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2.5.5 Optical devices, pinholes and perspective lines

Whether or not the artist made use of the camera obscura, is a much debated topic.1 Vermeer’s paintings indeed display many characteristics that can be associated with the use of optical devices: the artist’s accentuated contrasts of light and dark, the sometimes blurred or distorted depiction of objects that are close-by, the soft focus contours and his characteristic ‘diffuse highlights and light accents’. Also, the strong contrast in scale between foreground objects and those further removed from the picture plane, and the tight cropping of his compositions – as is common in photography – are features that could be attributed to the use of the camera obscura to aid the painter in framing his compositions.2

While the camera obscura may have been used as a compositional aid and be responsible for many of the visual effects in Vermeer’s paintings, pinholes found at the vanishing points of some seventeen of his paintings – as visible in X-radiographs – demonstrate that the artist used a mechanical procedure to construct perspective lines in his compositions. First observed in 1949 by Karl Hultén in The Art of Painting (L26), Jørgen Wadum went on to show how the artist constructed the orthogonals of the tiles or furniture by placing a pin in the canvas at the vanishing point to which he attached a cord covered in chalk. By pulling the cord taut against the canvas the chalk would leave a thin line.3

This practical technique, still used by artists and interior decorators today, was well established, as pinholes have since been observed in numerous works by many artists, amongst others Hans (1527-circa 1607) and Paul Vredeman de Vries (1567-1617), Thomas de Keyser (1596-1667), Gerard Houckgeest (circa 1600-1661), Jan van der Vucht (1603-1637), Anthonie de Lorme (1610-1637), Ludolf de Jongh (1616-1679), Emanuel de Witte (1617-1692), Cornelis de Man (1621-1706), Pieter Janssens Elinga (1623-1682), Hendrick van der Burch (circa 1625-after 1664), and Pieter de Hooch (1629-1684).4 Remarkable evidence of this method is found in a panel by Dirck van Delen (1605-1671), Iconoclasm in a Church (1630) in the Rijksmuseum where part of the metal pin onto which the piece of string would have been attached is still present in the painting (Figure 2.22). 

fig. 2.22.jpg
Figure 2.22: Detail of Dirck van Delen,
Iconoclasm in a Church, 1630 (Rijksmuseum). Remains of a pin are still preserved at the vanishing point in the panel.

To date pinholes have been discovered at the vanishing point in seventeen paintings by Vermeer.5 In most cases the pinholes are difficult to discern on the paint surface with the unaided eye. In Vermeer’s The Art of Painting (L26) the pinhole is apparent in the paint surface just underneath the tassel of the map, near Clio’s hand. Pinholes can be more easily detected in X-radiographs where they mostly appear as dark spots, where the lead-white containing ground was lost when the pin was inserted into the painting. In Woman at the Virginal with a Gentleman (L15), the central vanishing point is positioned in the left arm of the woman at the virginal and appears as a dark spot in the X-radiograph (Figure 2.23). They can also appear as white spots in X-rays when the holes have been subsequently filled with a radio-absorbent paint. This is seen for instance in Woman Holding a Balance (L19) (Figure 2.24).

Small holes located at the outer edges of paintings can also indicate a second vanishing point. This is possibly the case in the early The Glass of Wine (L08), where close examination of the X-radiograph shows a small damage at the right outer edge which seems to indicate the vanishing point for the window.6 In the case of The Art of Painting (L26), a small hole at the outer right edge of the picture indicates the vanishing point of the chair on which the painter in the picture is seated.7 This vanishing point (as well as that of the central vanishing point) appears as a black dot in the X-radiograph.

Figure 2.23: Left detail of
Woman at the Virginal with a Gentleman (L15) showing the pinhole (dark spot in white circle), and right, corresponding detail in the X-ray, showing the pinhole as a black spot where the radio-absorbent ground is missing.

Figure 2.24: Left detail of
Woman Holding a Balance (L19) showing the small pinhole, and right, the same detail in the X-ray where the hole was subsequently filled with radio-absorbent paint.


 For an overview of the various viewpoints regarding Vermeer’s possible use of optical devices, see: W. Liedtke, Vermeer. The Complete Paintings, Antwerp 2008, pp. 179-189.


 A.K. Wheelock Jr., Perspective, Optics, and Delft Artists around 1650, New York/London 1977, pp. 273-301.


J. Wadum, ‘Vermeer in Perspective’, in: A.K. Wheelock Jr. (ed.), Johannes Vermeer, Washington, D.C. (National Gallery of Art)/The Hague (Mauritshuis) 1995, pp. 67-79.


 J. Wadum, ‘Contours of Vermeer’, Vermeer Studies. Studies in the History of Art 55 (1998), pp. 201-223, esp. p. 211; P.C. Sutton, ‘Perspective and working methods’, in: P.C. Sutton, Pieter de Hooch, 1629-1684, Dulwich (Dulwich Picture Gallery) 1998, pp. 40-42.


Wadum, ‘Vermeer in Perspective’, in: A.K. Wheelock Jr. (ed.), Johannes Vermeer, Washington, D.C. (National Gallery of Art)/The Hague (Mauritshuis) 1995, pp. 67-79, esp. p. 67 and p. 79 (note 5), mentions thirteen paintings in which a pinhole was found: Officer and Laughing Girl (L06), The Milkmaid (L07), The Glass of Wine (L08), Woman at the Virginal with a Gentleman (L15), Woman Holding a Balance (L19), The Art of Painting (L26), The Geographer (L27), The Astronomer (L28), The Love Letter (L30), Woman Writing a Letter, with Her Maid (L31), Allegory of the Catholic Faith (L32), Young Woman Standing at a Virginal (L33) and Young Woman Seated at a Virginal (L34). In: J. Wadum, ‘Vermeer and Spatial Illusion’, in: K. van Berkel, J.A. Brandenbarg, and L.C. van Uchelen-Brouwer, The Scholarly World of Vermeer, The Hague (Museum van het Boek/Museum Meermanno) 1996, pp. 31-50, fifteen paintings with a pinhole are mentioned. In Wadum’s ‘Book review of Philip Steadman, Vermeer’s camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces’, Art Matters. Netherlands Technical Studies in Art 1 (2002), pp. 126-127, esp. p. 127, he lists seventeen paintings with a pinhole.


G. McDonough, in: Essential Vermeer, (date consulted: March 2017)


R. Wald, ‘Die Malkunst. Betrachtungen zum künstlerischen Ansatz und zur Technik’, in: S. Haag, E. Oberthaler and S. Pénot (eds.), Vermeer. Die Malkunst. Spurensicherung an einem Meisterwerk, Vienna (Kunsthistorisches Museum) 2010, pp. 199-200, and figures 10-12.

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