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Stumper #27.






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Jan Vermeer
- is there a mystery here?

Can it be solved by scientific investigation?

Johannes Vermeer, born in Delft, Holland, in 1632, is recognised as one of the great painters. He died aged 43 having produced a total of about 35 paintings. His subjects included portraits, landscapes and, of particular interest for this stumper, paintings of subjects in a room believed to be in the house of his mother-in-law in Delft.

Vermeer's room-interior paintings have recently been the subject of some intriguing conjecture. The interest focuses on the masterly depiction of light, the extraordinary detail, the somewhat smaller overall dimensions than usual, and the "photographic perspective". Vermeer's perspective shows things in the foreground looming surprisingly large. We are familiar with this style of representation because it is commonplace today in close-up photography, but it was unusual and not considered appealing in paintings of the 17th century - 200 years before the invention of the camera.

Another intriguing aspect of Vermeer's interiors is the fact that a recent X-ray study of one of his paintings did not show the expected pencil sketching of the image that would normally have been done before any painting in oils was attempted. Instead it showed, beneath the colored surface, a replica of the picture - painted in detail in black and white. Why would Vermeer do a black and white rendering first and then add the color? A most unusual technique.

It is also curious that careful mathematical calculations, done using some of the same furniture as seen in the paintings, have shown that Vermeer's perspective is uncannily accurate. How did he manage such precision?

Do we have a bit of a mystery here? I think so.

Perhaps a useful clue is the fact that born in the same month and year (October 1632) as Vermeer, and in the same small town of Delft, was Anton van Leeuwenhoek. Did they know each other? What might be the significance of this? Well, after working for several years in Amsterdam Leeuwenhoek returned to Delft with a most unusual and interesting scientific hobby. The nature of this hobby is a possible clue because, coincidentally, at about the time that Leeuwenhoek returned to Delft Vermeer stopped painting large landscapes and religious themes and started painting his intriguing, smaller interiors. You may wonder if this had anything to do with Leeuwenhoek's hobby.

So, at last we can pose our stumper question:

Might Vermeer have used a device to help him create the intriguing aspects of his room-interiors mentioned above?

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