Visionaries

How Two Dutch Geniuses Taught Us to See

Vermeer the painter and Leeuwenhoek the scientist were contemporaries in 17th century Delft, where each man pioneered breakthroughs that upended conventional wisdom about reality.

04.23.15 9:15 AM ET

Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing is one of those engaging books that makes you smarter without making you suffer. Laura J. Snyder’s scholarly yet accessible narrative offers refresher courses on the Scientific Revolution and the golden age of Dutch art, contextualized in a lively portrait of 17th-century Dutch society and personalized in the stories of two brilliant innovators who happened to live in the same bustling town.

Johannes Vermeer and Antoni van Leeuwenhoek were born and baptized in Delft within four days of each other in 1632, although it’s unclear whether or not they knew each other. Snyder makes a vivid and persuasive argument, however, that Vermeer’s paintings and Leeuwenhoek’s microscopic investigations were both instances of a new way of looking at the world, driven by advances in the science of optics and an emphasis on empirical observation that was congenial to the pragmatic Dutch in many different professions.

Leeuwenhoek, in fact, began his adult life as a cloth merchant; it was during his apprenticeship in Amsterdam, Snyder plausibly speculates, that he first used a convex lens to see something inaccessible to the naked eye, in this case the thread count of fabric. He was nearly 30 when a civil service appointment enabled him to devote most of his time to making his own lenses and the microscopes that contained them. By this time, around 1660, Vermeer was painting with the aid of a camera obscura, a device that passes light through a lens and projects the image on a flat surface, giving a much more accurate reproduction of how three-dimensional scenes look in two dimensions.

“The fascination with lenses pervaded both the artistic and the scientific communities,” Snyder contends. “These communities can be seen as one, united by the shared goal of investigating nature and the collective employment of optical devices.” Her sensitive exegeses of Vermeer’s work methods show him applying what he learned from the camera obscura about alterations in color and tone to the rich hues of A View of Delft and the variegated shadows of The Milkmaid. He mimicked the device’s variations of focus—middle ground sharp, foreground and background fuzzier—in The Lacemaker; what he saw through the camera obscura fueled his extraordinary sensitivity to different intensities of light, showcased in such bravura canvases as Young Woman with a Water Pitcher.

None of this makes Vermeer a mindless transcriber of visual information, Snyder is careful to note; his technique “evok[ed] the way nature manifested itself to human vision. He was experimentally exploring the concept of sight.” Her deft pocket history of 17th-century scientists’ challenge to classical theories of vision, buttressed by the development of instruments like the telescope and microscope, shows increasing acceptance of the idea that human beings had to learn how to see; part of that process involved learning to see what was actually there, not what outdated ideas or religious dogma told them to expect to see.

It was certainly not what Leeuwenhoek expected when, in 1674, he looked at a drop of lake water through one of his microscopes and saw tiny creatures moving in it. He had discovered “a new world of living beings, a world never before seen, never before even imagined,” Snyder writes, her expressive prose capturing the excitement of the moment. Like Galileo, who some 60 years earlier had viewed the moon’s surface through a telescope, Leeuwenhoek used an optical instrument to observe things in nature formerly invisible to human eyes. Bacteria and sperm were among the other microscopic entities he was the first to identify.

Like the artists of the day, who jealously guarded their professional tools and techniques, Leeuwenhoek was secretive about his methods and refused to divulge the specifications of his microscopes. But the Royal Society of London, with which he corresponded to announce all his major discoveries, aimed to set science apart from such dubious disciplines as alchemy by stressing openness and repeatability; not until 1677, when English microscope pioneer Robert Hooke was able to discern miniscule animals frolicking in rainwater and show them to a group of Royal Society fellows, did the society officially accept Leeuwenhoek’s findings.

By then, Vermeer was dead, suddenly felled at age 43 by a “frenzy” that may have been a heart attack or stroke. He left his widow with ten dependent children and huge debts; the fact that Leeuwenhoek was appointed trustee of his beleaguered estate strongly suggests that the two men were acquainted. Snyder, as meticulous about evidence here as she was in her stimulating group biography of four 19th-century scientists (The Philosophical Breakfast Club), concludes only that this would be the “simplest” explanation.

Her main interest is not in any personal relationship Vermeer and Leeuwenhoek may have had, but in the shared spirit of empirical inquiry that made them avatars of an age that transformed the practice of both science and art. “Daring to know required, first of all, daring to see,” she reminds us in a vivid epilogue that links the guiding principle of the Scientific Revolution with the optical experiments performed by Vermeer and Leeuwenhoek in fields that did not seem as separate to them as they do to us. The book closes with a final glimpse at Vermeer’s 1668 painting The Astronomer, a figure possibly modeled on Leeuwenhoek, who leans toward a globe bathed in sunlight. In one marvelous paragraph, Snyder draws together images of mapmaking, light, and shadow to capture the 17th-century’s dream of the freer, more rational future. This poetic, inclusive approach to popular science writing makes Eye of the Beholder an unfailing pleasure to read.