In Eye of the Beholder, philosopher and historian Laura J. Snyder uses the parallel lives of painter Johannes Vermeer and clothier turned scientist Antoni van Leeuwenhoek to illustrate the critical role played by optical lenses in the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century, with its new emphasis on empirical observation.
Direct observation as a means of understanding nature brought with it a need for new scientific instruments. The most notable of these were the telescope and microscope, which not only allowed scientists to see things that were previously unseen, but forced them to reconsider how we see. Painters responded to new theories about how sight works with their own investigations into light, shadow and perspective using mirrors, lenses and variations of the camera obscura.
Vermeer and van Leeuwenhoek were active players in the international artistic and scientific communities that explored the nature of sight on the canvas and in the world. Snyder sets the details of their careers within the broader contexts of art and science in seventeenth century Europe. She tells the histories of lenses and the use of perspective in painting. She draws possible links between Vermeer and van Leeuwenhoek–and describes their positions within the society of the Dutch Golden Age. And, like Vermeer and van Leeuwenhoek, she explores the tricky relationship between what we believe and what we see.
Drawing on the disciplines of art history and the history of science, Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni Van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing will appeal to readers of both.
This review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.