Virgil Elliott – Vermeer’s Eye

Virgil Elliott is the author of “Traditional Oil Painting – Advanced Techniques and Concepts from the Renaissance to the Present” published by Random House, has contributed to or been mentioned in a number of other books, and written many articles in various art magazines over the decades. He has been designated a Living Master by the Art Renewal Center, among the distinctions bestowed on him by art associations. Elliott has taught art off and on from 1982, privately and in a number of institutions, including the College of Marin (Ignacio, California), but his primary focus has always been the creation of artwork, with teaching and writing secondary and ancillary to that interest and pursuit. An active member of the ASTM Subcommittee on Artists’ Paints and materials for the last 22 years, Virgil Elliott is widely regarded as an expert on oil painting materials and methods, whose advice is and has been sought by artists and students in all parts of the world for many years. He is currently writing a book on Johannes Vermeer of Delft, in which he examines and challenges the allegations put forth by several writers who have asserted that Vermeer worked with the aid of a camera obscura.

In addition to painting and writing, Virgil is an accomplished musician on guitar and Renaissance lute. He also builds his own motorcycles. He has been labeled a Renaissance Man at various times throughout his long life, probably due to the unusual number of artistic endeavors at which he excels. He maintains that an artist benefits from a wide range of experiences and wild adventures, which can enrich one’s art if one can manage to survive them.

Virgil Elliott lives in the Northern California wine country, where he lives with his wife, Annie Lore, and maintains his art studio

Vermeer’s eye


In recent years, the great 17th Century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer of Delft has been the subject of much speculation alleging that he used an optical device called a camera obscura in the execution of his paintings. Theories have been advanced and widely accepted as fact, in books and even a movie, all based on visual clues that might be interpreted to indicate what the proponents of those theories believe to be true. Critical thinking and a sense of justice both call for this assertion to be challenged and examined before it can be accepted as truth. If we respect the idea that art should represent the ultimate in human potential, then surely we cannot subscribe to any notion that points the other way without first questioning it and subjecting it to logical scrutiny.

Great artists set the example of the greatest possibilities of human excellence, of the utmost potential of the human mind. Art is better served by that idea than by the belief that work of that caliber is unachievable without the aid of some optical device. Therefore the default position of all who love art should be to assume that the works in question were created by the artist’s hand, eye and mind, with only the simple tools known to have been in common usage by artists of that time, at least until more compelling evidence to the contrary emerges than has been presented thus far.

The chief proponent of the optical device theory with respect to Vermeer is British architect Philip Steadman, author of the book, Vermeer’s Camera. To his credit, Steadman has gone to a great deal of trouble and expense to test his theory, constructing replicas of Vermeer’s painting room full-scale and in miniature. He offers a hypothesis that Vermeer must have been aided in the execution of his paintings by a camera obscura, and proceeds to describe the device he believes Vermeer used. The clues Steadman offers as evidence in support of his hypothesis seem, on the surface, to fit his theory as applied to six of Vermeer’s 36 known paintings, if one does not bother to examine his reasoning closely. However, when he inadvertently finds evidence indicating against him, he simply states, “….. I have abandoned the conundrum, reluctantly, at this point, with no more suggestions to offer,” yet he clings to his theory rather than abandoning it as unworkable. With calculations based on what is reflected in the mirror on the back wall in Vermeer’s The Music Lesson, Steadman determines the precise viewpoint from which the scene was recorded in the painting: the exact position of the eye of a normal-sized man seated on the stool facing the easel, the placement of both of which is established by Steadman’s calculations. The obvious conclusion to be drawn from this is that Vermeer himself was sitting on that stool, observing the scene while he painted it, just as the painter depicted in his Allegory of Painting was doing. Also to be considered is the absence of any optical device in the inventory of Vermeer’s studio that was taken immediately after his death. There are serious flaws in the arguments advanced in advocacy of this theory, which I address in greater detail in my paper than the word limit imposed for abstracts here allows.

The importance of this is that too many students and aspiring artists are accepting this theory and using it to justify skipping the rigorous training of drawing, without which the level of mastery of the greats is not achievable. That bodes ill for the future of representational art.