The Flemish Masters and the Camera Obscura: Illusions of the Renaissance

The Flemish Masters and the Camera Obscura: Illusions of the Renaissance
camera obscura, Johannes Vermeer, johannes vermeer camera obscura

The Renaissance is a period in European history after the Middle Ages that goes from the 14th to the 17th century. Known for its legacy left to humanity and immense influence on multiple spheres of culture it is arguably one of the most groundbreaking artistic revolutions in history. Many talented artist formed and perfected their styles during this period in time but it was great artists that were immortalized in our history books; such as Michelangelo, Da Vinci and Giotto. A very skilled group of painters were the notorious Flemish Masters, a group of artists from the Netherlands, who had mastered depth, form and shadowing to reproduce living scenes as accurately as possible. They were also known for leaving small hidden signatures and etchings hidden in their masterpieces for the discerning eye to notice. Their contributions to culture and humanity still leave mankind fascinated, curious and blown away, in fact many artists today still try to recreate techniques and rules of renaissance painting in their modern works. But what technology did they actually use? Today we will be exploring that question in depth.


Johannes Vermeer, A True Master

Of all the Flemish Masters, one that caught our attention was definitely Johannes Vermeer, arguably one of the most famous artists of the masters if not the world. He used to paint scenes that were so realistic they could almost be mistaken for photography. Vermeer's manipulation and use of light was so intense you’d doubt whether it was a human or a machine that did it. If you look at his renditions of carpets and Persian rugs you might find the details too lifelike to be true. Despite it seeming unlikely that a machine would have done helped produce such emotional, human paintings, thanks to new discoveries there are many experts who would agree with this theory.


Girl with a Pearl Earring, Johannes Vermeer, vermeer camera obscura Girl with a Pearl Earring, Johannes Vermeer
The Astronomer, Johannes Vermeer, vermeer camera obscura The Astronomer, Johannes Vermeer
The Procuress, Johannes Vermeer The Procuress, Johannes Vermeer


What is a Camera Obscura and How Does It Work

Although we tend to think that technology has spoiled a lot of the artistry and manual skills that once ruled the world of the Art, this topic was alive and well during the Renaissance. What some may not know is that the Renaissance painters used some mechanical help to achieve better results when painting. Many artists during this period would use a camera obscura, a box with a hole in it which allows light to go through and project an image onto the surface directly infant of the hole. The painters would project the subjects they were willing to paint onto a wall in a dark room and draw over it. This is the reason why camera obscura translated from Latin to English literally means dark room. In Vermeer's case, it seems that in order to achieve an even higher level of detail (down to the half-millimeter) he used a series of mirrors with the camera obscura. Pointed and adjusted in just the right combination, these mirrors allowed you to perfectly recreate still-lives.


Tim Jenison and The Truth Behind The Masters

Upon hearing this, many would choose not to believe it. That’s exactly why Tim Jenison, a man who hadn’t painted since high-school, and two famous American illusionists, Penn Jilette and Teller, decided to recreate the contraption they had heard so much about. Tim, with near no experience in painting, wanted to see if he could recreate a Vermeer; and he did! He went on to paint a masterpiece and it turned out to be even more accurate than Vermeer’s, because modern lenses are clearer and easier to use than the ones from the camera obscura in use during Vermeer's lifetime. Here at Atellani we were extremely impressed with the result.

But don’t let us spoil it for you, Tim made an absolutely stunning documentary on the whole process called Tim’s Vermeer. Click below to check out the trailer, we are sure you’ll be convinced of our claim when your done.



P.S if you are interested in exploring the life and work of Johannes Vermeer, there’s another interesting documentary released last year you should have a look at. It’s called Vermeer, Beyond Time.

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