Vermeer´s Camera Obscura

As it is known but many art specialists, the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer became a master in the use of the camera obscura. But, what does this term mean?

Well, the camera obscura is a simple optical device incorporating a pinhole or lens, with which an image of a scene can be projected onto a screen. The image can then be traced and copied. Not only that, but there is a book entitled “Vermeer´s Camera” that starts trying to explore the painter’s possible contacts in the world of 17th century with the optical science. As we have seen in class Vermeer painted as many as a dozen pictures of just one room, so as Steadman (an art specialist) establishes, there must be a reason to explain how it is possible to reconstruct the geometry of this room, and all the furniture in it, with great precision. The response to this question is found on the use of the camera obscura: Steadman demonstrated how Vermeer set up a camera obscura in this room and projected images of some of his most famous works onto the back wall. The room had been rebuilt as a model and at full size, allowing photographic reconstructions of the paintings to be made.

How the camera obscura works? To answer this question lets look at this photo:

I represents the “Cubicle-type camera obscura” illustrated by Athanasius Kircher in ‘Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae’, 1646. This actually incorporates two cameras facing in opposite directions. In either case, the artist sees the image (upside-down) on the back of a translucent screen.

The importance of a figure: Joseph Pennell

He was the first person to suggest that Vermeer might have used some kind of optical aid to painting. He was an American artist and photographer Joseph Pennell, as long ago as 1891. He pointed to Vermeer’s ‘photographic perspective’ the fact that he depicts real objects such as wall-maps with extreme fidelity; and the fact that he seems to reproduce in paint some idiosyncrasies of optical images and ‘out-of-focus’ effects that would not be visible to the naked eye.

a photograph taken by Henry Beville that simulates out-of-focus effects in Vermeer’s ‘Girl with a Red Hat’.


-Vermeer´s Camera. Uncovering the truth behind the Masterpieces. Retrieved 23 May from