Although only moderately successful during his lifetime, Vermeer is now lauded as one of the greatest painters of the Dutch Golden Age. His unmatched treatment of light and shadow in his paintings was the result of both painstakingly deliberate technique and the early adoption of technology—in the shape of the camera obscura. His dedication and innovation captured the mind—and heart—of the Dr. Shin-Ichi Fukuoka, the man behind the Re-create project.
Vermeer’s early works are quite different to the delicate studies of light and shade upon which his posthumous reputation was primarily built. Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (c. 1655) and Diana and her Companions (c. 1655) are two of the earliest existing Vermeers; both take as their subjects figures from the Bible and mythology. The style and subject of his painting underwent a remarkable change just a few years later, however, when he seemingly determined to concentrate on indoor scenes of domestic life. It is unclear what prompted this change; perhaps he was no longer inspired by myths and history. Perhaps he simply realised there was no money in them. Whatever the reason, A Girl Asleep (1657) is seen by many, not least Dr. Fukuoka, as representing as a turning point in his artistic career.
Today, Vermeer is celebrated for his expressive use of light—his unmatched ability to depict its subtle, natural flows. A perfect example is Woman with a Water Jug. As Walter Liedtke, curator of European paintings at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and world-renowned Vermeer expert, put it in a conversation with Dr. Fukuoka, “the light could only have fallen on [the model’s] arm in that precise way for no more than five minutes. And yet Vermeer took it all in, captured it in his mind, and then spent the next few months working on this painting”. It is widely believed that his masterful representations of light and shadow were aided, at the composition stage, by his use of a camera obscura. This was an optical device, resembling a box with a small hole on one side, fitted with a converging lens. Light passes through the hole and forms an inverted image on the opposing surface.
It was perhaps this tool, a precursor to modern cameras, which allowed Vermeer to capture the movement of those particles of light; to see its true radiance, magnified and made magnificent by a lens. This innovative use of technology enabled Vermeer to stop time, to manipulate paint into light on his canvas, commemorating a single, snatched moment for all time. Vermeer began to produce a series of masterpieces; each figure depicted with timeless dignity and grace, illuminated by soft, subtle light.
Vermeer’s use of colour is also central to his enduring appeal, particularly the ultramarine pigment seen, perhaps most famously, in the turban of the Girl with a Pearl Earring. The pigment was expensive, produced from finely crushed lapis lazuli, imported from Afghanistan, yet Vermeer was liberal in his use of it, even combining it with other pigments to produce other colours, and using ultramarine washes to depict soft light and shadows.
Vermeer’s entire extant oeuvre numbers just 37 paintings; Dr. Fukuoka has seen 34 of them. Doing so took him all over the world, and in the process he was struck by a thought: if only there was a way to see them all together, in the same room, at the same time. Looking, if possible, as they did when they were first created, without the fading and degradation of time. The solution was Re-create.