Fulbright scholar Laura J Snyder’s curious but very readable new book, subtitled Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing is not so much an attempt to bring together the arts and sciences, but a reminder that for the true artist (or scientist) such a distinction is unnecessary. Indeed, one of the pleasures of this book is as a reminder of a time when theology, poetry, fine arts and scientific discovery could go hand in hand. Who wouldn’t have wanted to be at the 17th-century dinner at the Accademia del Lincei, where the Greek poet and theologian John Demisiani came up with the name “telescopio” for Galileo’s exciting new instrument?
Snyder’s erudition is such that it feels limiting that she has decided to structure her book around the parallel lives of the scientist Antoni van Leeuwenhoek and the painter Johannes Vermeer, intertwining their biographies and beginning with the whimsical conceit of describing a day in August 1647 when Leeuwenhoek was looking through a microscope and Vermeer a camera obscura.
Snyder’s contention is that Vermeer may have returned to this device when composing his paintings, but she falls slightly too in love with this unproven possibility. It is only her considerable academic discipline that prevents this from turning into the equivalent of one of those dubious books where someone tries to prove the true identity of Jack the Ripper or that Shakespeare didn’t write his plays.
Having established that Vermeer and Leeuwenhoek lived near each other, and that Leeuwenhoek was the executor of Vermeer’s estate, the writer goes further and suggests that Leeuwenhoek may have been the subject of Vermeer’s paintings The Geographer and The Astronomer. One of the pieces of evidence she provides is a painting of Leeuwenhoek by Johannes Verkolje, in which he does indeed look very similar to the man pictured in The Geographer. But so what? A painter who may have used a camera obscura in composing his art (and Snyder fails to convince us of this) may have painted a picture of a man who helped invent the microscope. Is there anything new to learn from this?
Although she can determine that he was familiar with this technology, whether he used it in his work is something about which she has to speculate, arguing: “Why would he not, then, have availed himself of a device that would have enabled him to experiment with how certain complex compositions would look on a flat canvas, even before starting to paint?” Here it may be that Snyder is considering an artist through the mind of an academic. While she seems on certain ground with her observations of Leeuwenhoek’s practices, she seems less sure about the way a painter might think. She briefly touches on representation versus reality, but this strand feels undeveloped, perhaps because it might disprove her central conceit.
Her dogged pursuit of what Vermeer did or did not do with a camera obscura becomes comical by the book’s conclusion, when she can barely hide her annoyance that no one recorded the names of the books in his library when he died, so that “we cannot know whether this collection included books on perspective or any of the works on optics that might have introduced Vermeer to the camera obscura”.
Her contention that Leeuwenhoek was Catholic and may have met scientists in Catholic circles is more interesting, but again falters on the absence of concrete primary sources.
By trying to bring all of this together at once, Snyder’s book loses fluency. She clearly has a natural wit that emerges when she feels more engaged with the narrative. She describes Vermeer as “a jolly-looking man with long, curly dark hair (probably a wig, as the style dictated), a pale face, a wide nose, and a large grin” and enjoys detailing his problems with his family, noting that Vermeer’s brother-in-law Willem was renowned for “pulling down his trousers in public to ‘moon’ his mother”.
Snyder is also drily amused by some of Leeuwenhoek’s recorded experiments, such as the time he spent two days drinking wine before examining his sweat to see if salt particles from the drink would emerge, suggesting that “most likely, he had to repeat this experiment several times to be sure”. Or this amusing list of what Leeuwenhoek liked to examine: “his own blood, urine, faeces, tooth plaque, pus from wounds, the gunk between his toes after not removing his stockings for two weeks, the shavings of callouses from the feet of labourers, the wax from ladies’ ears, and lots and lots of semen”.
But for all the moments of lightness, without any killer new historical discoveries and no real reason to tie together the two men, this book feels long at 400 pages, and would have worked better at half the length, or as two separate biographies.
This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (19/6/15).