When Robert Huerta was 23, he developed what ) ) you might call a harmless infatuation. Working at the ) ) U.S. Department of Labor the summer after his first year ) ) of law ) ) school at George Washington University, he couldn’t ) ) resist walking across the street to the National Gallery ) ) of Art during lunch hours to stare at two women.
One, ) ) dressed in a yellow robe with ermine accents, sat at ) ) her desk and stared back. The other, lost in a world of ) ) her own, dangled a hand scale in front of her pregnant ) ) belly.
“I had simply fallen in love with Vermeer,” explains ) ) Huerta, ’75.
His ) ) passion for the Late Renaissance master—ignited that ) ) summer by A Lady Writing (1665) and Woman Holding ) ) a Balance (1664)—smoldered for 17 years while Huerta practiced ) ) civil and appellate litigation in his native San Antonio. ) ) He indulged it by reading everything he could about Jan ) ) Vermeer and the scientific explosion taking place virtually ) ) within ) ) stomping distance of the painter’s studio in Delft, Holland.
Optical ) ) devices were well-known in Northern Europe by that time. “The ) ) literature kept mentioning Vermeer’s ) ) experimentation with optics and painting,” Huerta recalls, “in ) ) the same breath with the microbiological work of Antony ) ) van Leeuwenhoek, who lived just a few blocks from Vermeer. ) ) I thought, ‘Why ) ) don’t we look more deeply into their possible connections?’ ”
He ) ) did—and discovered that Vermeer’s work, acclaimed ) ) for its fine detail, selective focus and dramatic use of ) ) light, was profoundly influenced by the “scientific-optical ) ) milieu” in which the artist lived. Huerta asserts that ) ) Vermeer’s pursuit of “the optical way” of ) ) seeing and painting paralleled methods being developed ) ) at the time by figures like van Leeuwenhoek (an early microscopist ) ) who discovered bacteria and who may have shown the artist ) ) how ) ) to use a camera obscura), Dutch astronomer Christiaan Hugens ) ) (developer of the first accurate timepiece), Italian astronomer ) ) Galileo Galilei (who invented the telescope, among other ) ) wonders) and German astronomer Johannes Kepler (the founder ) ) of modern ) ) optics).
Huerta published his findings in Giants of Delft: ) ) Vermeer and the Natural Philosophers (Bucknell University ) ) Press, 2003). “What ) ) I show,” he says, “is that Vermeer shared with ) ) all of these geniuses a philosophical outlook and an intense ) ) interest in science and the natural world that led him ) ) to develop similar techniques of working.”
The book starts ) ) with the premise that Vermeer used optical instruments ) ) to expand the way he perceived and depicted reality. ) ) Chief among these was the camera obscura—a small, darkened ) ) cubicle (see below) onto whose wall the artist would ) ) project, via a lens, various studio scenes in order to ) ) capture “photographic” effects ) ) such as focus and blurring.
“Like van Leeuwenhoek, who kept viewing his subject—bacteria—under ) ) the microscope again and again in different lights to find ) ) things he had missed before,” Huerta says, “Vermeer ) ) kept returning to the same composition design—an interior ) ) with a table and human figure—to achieve subtle new effects ) ) in lighting, coloration, shadows and focus.”
Huerta is now working ) ) on a second book, on how Vermeer was influenced by Neoplatonism ) ) to depict “more than just ) ) a kind of super-realism in his paintings, but rather the ‘ideal’ underneath ) ) the surface of things. Vermeer’s use of science in service ) ) of creativity was what made him truly great.”
For Huerta, ) ) who has given up law to pursue the historical connection ) ) between art and science, the infatuation has become ) ) a full-time affair.