Vermeer and the Threshold: Considering the tension between concentration and self-awareness

Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:

ScreenHunter_534 Feb. 23 14.09They are among the most mysterious paintings. But it is very hard to say why. Nothing much happens in the paintings. People engage in simple tasks. A man and a woman sit at a table and speak. A woman smiles. A woman reads a letter. A girl looks at us over her left shoulder. A woman sews. A woman pours some milk out of a jug. That’s it. One task, one episode, one moment in each painting.

Vermeer used various painterly tricks to make these moments – these mundane tasks – look special. He expended a great deal of time and energy capturing the effects of light. He studied the way light comes in through a window, bathing a room. He seems to have painted most of his pictures in one or two rooms in his own home. He knew that light well. He analyzed that light, meditated on it. Using that light, he projected images through a camera obscura and probably through other kinds of lenses and mirrors available in 17th-century Holland. This allowed Vermeer to concentrate on every sparkle, shine and glimmer. He concocted different methods for reproducing those glimmers and shines. Sometimes he would render an object, like a knob or finial, simply as an effect of light. That’s to say, we only know the object is there because of how Vermeer painted the light shining upon it.

Art historians love to wax poetic about “brushstrokes” and a particular attitude to canvas and pigment they like to call “painterly.” But the funny thing about Vermeer is that many of his paintings were probably made by the careful application of small splotches of paint, in an almost paint-by-numbers attempt to reproduce, inch by inch, the image of a camera obscura. The current film, Tim’s Vermeer, documents the process by which tech engineer and non-painter Tim Jenison paints a Vermeer using simple tricks of mirrors and a camera obscura. The result is not a Vermeer painting. But it is close enough to show that much can be accomplished with a camera obscura and a small mirror. The film proves that some of what Vermeer achieved in the area of “miraculous” realism and the capturing of minute effects of light was a more or less mechanical affair.

More here.