Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Vermeer and the Camera

Vermeer's "The Music Lesson"
The other evening I finally got to see the film "Tim'sVermeer". In short, this is the story of Tim Jenison, an inventor and entrepreneur who became interested in the "photographic" quality of  the Dutch painter Johanne Vermeer's work, and wanted to see if technology aided the artist. His theory is that a primitive (by our standards) optical device, the "camera obscura", which was well known at that time, was used for drawing. He did not understand, however, how this would have aided in the color. Bit of a spoiler, a mirror was also required.

Jenison, an art novice, finds he can make an almost perfect replica of a photograph using his technique. He then moves on to the next step, working as he believed Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675)  did.

The film takes us through the process of recreating the physical setup of the studio arrangement, including replicating the items appearing in the painting "The Music Lesson".

There are two art experts and authors appearing in the film.

Philip Steadman, author of  Vermeer’s Camera, examined the paintings of Vermeer and through geometry believes he has proof that the painter used a camera obscura to create the drawing/composition.
Artist David Hockney wrote Secret Knowledge, where he is convinced the use of technology (in terms of lenses, etc.) was in use by a number of artists, and earlier than believed.

I found this all intriguing, and like any modern person, found myself "googling" into the night to learn more.

As contrasted with the "Vermeer" replica in the film, it doesn't seem that these two authors actually put their theories to the test to create a painting. There were also some interesting comments in some of the reviews and articles below. The film comments that there was no underpainting or drawing in Vermeer's work - but this is contradicted by critics, as there is evidence of underpainting, and the fact that drawing done in chalk would be obliterated during the painting process. The film oddly enough shows Jenison's painting having a drawing marked on the canvas.

Another quibble was the selection of the work; probably for dramatic effect, the work selected is in the Queen of England's collection, and much was made of the fact that it was not available, but that Jenison was given an opportunity to see it privately, when in fact, the work is on view for special exhibitions, including the National Gallery.

So, still not conclusive. Did Vermeer rely on this technology? Use it in portions of paintings or only certain paintings? Or did he simply have a unique "eye" and a repertoire of artistic "tricks" to create illusions. When I look at images of  all the known Vermeers, they seem to vary in their "photographic" appearance, with some looking decidedly "painterly".

Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, ca. 1662. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Marquand Collection, Gift of Henry G. Marquand, 1889 (89.15.21)
Study of a Young Woman, ca. 1665–67, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, in memory of Theodore Rousseau, Jr., 1979 (1979.396.1)

Perhaps more people will be inspired to experiment with these theories (or maybe Vermeer's equipment will turn up at a yard sale) and we will have a more conclusive ending to this story.

Some additional resources.

You can find just about everything we know of Vermeer here. See a page of this website dealing with Vermeer's possible use of a camera obscura here.

Some additional reviews, commentary and interesting stuff:

Sunday, October 19, 2014

We Visit Watershed

While in Maine for the Columbus Day weekend, we visited the Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts. Now, we have been going to Maine for the past 20 or so summers, but somehow never got over to see this, but during Wiscasset's Art Walk, they had a display in the storefront next door to us, and announced a "pop up sale" at the center. After looking up the address, it was slightly embarrassing to notice that it was only a three minute drive away.
The main workshop building is bigger than it looks from this end.

The site of the center was originally occupied by a brick manufacturer, using local clays. When this business no longer made sense, the owners wanted to do something with the property, and the Watershed Center came into being. While visiting, we were given a tour of the facilities.

Some of the original facility including a brick kiln large enough to walk in is still in place, they have upgraded and added, with a variety of kilns and equipment.

The glazing area
One of the kiln rooms
The outdoor kiln area
While they offer workshops and classes, the summer program for visiting artists is totally unstructured. Ceramic artists come to the center to work, network, and gain inspiration through camaraderie with like minded people.

As part of their outreach, they have the "Mudmobile" to travel off site for educational programs.

Ready to hit the road

During the summer, they host a benefit called "Salad Days", where you buy a plate, have a salad luncheon, then take your plate home. We'll make sure to check this out next summer.

The shard pile for pots that didn't turn out well