Sunday, May 27, 2007

Two views of Delft, optical devices, and "art"

Over at this blog's Facebook group page (which, by the way, all of you with Facebook accounts are welcome to join), the matter of the camera obscura has risen in a couple of discussion threads; it is the topic of one, in fact. I figured, then, that via this week's Two Paintings post we could initiate a discussion of the implications the use of such devices may or may not have on the nature of the art that results.

As always, click on the images to enlarge them.

Carel Fabritius, View of Delft with a Musical Instrument Dealer, 1652

Vermeer, View of Delft, c. 1660-1661

I hope visitors will begin the discussion in the comments section.


Camille said...

Re: Fabritius

It looks more like a collage than unified painting. The instrument still-life, the dealer and the cityscape are so disconnected that each element can nearly stand alone. The cello in the foreground is at such a severe angle that it seems that he had to have used some mechanical device to nail it so confidently, except, I doubt his original reference had an f-hole, since the one in the painting seems to be poorly drawn. He may have used a camera lucida because the lighting isn't very strong on it. For it to have registered on the frosted-glass back of a camera obscura, it would have had to have strong lights and shadows.

There are two separate horizons-- one for the cello and another for the street scene (the street scene's orthogonals converge at a point significantly higher than the cello's, tho' its possible the cello is on a tipped surface). The way the church's tower is skewed slightly to the right would suggest was working from a lens-based device. Pinholes have no lens distortion. Looking at the left of the scene, I see no straight tall things to reveal more lens distortion. Also the steeply inclined street poses an odd problem. When I first glanced at it, I thought he was using a fish-eye lens, but then on further inspection, it resolves into an inclined street.

I could imagine the artist building this scene from a couple of different studies, possibly even using scissors and tape to arrange the elements to his taste. His ability to render buildings is quite extraordinary. I have tried to do that, and I know how hard that is.

The Vermeer exhibits a much more masterful marriage of optical reference and skill. What is extraordinary is his ability to capture a single instant of the day-- when that particular rain cloud lingered over the riverfront, casting a shadow, but leaving the rest of the city sunny. I'd imagine he did a number of studies from the same location: architecture studies using a device perhaps and separate lighting studies. Maybe he actually observed this, but it certainly wouldn't have lasted long enough to render the painting. He most certainly did the final version in his studio. The building on the right tilts a tiny bit to the left, but the rest of the buildings seem true. If he did use a device, he didn't follow it blindly, he corrected any distortions.

John B. said...

Thanks for your marvelous, detailed comment. I have zero background in the technical aspects of these paintings, apart from being able to confirm that I read somewhere that the Vermeer was most likely done as you described, so I can't say anything beyond that. Perhaps another visitor will be able to comment further.

I see, though, that for whatever reason you've chosen not to speak to whether the use of such devices in some ways compromises the art that results. It's fine that you haven't, but perhaps someone can start the ball rolling here. Or is this not a terribly interesting question?

Camille said...

First of all, I am deeply indebted to David Hockney's excellent book, Secret Knowledge, for its wonderful explanation of Baroque optical devices.

re: "the use of such devices compromises the art that results"

For Fabritius, yes, and Vermeer, no. Artistic devices, by their nature, are simply instruments on the hands of an operator. Take photography, for example. No one will argue that photography doesn't have the potential to be art, nor will they argue that digital animation can't be art, either. Vermeer's use of devices does not detract from the power of his paintings. Fabritius, on the other hand, lacked the skill and vision of Vermeer, and consequently, his work suffers.

Leo said...

At the end of the day, it's still the indian and not the arrow.

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