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The Reinvention of Seeing

The Netherlands of the 17th century was in every aspect a most remarkable country: having successfully shaken off Spanish rule in the name of freedom of religion, it became the first modern republic. Called the ‘port of Europe’, it acquired immense wealth through trade with the West and East Indies. Generating an extraordinary production of millions of paintings, it saw the emergence of the first commercial art market as we know it. On the flat, windy, watery, yet prosperous grounds of this tiny world power, a revolution in vision took place – or rather, a reinvention of seeing, as the book’s subtitle suggests – which is the topic of the engaging and accessible Eye of the Beholder by Laura J. Snyder.  

Snyder zooms in on the small town of Delft, where in the year 1632, not long apart, two boys were born who would grow up to become two of the most brilliant minds of the Dutch Golden Age: Johannes Vermeer and Antoni van Leeuwenhoek. These major historical figures might have known each other well (it has been suggested that van Leeuwenhoek figures in Vermeer’s paintings The Geographer and The Astronomer, the latter serving as the book’s cover), but, unfortunately, we know nothing more about their relationship than that van Leeuwenhoek acted as the executor of the painter’s will. Snyder tells the story of the kinship of their respective practices when she presents the ‘reinvention of seeing’ simultaneously through the different lenses of painting and science. The notion of the lens needs to be taken literally. The story of the seismic shift in the conception of seeing is, admittedly, a well-trodden field. The overlap of art and science was apparent in the Dutch culture that excelled in map-making and natural philosophy. Its inevitable effect was, among other things, an increasingly realistic mode of painting to the level of scientific exactitude. In particular, the notion of perspective reveals this overlap, as it refers both to the science of optics and the workings of the eye and to the geometrical method employed by painters to create the sense of depth in a flat picture plane. Snyder does not repeat this narrative but takes her reader on an exciting journey deep inside it, focusing on the historical trajectory of the lens, an increasingly popular device that is essential to both the microscope, basically invented by van Leeuwenhoek, and the camera obscura heavily used by Vermeer. In 12 chapters Snyder unfolds this rapidly changing world from within by using alternative perspectives of the lives of the painter and the scientist. It is as if we, as readers, peer with them, though these newly shaped devices. The most fascinating part is about van Leeuwenhoek who, creating his own lenses, discovers that sperm consists of thousands of animalcules. He subsequently studies various kinds of semen, including that of frogs, mites and oysters (which he swallowed after dissection), even dissecting a female dog that had recently mated so as to observe the course of spermatozoids towards the womb.  

Whereas van Leeuwenhoek busied himself with revealing the invisible microcosm that was contained within our visible world yet inaccessible to the naked eye, Vermeer took the opposite route. He studied the
capacity to describe in great detail what the visible world offers us, to a level we would now call photographic. Snyder places her protagonists firmly in their wider surroundings, both locally and internationally, and lets us meet with other great minds, such as the sophisticated brothers Constantijn and Christiaan Huygens, the jovial Rembrandt and other colourful characters, such as Robert Boyle and various other members of the Royal Society in London.    

Snyder’s two-folded, complementary account of the optical revolution and the changing understanding of the visible and the invisible world gives us as readers a lively sense of this exciting period and a thorough insight into the wider implications of these technological developments. She paints this vibrant world with verve, adding a wealth of details – as if following the slow and conscientious working methods of her protagonists. But whether van Leeuwenhoek’s painstaking anatomy of a mite is really comparable with Vermeer’s meticulous painting technique, as she claims in her conclusion, remains less of an issue in a work so well researched and a story so engagingly told.

Hanneke Grootenboer


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