Johannes Vermeer was a Dutch painter about the same time as Rembrandt. He is not as well known as Rembrandt but he has been getting a lot of press lately because of a painting called “Girl with a Pearl Earring.” In 1999 Tracy Chevalier wrote a book by the same title in which she speculates on the girl, the painting, the motives of the painter the reasons why the girl may have had such an enigmatic expression. (The painting is sometimes referred to as the “Mona Lisa of the North.”)
The book sold over two million copies and was later made into a movie and a play, both by the same name. However, for all its speculation it barely mentions a few very pertinent facts about paintings in seventeenth century Holland. Unlike modern photography, painters had a difficult time capturing fleeting expressions. Poses often had to be held in place for hours, days, even weeks at a time. But like modern photographers, Vermeer was among the first to used a camera. Oh, it was nothing like a modern camera. Film was still more than two hundred years away, but it was a box with a lens and a ground glass that allowed you to see the see the image you are trying to paint.
“How does that help?” you may be asking yourself, and that’s a good question. I suspect Vermeer was asking a similar question, “Will this new device help me paint better?” The short answer is yes…a little. The one undeniable thing a camera helps an artist do is turn a three dimensional scene into a two dimensional one. This may seem like a subtle distinction, but it can be profound. Most people who do both painting and photography can spot a painting that was done from a photograph. I can explain what they see exactly, but see it they do.
In Vermeer’s case, I suspect he was a good enough painter that he didn’t really need the device. However, I applaud his efforts in experimenting with a Camera Obscura to see if there was something to be learned. Cross Training in the arts can be every bit as beneficial as cross training in fitness. The new perspective can open whole new possibilities for struggling creatives.
Take Dorothy Golz, for instance. She has taken the whole idea of studying classic paintings one step further by putting famous faces on modern bodies. Check out her version of “Girl with the Pearl Earring”:
Great Idea, huh? Wish you had thought of it? Spend some time with the Old Masters and you may come up with your own idea. Check out Dorothee’s other images for starters. There is much to be gained from some time with those who have gone before. You won’t be disappointed. I promise.