Title Vermeer’s Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces
Year 2001
Publisher Oxford University Press
PricePaperback £14.99 Hardback £10.10
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Vermeer’s Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces

Over 100 years of speculation and controversy surround claims that the great seventeenth-century Dutch artist, Johannes Vermeer, used the camera obscura to create some of the most famous images in Western art. This intellectual detective story starts by exploring Vermeer’s possible knowledge of seventeenth-century optical science, and outlines the history of this early version of the photographic camera, which projected an accurate image for artists to trace. However, it is the detailed reconstruction of the artist’s studio, complete with a camera obscura, which provides new evidence to support the view that Vermeer did indeed use optics. These findings do not challenge Vermeer’s genius but show how, like many artists, he experimented with new technology to develop his style and choice of subject matter. 


Vermeer’s Camera generated an enormous international correspondence with painters, photographers, film-makers, art historians, computer scientists and others. The book led to many invitations to lecture, to contribute to conferences and exhibitions, and to appear on television, radio and in film. Much archival material relating to the research for the book is held by Tim Jenison in San Antonio, Texas, including drawings, photographs and models, as well as the correspondence and events following the book’s publication. The documents have all been digitised and catalogued, and Jenison is planning to put some of them online


‘This book is terrific. The awareness of the optical base for European painting is growing, and at the start of the twenty-first century, more and more visible. Philip Steadman’s book is part of this increasing awareness.’

David Hockney

‘Here at last is the perfect book for anyone who has always wanted to know how seventeenth-century Dutch art achieved its peculiar visual brilliance. This book is a timely reminder that theirs was a culture in which art and science went strenuously hand in hand.’

Lisa Jardine

’[Steadman] so persuasively makes the case for the camera obscura that, were he transferred from his chair at University College London to Gray’s Inn, his record as an advocate would eclipse the late George Carman’s… It’s all set out as compellingly as any classic closed-room mystery. Indeed, this book is a kind of corpse-less closed-room mystery itself, since Steadman dramatically demonstrates that Vermeer’s camera was nothing less than a room within a room, a darkened cubicle large enough for the artist to sit in apart from the carefully staged scene he was painting. Steadman even claims to catch a glimpse of this same phantom cubicle reflected in the glass ball hanging from the ceiling in The Allegory of Faith. It’s a moment as exciting as the denouement in Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair.’

Frank Whitford, Sunday Times

‘Of three new approaches to the painter, Philip Steadman’s Vermeer’s Camera is the most vivid and impressive. It doesn’t answer every question about Vermeer; it’s not nearly as comprehensive as Liedtke’s art-historical survey or Bailey’s biography. In its chief thesis, that Vermeer used an optical device, a camera obscura, to make his paintings, it may even be dead wrong. Yet reading about how Vermeer might have used such an aid presents, at least in Steadman’s telling, an experience that is closer to how we absorb the painter’s intense, spooky, and perfectionistic work than Liedtke’s or Bailey’s accounts. It’s only in Steadman’s presentation that I felt I came close to Vermeer himself…’

Sanford Schwartz, New York Review of Books