virtual Vermeer? A similar idea appears in another famous representation of a 17th century studio: Velasquez’s Las Meninas. In that complex painting, a figure framed in a doorway suggests an echo of Velasquez, maybe another simulacrum. The figure is actually a Velasquez: Jose Nieto Velasquez, steward of the palace. “Velasquez 2” seems to be entering the studio and seeing what we can’t see- Las Meninas being painted. See here for more discussion of this. It’s true that in the Art of Painting, we’re allowed to see into the studio but we don’t really see what is being painted since it’s partly occluded by another Vermeer, whom I’m tempted to call “Vermeer 2.” Instead, we see an imago, which means something that cannot be seen or measured, as opposed to the pictura, which is something that can be focused on walls and surfaces, and thus measured with an instrument like a camera obscura- see below. The pictura belongs more to the process of representing and picturing, while the imago suggests the mystery at the heart of the artist’s studio, which we are never allowed to penetrate.
Vermeer's Virtuality: Looking Through the Camera Obscura in the Seventeenth-Century.
In her ground breaking The Art of Describing, Svetlana Alpers cites Kenneth Clark’s comment about Vermeer’s The Art of Painting being the “nearest painting has ever come to a coloured photograph.” Indeed, some modern artists have tried to capture the “look” of a Vermeer in photographs and coloured prints. The idea of Vermeer’s paintings resembling photographs goes back to the nineteenth-century when connoisseurs employed photographs, or reproductive media such as etchings, lithographs, when identifying and presenting a painter’s oeuvre. As Ivan Gaskell shows, photographic pioneers like Fox-Talbot turned to the conventions of Dutch art: his photograph Open Door seems to reference Vermeer’s The Little Street. This interest in Vermeer’s photographic realism has centred on the device known as the camera obscura, although it is not known whether Vermeer used optics to help him create his pictures. His paintings with their sharp clarity suggest optical precision, although there is no documentation to back up these claims. Unperturbed by the lack of textual evidence, Philip Steadman, an architect and professor of Urban Studies, has written a book called Vermeer’s Camera. Steadman has meticulously reconstructed Vermeer’s studio using models of the paintings to plot out the angles that Vermeer may have used to create his “virtual” worlds. The camera obscura (Latin dark chamber) is an optical device used, for example, in drawing or for entertainment. It is one of the inventions leading to photography. The principle can be demonstrated with a box with a hole in one side (the box may be room-sized, or hangar sized). Light from a scene passes through the hole and strikes a surface where it is reproduced, in colour, and upside-down. The image's perspective is accurate. The image can be projected onto paper, which when traced can produce a highly accurate representation. Using mirrors, as in the 18th century overhead version, it is possible to project a right-side-up image. Another more portable type is a box with an angled mirror projecting onto tracing paper placed on the glass top, the image upright as viewed from the back. As a pinhole is made smaller, the image gets sharper, but the projected image becomes dimmer. With too small a pinhole the sharpness again becomes worse due to diffraction. Some practical camera obscuras use a lens rather than a pinhole because it allows a larger aperture, giving a usable brightness while maintaining focus. In the movie The Girl with the Pearl Earring, we see Vermeer allow the serving maid Griet to look inside the magic box where she thinks the artificial model that the painter uses is located. Here we have another reconstruction of Vermeer’s studio, but this time in the cinema. The interiors are cleverly devised, but again, we have no idea if the movie is recapturing the reality of seventeenth- century Delft, or whether it is simply another virtual Vermeer created by imagination and trickery. The coordinates of Vermeer’s studio remain uncertain and his art an eternal mystery.
 For example Mariet Westermann, The Art of the Dutch Republic 1585-1718, 1996, 71-98; H. Perry Chapman, “The Imagined Studios of Rembrandt and Vermeer” in Inventions of the Studio, Renaissance to Romanticism, ed. Michael Cole & Mary Prado, 2005, 108-146.
 Friedberg, The Virtual Window, 8-9.
 Friedberg, The Virtual Window, 9.
 Chapman, “The Imagined Studios of Rembrandt and Vermeer”, 137-8.
 Chapman, “The Imagined Studios of Rembrandt and Vermeer”, 142.
 Hubert Damisch, The Origin of Perspective, 1995, 436.
 Kenneth Clark, quoted in Alpers, The Art of Describing, 1984, 27.
 Ivan Gaskell, Vermeer’s Wager: Speculations on Art History, Theory and Art Museums, 2000, 142.
 The Girl with the Pearl Earring, 2003.