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Chemistry International
Vol. 24, No. 6
November 2002


New Books and Publications

Vermeer's Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces
Philip Steadman
Oxford University Press, 2002 (ISBN 0-19-280302-6)

Reviewed by Hans Bouma

Do you like detective stories? No, not the ones in which the blood flows in liters but the real ones, in which the detective, after finding a nail clipping and a postage stamp of 39 eurocents is able to infer that the suspect’s alibi is faulty. Or are doctoral dissertations more in your line? Are you interested in art? And you are involved in education in one of the sciences?

Well, then you must not go past this book. It explains, step by step, with compelling logic, that Vermeer used a camera obscura for his paintings, in which room this happened, and which dimensions lens the camera had, how the painter employed them, and how in that way the paintings were produced. From the two dimensions of the paintings, Steadman is able to derive the three dimensions of Vermeer's world.

In nine chapters the logic line is drawn: first the camera obscura, then Vermeer with testimonies that he worked with a camera obscura, an idea of the room-studio and of the way the objects (their dimensions verified and compared with reality) are grouped in this room, the reconstruction, and the new evidence then forthcoming. To make sure, the author also deals with the arguments which are contrary to the idea of the camera with Vermeer, and he outlines the influence of it on his style of painting.

Now here you can see how fertile the application of science to objects of art is, this time not in connection with restorative activities, but to penetrate more deeply into the work. Not all questions can be solved, as Steadman honestly admits. But he also shows which tricks in perspective are applied by the painter, and, in the last chapter, he succeeds in penetrating into the artist’s soul.

There is an elaborate account in notes and an impressive list of references. The author, too, gives the impression that he is well versed in 17th-century Delft and in Holland in general, and that renders the book even more readable. He even is able to report that the bricks used in the houses around the Delft market had, in those times, a length of 16 centimeters.

You can sense that I am terribly enthusiastic. My only refutation that I deemed a length of 1.80 metres for a seventeenth century Dutchman quite sturdy is disproved by clear evidence in the book.

A book about paintings by a great researcher of a great painter. Cordially recommended!

Hans Bouma is an IUPAC Fellow and former member of the Committee on Teaching of Chemistry.



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