THE ROLE OF ILLUSIONISM IN THE DUTCH REPUBLIC

 

 

 

 

 

Introduction:

The use of illusionism as one of the most popular art forms in the history of Danish Art was commenced during the 17th century, also known as the Golden Age of Dutch Painting[1]. The era of naturalism in Dutch Art history encouraged the contemporary painters to come up with various techniques to depict the still-life and consequently the urge to portray botanical and naturalist miniature creatures became gradually conspicuous among Dutch painters. It was considered quite highly that for the purpose of cultivating repertoire styles and iconographic conventions the practice to paint such elements of nature is important. Consequently, in the Golden Age of Dutch Painting while the trend of artistic depiction was shifting towards realism, development of such artistic tendency was considered to be of great importance because it was argued that practicing such form of painting would help an artist to depict the earthly or elements of realism in a more efficient manner. However, the shift towards realism in the history of Dutch Art was quite different from the other forms of artistic revolutions across the globe. The main reason behind such difference was the unique nature of the Dutch artistry and the philosophy of realism that it entrusted:

“The beginnings of the seventeenth-century Golden Age of Dutch painting are commonly associated with a new “realism” that, unconcerned with the theories of art or aesthetics, seized upon the everyday, unembellished aspects of the world. Yet this was a realism shaped by a continuing – indeed intensified – engrossment with illusionism and experimentation with aesthetic effects. The subdued tonalities imposed upon “reality” in the pioneering new genres of landscapes, domestic still lifes, and genre scenes amply testify to this aesthetic preoccupation …”[2].

The sense of realist aesthetics and individual artistic style was further emphasized by the use of illusionism among Dutch painters. One of the most effective ways to produce the illusionistic effect, the contemporary artists found,  is through the interplay of light effects in their paintings. One of the pioneers of illusionism in Dutch Art Samuel van Hoogstraten specifically mentioned in his writing that, as Edward G. Ruestow paraphrases that “painting was a science of fooling the eye, for a perfect painting was like a mirror of nature in which what was not really there appeared to be there nonetheless. The painter deceived, however, not by copying nature directly but by depicting ‘ideas’ nature provided … the illusionism characteristic of Dutch painting indeed reached well beyond those qualities that … pertained to the eye alone”[3]. Mariët Westermann’s analysis, however, has gone to further extent and it has been asserted by the author that the contemporary scientific movement of the Danish society had an important role to play in the development of Illusionism as a leading art form. Consequently, their paintings emerged as effective mediums to register traits of such developments:

“All artistic means to represent a room and posit a viewer, to paint the look of reflected light on silk or to paint living organisms require some understanding of what might be considered scientific issues: the measurement of space and its representation in two dimensions, the effects of light and shade on perception, the taxonomic description of species. In part because of its openness to immigrants, Dutch society hosted a cosmopolitan scientific culture that developed analytic techniques relevant to these problems …. Although most painters received scientific knowledge at second hand, from their masters or books, several Dutch artists engaged in scientific experiments, registered in their paintings.”[4]

Vermeer and the Principle of Camera Obscura:

Jan Vermeer is one such renowned painter of an age where paintings incorporated the elements of aesthetic orientation and innovative scientific traits. Vermeer’s use of illusionism was masterfully reflected through the technique of camera obscura, “a box with a pinhole in one side that lets in light reflected from the scene in front of it. With the aid of lenses, the reflected light can be focused onto a white surface, on which the image can be viewed or traced.”[5] Vermeer hailed from a family with commercial outlook but with the progress of time he decided to choose his career “as a major participant in the age of observation.”[6] Among the scientific progresses that Dutch socio-cultural situation encountered at that point of time, both “telescopic discoveries” and “birth of microscopy”[7] affected as well as nourished diverse perspectives of artistic outlook to a great extent. The practitioners of art, in order to enhance the use of illusionism in their paintings started using the impression as can be generated through lenses. Jan Vermeer, in this context, can be regarded as one of the pioneers as he perfected this practice.  With aesthetic use of the conflict between perspective and optical image, he generated the desired effect of his paintings. Vermeer’s close association with two of the most important lens makers, namely, Swammnerdam and Leeuwenhoek helped him to develop his artistic perspectives in a more profound way.[8] The term camera obscura, which was popularized by Vermeer in his artistic creations, actually means “dark chamber”. Robert D. Huerta has observed: “It is referred to as such because the earliest versions consisted of darkened rooms with only a small hole to admit light. This produced an inverted image of the exterior scene on the wall opposite the hole.”[9] The effects produced by the technique of camera obscura, in comparison to the contemporary times, created a magical impression for the viewers. Apart from producing the impression of magical realism which could not be “normally visible to the naked eyes, the viewed scenes were saturated with more intense color, because while the overall image was reduced, the color was not.”[10]

Rene Parola has argued that in optical art an artist has a scope to offer scientific visual of human functions or natural impression to viewers according to the principles of Gestalt theory. These aspects act as a function to churn out the optical mental perceptions but it is up to the viewer to find out the vastness of psychological functionality and the process through which such optical phenomena tok place.[11] In his artistic works, the Officer and Laughing Girl and the Music Lesson, Vermeer has used the technique of optical art in such a way so that the diverse range of perspectives and optical image can be generated: “This evidence consists of characteristics in Vermeer’s paintings that parallel effects seen in a camera obscura image. The qualities included intensified tone and color; “simultaneous contrast” effects; accentuated contrasts of light and dark; the registration of different planes of focus; halation of highlights; diffused forms of highlights; and exaggerated perspective or contrast of scale.”[12] However, there is always a risk when so much of scientific or technological aspects are included in an artistic work. It tends to become interactive and self-destructive at the same time, consequently leading to the notion of anti-art: “In the realm of anti-art, art becomes interactive. At its best, interactive art endangers freedom, the choice of action or interaction and contemplation as well as use, abuse, even destruction; in short, it is a space allowing … the viewer’s meeting with him/herself and others. Interactive art can be a realm of intensified experience, functioning as a chorus or forum and thus evoking ritual, politics and ethics …. Technology can provide excellent means in search for options, but popular communication technology is predominantly applied in the service of entertainment, with its inherent escapism, and proponents inevitably have to work within this context.”[13] Considering the fact that Vermeer also used technological applications in his paintings, which are conceptually quite advanced compared to his age, there was always a possibility that his creations could have entered the domain of anti-art as there could have always been a chance that such creations would become interactive and self-destructive. However, the conflict of optical image and variation of perspectives that the artist has blended quite successfully in his works, actually prevented his creations from becoming interactive and self-destructive.

The Use of Perspective in the Music Lesson:

The Music Lesson, one of the early masterpieces of Vermeer has been cited by Lawrence Gowing as such a creation that “stands mid-way between the open ambitions of the early works and Vermeer’s oblique tribute to fame in the masterpiece of later years.”[14] In the history of Dutch Art, use of perspectives in order to yield the desired aesthetic appeal has commenced quite earlier than that of Vermeer’s time but it never attained the desired magnitude of fusing personal values. Prior to Vermeer, Carel Fabritius’ technique to fuse perspectives with creative outputs was quite popular in the contemporary artistic scenario in Delft. However, the inception of the 17th century scientific progress gradually weakened the artistic traits introduced by Fabritius. Aftermath, the artistic scenario in Delft was dominated by Hoogstraten and Vermeer as they successfully started fusing the perspectives introduced by scientific evolution as well as of personal values:

“Vermeer’s perspectives … have a specifically personal value …. Very probably the two artists [Vermeer and Hoogstraten] were in contact. … Van Hoogstraten … illustrated three objects of painting: Gloriae Causa, Lucri Causa and Amoris Causa. The profoundest motives of painting, the pursuit of fame and riches no less than a love of art, were thus identified with the contrivance of a perspective so convincing as to deceive the eye. The association is of interest in connection with the perspective scheme of The Music Lesson ….”[15]

Vermeer’s use of manifold perspectives in his creative works was resulted from his intense study of light and shade effects, different nature of reflection and refraction, “maps and mirrors, in compositions that are infused with a still, timeless quality….”[16] From the perspectives of Cartesian meditation and Platonic dialectic Vermeer’s paintings can be interpreted as sincere and idealized attempts to “materialize the Form of the Beautiful [that] can be seen in his formal idealization of natural objects ….”[17] The fusion of elements related to Cartesian meditation and Platonic dialectic in the artistic works of Vermeer has lead to scholarly observation that the artist intended to depict the traits of divine essence in mundane objects and the Music Lesson is one such piece of art that elaborates such intention. In the Music Lesson Vermeer, according to Robert D. Huerta, has attempted to use “Platonically pure geometry;”[18] consequently, it has also been suggested by the author that “Vermeer’s careful and consistent attention to accurately depicting three-dimensional space and his exceptional dimensional accuracy convince … that he looked upon geometry … as one of the keys to unlocking nature’s underlying order.”[19] The Music Lesson is one of the most important artistic creations of Vermeer that apart from using geometrical intricacies also bears explicit evidences that the technique of camera obscura has been used as “cosmopolitan aid or as the source from which certain optical effects were suggested.”[20] Different dimensions of the optical effects that were depicted in the painting have helped in the development of perspective variation in the Music Lesson. In his article “Vermeer and the Camera Obscura: Some Practical Considerations” Allan Mills is of opinion that in order to produce the varied range of perspectives Vermeer used the pinhole camera and consequently his painting did bear certain artifacts that can be obtained only through the use of unfocussed lenses.[21] However, in his response to such observation Philip Steadman has suggested that “Camera obscuras equipped with lenses give images that are very much brighter than those provided by pinhole cameras can therefore be used by artists for tracing.”[22] Thus, the argument that Vermeer used pinhole camera has been refuted and according to the evidence produced by Philip Steadman it has consequently been accepted that the artist actually used “hybrid or large cubiculum camera obscura.[23]” In the Music Lesson, the use of camera obscura, finally helped in the origination of inversion of perspective, converting the “additive nature of mapping into a complicated and asymmetric form of exchange … between a three dimensional romance world and its two-dimensional reconstruction, between everyday consciousness and aesthetic self-consciousness, between men and women, between painting and other forms of aesthetic practice.”[24]

Optical Image in the Officer and Laughing Girl:

The use of camera obscura by Vermeer in the aftermath laboratory experiments has produced manifold points of correlation that has been specified by Daniel A. Fink:

“(1) principal planes of focus;

(2) precise diminution of circles of confusion;

(3) halation of highlights;

(4) precise treatment of reflections;

(5) closeness of the point of view to the window wall;

(6) precise convergence of parallel lines located in the plane perpendicular to the viewing axis;

(7) use of curtains to darken viewing room and control subject of illumination;

(8) relative detail in still-life portion versus figure detail;

(9) consistent proportions of the paintings (4.5:5 or almost square)

(10) dimensional precision in rendering objects.”[25]

Some of these correlations can be viewed quite explicitly in the Officer and Laughing Girl. It is entirely under the scope of artistic discretion to make the decision in the context of changing the lens’ focus so that several planes of focus can be obtained. The Officer and Laughing Girl is the instance of such an artistic creation where the artist has exercised the flexibility of artistic discretion and provided two focal planes “one through the far wall and second running through the officer. Both planes are defined by the diminution of circles of confusion in front of the planes of focus.”[26] It has been mentioned earlier in the discussion that Vermeer had a tendency to depict map or globes prominently in his paintings and this piece of artwork is one such example where he has been able to fulfill his objective quite effectively: “Vermeer, well informed about maps and mapmaking, took obvious care to reproduce these objects faithfully in his paintings …. Vermeer did this especially well in Officer and Laughing Girl … imbuing the maps in these paintings with individual character and personality.”[27] The aspect of optical imaging as depicted in this painting has received a special dimension due to such perfection in showing the map because this device helped the artist to provide a scope to the viewers when it comes to exploring “the mental world of his subjects in a series of painting completed during early part of his career.”[28] The Officer and Laughing Girl acted as an effective medium to “[materialize] the human cognitive landscape by depicting individuals in the act of contemplation, conversation, or study, making the process of knowledge acquisition transparent.”[29] Pondering over the contemporary flourish in the Dutch socio-cultural situation from the perspective of global exploration and deriving the positives from various cultural traditions it can be suggested that the painting attempts to depict the knowledge seeking explorative mentality that became almost assimilated with common human psyche in the contemporary times. The military official in the painting bears a deep connotation with Vermeer uncle, Reynier Balthens and the young laughing lady with Balthens’ bride Susanna Heyndrixdr.[30] Consequently, it can also be implied that the globetrotting, knowledge seeking mentality of Vermeer was greatly influenced by his uncle’s profession and the scope of interest was effectively addressed through presence of the map in the painting. Compared to the multiple layers of perspectives that was offered by the Music Lesson, the Officer and Laughing Girl does not provide the viewer with a great deal of scope. Instead, it  makes use of the optical image as an effective instrument to convey the socio-cultural situation, biographical reference and intense desire to be liberated from existential boundary. The figure of the officer clearly dominates foreground of the picture, metaphorically suggesting dominance of male figures in the contemporary society whereas the woman is comparatively smaller in size and also placed herself at a distance. Despite her charming smile she seems to be quite assured that in order to transcend her existential boundary she has to seek help from the officer or he has been identified as the source of escape for the girl.[31] While showing the predominating position of the officer in the setting the technique of less realistic optical image was adopted by Vermeer. Starting from large size of the officer’s hat, his casual but fluffy uniform, his sitting gesture and the impression of his dominating physical appearance are some of the traits that give the hint of less realistic presentation. Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr. has observed in this context that such artistic devices can be used to satisfy the compositional purpose than adhering to the intention of depicting realism.[32] This is quite an obvious possibility that, in a way, the officer has been depicted in the painting as to some extent unrealistic. The optical image technique, however, has been quite successful as compositionally the work has satisfied the purpose.

Conclusion:

Fusion of the elements of the different perspectives in the Music Lesson and using the technique of optical image in the Officer and Laughing Girl has effectively helped Vermeer satisfy his artistic purposes. While in the first painting he attempted to give an artistic impression to the viewer in case of perceiving the elements of divinity among mundane, in the next case his intention to depict the impact on socio-cultural situation was more poignant. The Music Lesson can be cited as an instance of geometrical perfection where in a very calculative way intricate detail and aesthetic appeals have been fused. In the Officer and Laughing Girl, though the artist has not provided heightened attention to such aspects but from the perspective of composition this pierce of work has successfully conveyed the essence of socio-cultural situation in an aesthetically appealing manner to the viewers. Both these paintings bear the evidence of using camera obscura in a masterful manner. This technique has not only been used to heighten the art works as a technical masterpieces but they also have shown the instances of artistic improvisation.

List of References

Fink, D.A. 1971. “Vermeer’s Use of the Camera Obscura- a Comparative Study”. The Art   Bulletin. Vol. 53. No. 4. (Dec. 1971). pp. 493-505. p. 494. College Art Association.

Huerta, R.D. 2003. Giants of Delft: Johannes Vermeer and the natural philosophers.

Pennsylvania: Bucknell University Press.

Huerta, R.D. 2005. Vermeer and Plato: painting the ideal. Pennsylvania: Bucknell University          Press.

Mers, A. 1999. “Commentary of “Lygia Clark and Hilio Oiticica: A Legacy of Interactivity     and Participation for a Telematic Future”. Leonardo. Vol 32. No. 2. pp. 137-41.

Mills, A. 1998. “Vermeer and the Camera Obscura: Certain Practical Considerations.”

Leonardo. Vol. 31. No. 3. 1998. pp. 213-18. Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Montias, J.M. 1991. Vermeer and His Milieu: A Web of Social History. Princeton: Princeton          University Press.

Parola, R. 1969. Optical Art: Theory and Practice. New York: Reinhold Book Corporation.

Ruestow, E.G. 2004. The Microscope in the Dutch Republic: The Shaping of Discovery. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Steadman, P. 1999. “Commentary on Vermeer and the Camera Obscura: Certain Practical

Considerations”. Leonardo. Vol. 31. No. 2. 1999. pp. 137-41. Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Vermeer, J. and Gowing, L. 1997. Vermeer. California: University of California Press.

Westermann, M. 2005. The art of the Dutch Republic, 1585-1718. London: Laurence King            Publishing.

Wheelock, Jr., A.K. 1981. “Vermeer’s Painting Technique.” Art Journal. Vol. 41. No. 2.

Edward Hopper Symposium at the Whitney Museum of American Art. pp. 162-64.   College Art Association.

Wolf, B.J. 2001. Vermeer and the invention of seeing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


[1] Ruestow, E.G. 2004. The Microscope in the Dutch Republic: The Shaping of Discovery. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 71.

[2] Ruestow, E.G. 2004. The Microscope in the Dutch Republic: The Shaping of Discovery. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 72.

[3] Ruestow, E.G. 2004. The Microscope in the Dutch Republic: The Shaping of Discovery. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 73.

[4] Westermann, M. 2005. The art of the Dutch Republic, 1585-1718. London: Laurence King Publishing. p. 82.

[5] Westermann, M. 2005. The art of the Dutch Republic, 1585-1718. London: Laurence King Publishing. p. 82.

[6] Huerta, R.D. 2003. Giants of Delft: Johannes Vermeer and the natural philosophers. Pennsylvania: Bucknell University Press. p. 43.

[7] Huerta, R.D. 2003. Giants of Delft: Johannes Vermeer and the natural philosophers. Pennsylvania: Bucknell University Press. p. 43.

[8] Huerta, R.D. 2003. Giants of Delft: Johannes Vermeer and the natural philosophers. Pennsylvania: Bucknell University Press. p. 43.

[9] Huerta, R.D. 2003. Giants of Delft: Johannes Vermeer and the natural philosophers. Pennsylvania: Bucknell University Press. p. 43.

[10] Huerta, R.D. 2003. Giants of Delft: Johannes Vermeer and the natural philosophers. Pennsylvania: Bucknell University Press. p. 43.

[11] Parola, R. 1969. Optical Art: Theory and Practice. New York: Reinhold Book Corporation.

[12] Huerta, R.D. 2003. Giants of Delft: Johannes Vermeer and the natural philosophers. Pennsylvania: Bucknell University Press. p. 44.

[13] Mers, A. 1999. “Commentary of “Lygia Clark and Hilio Oiticica: A Legacy of Interactivity and Participation for a Telematic Future”. Leonardo. Vol 32. No. 2. pp. 137-41. p. 137.

[14] Vermeer, J. and Gowing, L. 1997. Vermeer. California: University of California Press. p. 125.

[15] Vermeer, J. and Gowing, L. 1997. Vermeer. California: University of California Press. p. 125.

[16] Huerta, R.D. 2003. Giants of Delft: Johannes Vermeer and the natural philosophers. Pennsylvania: Bucknell University Press. p. 44.

[17] Huerta, R.D. 2005. Vermeer and Plato: painting the ideal. Pennsylvania: Bucknell University Press. p. 94.

[18] Huerta, R.D. 2005. Vermeer and Plato: painting the ideal. Pennsylvania: Bucknell University Press. p. 94.

[19] Huerta, R.D. 2005. Vermeer and Plato: painting the ideal. Pennsylvania: Bucknell University Press. p. 94.

 

[20] Huerta, R.D. 2003. Giants of Delft: Johannes Vermeer and the natural philosophers. Pennsylvania: Bucknell University Press. p. 47.

[21] Mills, A. 1998. “Vermeer and the Camera Obscura: Certain Practical Considerations”. Leonardo. Vol. 31. No. 3. 1998. pp. 213-18. The MIT Press.

[22] Steadman, P. 1999. “Commentary on Vermeer and the Camera Obscura: Certain Practical Considerations”. Leonardo. Vol. 31. No. 2. 1999. pp. 137-41. The MIT Press.

[23] Huerta, R.D. 2003. Giants of Delft: Johannes Vermeer and the natural philosophers. Pennsylvania: Bucknell University Press. p. 47.

[24] Wolf, B.J. 2001. Vermeer and the invention of seeing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 215.

[25] Fink, D.A. 1971. “Vermeer’s Use of the Camera Obscura- a Comparative Study”. The Art Bulletin. Vol. 53. No. 4. (Dec. 1971). pp. 493-505. p. 494. College Art Association.

[26] Fink, D.A. 1971. “Vermeer’s Use of the Camera Obscura- a Comparative Study”. The Art Bulletin. Vol. 53. No. 4. (Dec. 1971). pp. 493-505. p. 498. College Art Association.

[27] Huerta, R.D. 2005. Vermeer and Plato: painting the ideal. Pennsylvania: Bucknell University Press. p. 98.

[28] Huerta, R.D. 2005. Vermeer and Plato: painting the ideal. Pennsylvania: Bucknell University Press. p. 98.

[29] Huerta, R.D. 2005. Vermeer and Plato: painting the ideal. Pennsylvania: Bucknell University Press. p. 98.

[30] Montias, J.M. 1991. Vermeer and His Milieu: A Web of Social History. Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 85.

[31] Huerta, R.D. 2003. Giants of Delft: Johannes Vermeer and the natural philosophers. Pennsylvania: Bucknell University Press. p. 44.

[32] Wheelock, Jr., A.K. 1981. “Vermeer’s Painting Technique.” Art Journal. Vol. 41. No. 2. Edward Hopper Symposium at the Whitney Museum of American Art. pp. 162-64. p. 163. College Art Association.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s