Saturday, July 25, 2015

Eye Of The Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni Van Leeuwenhoek And The Reinvention Of Seeing

Laura J. Snyder’s book Eye of the Beholder is a work on early modern history but can just as easily be read as an adventure story.  Imagine being the first person to peer into a previously unknown world. Moreover, suppose that this never before seen realm is only touching distance away. It is a thought that when fully grasped and allowed to marinate in juices of possibilities sets the heart beating quicker. Just imagine being surrounded by family, friends and colleagues and not one of them has seen or experienced what you have. I think anyone faced with a similar situation would burn with a chemical hot desire to communicate what had been found. This is what two seventeenth century Dutch luminaries experienced: Vermeer and Leeuwenhoek, the former a painter the latter a natural philosopher. Both men were born in the same year (1632) in an era when science was just beginning to flex its muscles. Each made a discovery and each wanted to communicate this new vision, Vermeer with paintings and Van Leeuwenhoek with letters and reports to fellow natural philosophers.

Eye of the Beholder is set in golden age Netherlands in the 1600s. Vermeer is dabbling with mirrors and lenses and with a contraption called the camera obscura all in an effort to expand the boundaries of his art. These gadgets aided him in seeing the play of light, colour and shadow in new ways. In one painting, Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, Vermeer used many different colours to convey in scrupulous detail shadows cast by the various objects in the room, map, chairs and the like. The actual colour blue is used sparingly on the woman’s outfit. The shadows in the folds of her dress are conveyed with browns and blacks. Our minds supply the blue necessary to complete the dress to see, in other words, what is not there. The woman herself casts no shadow. Leeuwenhoek used the recently invented microscope to make startling discoveries of objects too small for the human eye to observe. Without knowing it he stumbled onto the world of microscopic bacteria. Leeuwenhoek became so enamoured with what he saw, all those strange swirling, floating microbes, that he came to think of them as pets. He mentions in letters to friends missing the tiny creatures living in his vials when he went off on vacation. What is common to Vermeer and Leeuwenhoek is their appropriation of the power of perspective. Each in his own way came to understand the power of learning to see. Snyder does a great job conveying the fascination and joy both men felt about their respective discoveries.

Leeuwenhoek’s story (Vermeer’s also) should be understood against the backdrop of the growing influence of science. There was stern reaction against authority in the seventeen and subsequent centuries. The enlightenment, which had not yet hit its full stride, was taking hold of hearts and minds. The phrase bandied about was “See for yourself,” meaning, don’t rely on others—the so called experts or people in positions of authority—to tell you what is really there, make your own independent determination of the facts of the matter. Leeuwenhoek, a religious man, did not see himself as battling against an established order but as describing something new. It is that near childlike innocence and delight that makes his story so compelling. 

I would recommend this book to someone who is interested in the history of science, art and golden age Netherlands. I would also recommend it to anyone who wants to experience what it would be like to be the first to discover something that no one else has seen. The Eye of the Beholder offers readers an opportunity to experience a leap into the unknown.

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