Book Review: Laura J. Snyder. Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni Van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2015. ISBN: 9780393077469. 448 pp. $20.93 Hardcover.
Reviewed by Christopher Cody (Doctoral Student, St. John’s University)
Laura J. Snyder’s Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni Van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing, examines the way seventeenth-century Dutch artists and scientists revolutionized the way humanity sees the world. The artist Johannes Vermeer and the natural philosopher Antoni Van Leeuwenhoek both used newly developed optical technologies in their respective work to reshape the way the natural world was viewed. Snyder brings these characters to life by drawing on a wide assortment of sources that range from Leeuwenhoek’s fifteen volumes of collected letters to archival documents from The Royal Society of London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Delft city archives. In the process, she effectively paints a vivid picture of the ways these two influential Dutch men redefined the size and scope of our world by helping humanity see what was once invisible to the naked eye.
Snyder begins by describing the historical era in which Vermeer and Van Leeuwenhoek lived. The seventeenth century saw the rise of the Dutch Golden Age, an era in which the recently independent nation of Holland arrived at the height of its economic, artistic, and scientific magnificence. The same period also witnessed the highpoint of the Scientific Revolution, a movement that embodied a new interest in observing, representing, and measuring nature. In this context, Vermeer and Leeuwenhoek embraced the experimental ethos of the Scientific Revolution and in the process contributed to the Dutch vitality in art and science.
Snyder describes how Vermeer’s masterpiece paintings were also products of his experiments in optics. Throughout his career, Vermeer used various vision-enhancing technologies to help him paint three-dimensional scenes on a flat canvas. Snyder explains how early in his career Vermeer would paint his subjects using the visual aid of a convex mirror or a double concave lens; these devices enabled him to capture near perfect representations. Later, Vermeer probably employed a camera obscura to perfect his paintings, which enabled Vermeer to accurately transpose geometric shapes onto a screen. As Snyder explains, however, Vermeer was not just interested in shape; when he looked at nature through the camera obscura he rethought concepts of light, shadow, tone, and color and applied them to his work. Supplied with new information about the way images are seen and can be manipulated, “Vermeer was sensitive, like no other painter, to the variations of color that result from the varying intensities of light.” (pg. 215)
Vermeer’s contemporary and neighbor, Antoni Van Leeuwenhoek, also experimented with optical technologies, but he did so in different ways. A cloth merchant and city official, Leeuwenhoek spent his spare time building powerful microscopes that he used to observe and record the characteristics of microbiological life. Although microscopes had been invented earlier in the seventeenth century, the instruments were regarded by most as a novelty. They had not been used to examine microbiological life because no one (until Leeuwenhoek) suspected that it existed. That breakthrough occurred when Leeuwenhoek became curious about why the water from a lake appeared to be murky. He took a sample of the cloudy water and made observations with his microscope, subsequently discovering a multiplicity of living organisms.
The prologue begins by describing the world in which Vermeer and Leeuwenhoek lived; it was a world gripped by the Scientific Revolution and one that also gave rise to the Dutch Golden Age. Parts one and two discuss Vermeer’s family history, his personal life, and all the idiosyncrasies that made him a unique and masterful artist. Vermeer’s inclination, even in his early years, was to experiment with the scientific principles of painting such as the perspective theory and the science of light, including mirrors and lenses, as described in part three. The following chapter relates Leeuwenhoek’s background, his marriage, and his initial forays into the use, and manufacturing, of lenses. He developed an obsession with the magnifying properties of lenses and it was this obsession that drove him to explore the mysteries of the microscopic world. Snyder points out that magnified images seen through the lens of a microscope required a reformulation of the underlying human beliefs of what the eye can view.
Part Five builds upon this theme of innovation, discussing Vermeer’s deployment of the camera obscura, then parts six and seven examine the uncertain, though tantalizing, possibility that Vermeer and Leeuwenhoek, operating within the same geographic and scientific realms, knew and admired each other. Both had a strong impulse to observe, describe and depict nature: as discussed in parts eight and nine, Vermeer intentionally inserted detailed maps into his paintings, and Leeuwenhoek’s obsession with describing nature is reflected in his tireless hours of experimentation and observation that led to the discovery of microscopic organisms in murky lake water. The following chapter recounts how after Vermeer died in 1675, Leeuwenhoek was appointed executor of his estate, revisiting the idea that the two men were acquainted and informed each other’s optical investigations. Part eleven recounts how the Royal Society in London eventually accepted and celebrated Leeuwenhoek’s discoveries and his investigations, while part twelve and the epilogue conclude the book by reflecting upon the great transformations in art and science that occurred as a result of the two famous Dutchmen.
Johannes Vermeer and Antoni Van Leeuwenhoek used existing optical instruments in an innovative way to extend and enhance their own vision and perceptions. In doing so, they played pivotal roles in the reinvention of how humans view the world around them. Snyder’s book is an important contribution to the history of the Scientific Revolution that underscores the surprising way that seventeenth-century scientists and artists utilized advances in optical technologies to invent new ways of seeing. Moreover, the book’s engaging and thought-provoking writing allows the historic and scientific content to be compelling for any veteran scholar or general reader.