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Vermeer, Through a Different Lens

Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY

Vermeer’s Woman Reading a Letter at the Open Window (1659), from the Gemäldegalerie in Dresden.

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By Marguerite Rigoglioso

When Robert Huerta was 23, he developed what you might call a harmless infatuation. Working at the U.S. Department of Labor the summer after his first year of law school at George Washington University, he couldn’t resist walking across the street to the National Gallery of Art during lunch hours to stare at two women.

One, dressed in a yellow robe with ermine accents, sat at her desk and stared back. The other, lost in a world of her own, dangled a hand scale in front of her pregnant belly.

“I had simply fallen in love with Vermeer,” explains Huerta, ’75.

His passion for the Late Renaissance master—ignited that summer by A Lady Writing (1665) and Woman Holding a Balance (1664)—smoldered for 17 years while Huerta practiced civil and appellate litigation in his native San Antonio. He indulged it by reading everything he could about Jan Vermeer and the scientific explosion taking place virtually within stomping distance of the painter’s studio in Delft, Holland.

Optical devices were well-known in Northern Europe by that time. “The literature kept mentioning Vermeer’s experimentation with optics and painting,” Huerta recalls, “in the same breath with the microbiological work of Antony van Leeuwenhoek, who lived just a few blocks from Vermeer. I thought, ‘Why don’t we look more deeply into their possible connections?’ ”

He did—and discovered that Vermeer’s work, acclaimed for its fine detail, selective focus and dramatic use of light, was profoundly influenced by the “scientific-optical milieu” in which the artist lived. Huerta asserts that Vermeer’s pursuit of “the optical way” of seeing and painting paralleled methods being developed at the time by figures like van Leeuwenhoek (an early microscopist who discovered bacteria and who may have shown the artist how to use a camera obscura), Dutch astronomer Christiaan Hugens (developer of the first accurate timepiece), Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei (who invented the telescope, among other wonders) and German astronomer Johannes Kepler (the founder of modern optics).

Huerta published his findings in Giants of Delft: Vermeer and the Natural Philosophers (Bucknell University Press, 2003). “What I show,” he says, “is that Vermeer shared with all of these geniuses a philosophical outlook and an intense interest in science and the natural world that led him to develop similar techniques of working.”

The book starts with the premise that Vermeer used optical instruments to expand the way he perceived and depicted reality. Chief among these was the camera obscura—a small, darkened cubicle (see below) onto whose wall the artist would project, via a lens, various studio scenes in order to capture “photographic” effects such as focus and blurring.

“Like van Leeuwenhoek, who kept viewing his subject—bacteria—under the microscope again and again in different lights to find things he had missed before,” Huerta says, “Vermeer kept returning to the same composition design—an interior with a table and human figure—to achieve subtle new effects in lighting, coloration, shadows and focus.”

Huerta is now working on a second book, on how Vermeer was influenced by Neoplatonism to depict “more than just a kind of super-realism in his paintings, but rather the ‘ideal’ underneath the surface of things. Vermeer’s use of science in service of creativity was what made him truly great.”

For Huerta, who has given up law to pursue the historical connection between art and science, the infatuation has become a full-time affair.

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