COTE DE TEXAS: Vermeer and the Camera Obscura

Vermeer and the Camera Obscura

The new Vogue Living magazine has a photo spread on Dutch Interiors. It shows how you can reproduce the atmosphere of a Vermeer painting. Vermeer, the artist who painted the hauntingly beautiful "Girl with the Pearl Earring" which inspired a book and movie of the same title, was not enormously prolific. His entire portfolio consists of just 30 some paintings, yet he remains one of the world's most famous artist. All of Vermeer's paintings were created in what is believed to be the same room and it is just this room that Vogue Living tries to recreate, as seen below. While I looked at this feature story, I was reminded of a book I read several years ago, a book that forever changed the way I looked at art, at Vermeer, and at all the Great Masters in general.

Vogue Living attempts to recreate a Vermeer painting.

Secret Knowledge, written by the great British artist David Hockney, espouses a theory that the art of the Great Masters was done with the help of a lens, a camera obscura. Lenses, which have long been rumored to have somehow been used by the Great Masters, are extensively examined in this book. To help illustrate his theory, Hockney developed a wall of art, where he hung art works from the beginning of time up until and through today. The middle section of this wall of art, which is pictured on the cover of his book, is the era of the Great Masters such as Vermeer and Caravaggio. The wall of art helps to put into perspective the phenomenal realism with which the Great Masters painted. The changes in artistic expression from the Renaissance period to how the masters painted is staggering. How was this done? What precipitated the changes? How did artists suddenly and profoundly begin to paint in a style that was so realistic the art truly looked like photographs?

Hockney spent years developing his theory and was met was great resistance when his book was first published. He postulates that these great works of art are truly tracings of images projected by a lens, or a camera obscura, that produced what amounted to a modern photograph.

Another researcher who studied the artist Vermeer exclusively and his use of the camera obscura is Philip Steadman. You can read a synopsis of his theory here. Steadman recreates the room in which Vermeer painted his masterpieces and proves, without a doubt to many art researchers, that Vermeer's paintings, which although are undoubtedly masterworks, nevertheless, are actually tracings of photographs produced by the camera obscura.

In the years since Hockney's book was first published, his theory has met with less and less scepticism. His book is fascinating and easy to read with pages upon pages of illustrations that show how Hockney reached his conclusions. If you haven't read it and you appreciate the art of the Great Masters, please consider giving the book a try. You will be fascinated, but be forewarned, you won't look at this body of art in the same way again.

Steadman's book on Vermeer and his use of the Camera Obscura.

A page from Hockney's book which juxtaposes the changes in which faces were painted during the Renaissance and later by the Great Masters. The bottom two faces look more like photographs than paintings.

Here in a page from Hockney's book, he reproduces how a Great Master may have used the camera obscura. The book is filled with other examples of how Hockney tries to prove his theory.

An example of the camera obscura and how it works.


  1. Wow Joni! What a truly fascinating post. I've heard about Hockney's theory before, but the way you've laid it out here makes me want to def. read his book.

  2. Fascinating and intellectually stimulating post Joni. I loved the movie Girl With the Pearl Earring. You have inspired me to see it again and to get Hockney's book. Bravo to you!

  3. Trying to stay off the computer today - my wrist is sore from a lot of typing these last few weeks...ahem....but couldn't resist telling you how great your post is! I loved the book Girl with the Pearl Earring and the article in Vogue Living - now I have to get the Hockney book!! You really are so good, Joni - you inspire me!

  4. I love your blog! You amaze me and I thoroughly enjoy the gorgeous photos you post. I've looked at all the blogs of this kind but I really believe I enjoy yours the most. I'm trying to totally redo my childhood home & prep it for sale, & you've given me great inspirations.
    Could you please post of list of your favorite books? I'd love to know what your favorite coffee table/eye candy/inspirational books are, but also helpful books for those of us that aren't in interior design & aren't so great at creating a solid design foundation & are in grave danger of creating a Sanford&Son hodge podge that will shame our children & mother's alike!! If you already have a list posted & I missed it I apologize.
    thank you so so much!!

  5. As an art history buff, this is right up my alley. I must go get this issue! Sometime i look back on the Old Masters and realize how far behind the times WE are. They were so rich in ideas and innovation, it never ceases to amaze me.

    nice post!

  6. Soooo interesting. I studied art history and had heard this theory.

  7. Hi thanks for all the comments, y'all! And to: I Used to be a girl: here's a list of some of my favorite design books:
    Bunny Williams
    MIchael Smith
    John Saladino
    John Stefanidis
    any of the Betaplus books!
    Betty Lou Phillips series
    Charles Faudree

    email me directly and we can discuss more!


  8. I absolutely loved Tracy Chevalier's book, The Girl with the Pearl Earring as well as the film adaptation starring Scarlett. Sparked by events or objects from the past, TC's writings (all five of them!) bring history to text for all to enjoy.

    Your posting today about the Camera Obscura brought extended understanding beyond that of Tracy Chevalier.

    I have a review of her latest book on my blog, bumped up in a label on the page.


  9. Original post Joni! I love how the Vogue feature prompted you to go off in this direction.

  10. As always a very interesting topic to stimulate my lazy mind for the weekend. I was an instant believer in Hockney's theory and I thoroughly enjoyed all the uproar it generated when it was first published. It is fascinating how he methodically goes about trying to prove his case. I just got back from NY and a visit to The Met where they were having a Rembrandt exhibition. I've seen his paintings before but never in such a large quantity and variety. You can definitely see a transition in his pieces and a magnificent realism particularly in the faces of his subjects. I applaud the great masters for looking to rudimentary technology to aid them in their work. Look what beautiful art it produced! Thanks Joni.

  11. Loved this post--completely fascinating post and thought-provoking.

  12. this was a really inspired post --Love it! thank you!

  13. wow u have a nice blog!!!!really

    mine is very new!

  14. What a fascinating blog -- I live in France and sure wish my house looked like your interior designs!
    Decorate on!

  15. Hi,

    I run the websites (and a EBay store at I sell, among other things, Portable sliding Camera Obscura similar to what Vermeer might have used, and I sell a replica of Cross’ Vermeer’s Camera, which, I’m sure you know, Johannes Vermeer had nothing to do with it, but it is based on a theory about him.

    I just wanted to get the word out for people looking to experiment with Vermeer’s techniques. come take a look—it’s very interesting.

    Les Cookson