Pinholes in Vermeer’s Canvases

Like many other art historians, I have learned that Vermeer probably used the camera obscura to help in the creation of his art.  However, I recently learned that Vermeer also employed a simpler and more rudimentary method to help him create perfect perspectival lines.  To start, Vermeer would often use a pin to create a small hole at the vanishing point within each painting.  Of the 35 known works that exist by Vermeer, approximately half of his paintings still have pinholes that can be seen with the naked eye.1  In The Art of Painting (c. 1666, shown right), the pinhole (and therefore vanishing point) is underneath the female model’s right hand, close to the knob for the map holder.

Vermeer probably attached a piece of string to the pin that he stuck in his canvases.  By using string, Vermeer could create perfect orthogonal lines which would converge at his pinhole.  If one recreates the string-and-pin method on The Art of Painting, the perspectival lines of the tiles and table perfectly align with the pinhole as the vanishing point.  Some scholars like Robert D. Huerta have even gone so far as to say that Vermeer might have put chalk on his string (see first full paragraph of link), and then snapped the taut string to leave a chalk line on the canvas.  This way, Vermeer would have had an easy (and erasable) marker while he worked to create an illusion of space.

It seems like Vermeer was a pretty clever guy.  After all his work on perspective though, one thing about this painting strikes me as funny: have you ever noticed that the artist in the foreground is disproportionately large in comparison with the female model?  If the artist stood up, he would be twice the height of his model.  Do you think that Vermeer was so focused on creating the perspectival illusion that he didn’t notice the figural disproportion?  The National Gallery of Art’s website defends Vermeer by saying that the disproportion is symbolic, emphasizing the artist’s central role in the allegory.  Perhaps that is the case, but the gigantic artist always catches me off guard.

1 “The Art of Painting” episode in the BBC series The Private Life of a Masterpiece (2008) reports that 17 paintings have pinholes that are visible to the naked eye.  This seems to be the most up-to-date information on the topic.  Essential Vermeer mentions that 13 paintings contain pinhole images (including ones visible through x-ray), but appears to be citing an earlier source from 1995.  See Jørgen Wadum, “Vermeer in Perspective,” in Johannes Vermeer edited by Arthur Wheelock, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995, 67-79.

The Art of Painting is one of the featured works of art in “The Private Life of a Masterpiece” BBC series. One of the fun things that I learned from his episode was that the red undergarments of the artist (look at his legs) were a mark of fashion.  Red was a preferred color for clothing at the time, since red looked warm and cozy.  If you’re interested, you can win a copy of this episode by entering my giveaway to receive a free DVD set of “The Private Life of a Masterpiece” BBC series.

  • heidenkind says:

    I don't know if the giant artist was intentional… it looks really wonky, even to someone who's not looking for it. But it's hard to believe that someone who was so precise would make a mistake like that and just let it go. Who knows!

  • H Niyazi says:

    I love Vermeer! The use of optical adjustments to create a pleasing composition was something which really comes to the fore in this work. It is reminiscent of the entasis optical adjustments to the Parthenon – all purely for the joy of the beholder!

    That was a great PLM episode. I'm always amazed to read that Vermeer hung onto this painting. It really seemed to be a labour of love for him, rather than something knocked out for a patron. There are antecedents for this type of self portrait as allegory in Rembrandt, but the germ of it can be traced back to Van Eyck and Holbein.

    The camera obscura research on Vermeer is particularly intriguing. The book/modelling done explains quite a lot of the truly cinematic proportioning you see in this and other works.

    Those of us who use modern day 3D modelling software can apply the type of adjustments Vermeer slaved over with the click of a button!

    If anyone would like to read a bit more, this post includes links to some great Vermeer sites/resources.

    H Niyazi

  • columnist says:

    Thank you for these insights, which I too find fascinating. Now that you've pointed out the disproportion of the artist's size, I can't see beyond it!

  • Hels says:

    I love Vermeer's depictions of refined mid-17th century Dutch homes. They valued order, decency, family connections, well trained staff, Protestant religiosity.

    But I always thought this room was way too fussy: the floor pattern, furniture, curtains and wall hangings were too much for a fairly small canvas. But you may have given the explanation in your post. If Vermeer wanted to focus on the perspectival lines of the scene, perhaps he needed the floor tiles, table and wall hangings to display his interest.

  • e says:

    I really enjoyed reading this post and Huerta's article. I like these kind of things — finding out why really famous artists (such as Vermeer) really are famous — learning that they had really interesting techniques and used various layers. I think the general population knows artists must be talented to create art, but it's really fascinating to discover that they used a lot of different, scientific, engineering, and other types of techniques to create their work.

  • Lauren says:

    I did not know this! Excellent post.

  • Karena says:

    Very interesting indeed, and I tend to lean toward the artist as the focal and important image in the piece. I will have to look more closely at some of vermeers other works.

    Of course he was not prolific, so I imagine put much deliberation into each work of art.

    Art by Karena

  • M says:

    Thanks for the comments, everyone (especially to those who have commented for the first time – welcome!). You have some great references on your blog, H Niyazi. Thanks for including that link.

    heidenkind: Yeah, it's hard to think that the meticulous Vermeer wouldn't be bothered by a disproportionate figure. It's so weird!

    Hels: I think you bring up a good point about Vermeer's interest in detail. I think it's true: Vermeer likely included all of these details to help display his interest in perspectival space.

    e: Isn't it neat to see what scientific methods and different tactics artists used to create art? I don't think it diminishes the talent of an artist to know that his/her art employed specific tactics in the creative process. And I would imagine (hope!) that the general public would agree.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.