Listening Topic: Visual Art – Museum talk about camera obscura

A. Listen to the talk at a museum. After you listen, answer the question.

What is the theory suggested in the lecture? Re-state it in your own words.

B. Listen again. Write T for true or F for false for each statement. Correct the false answers to make them true. Listen again if necessary.

 Fifteenth and sixteenth century artists were able to point details realistically.

 A camera obscura projects an image on a surface.

 Experts have proven that Vermeer used a camera obscura.

 A camera obscura requires a very dark room and bright daylight.

 The people in Vermeer’s work look as they would in a photograph.

 Vermeer often sketched his work before starting to paint.

 There is evidence in his Family Portrait, that Lorenzo Lotto may have used a camera obscura.



Answers will vary


1 T   2 T   3 F   4 T   5 T   6 F   7 T


A = Docent, B = Tour Member

A:   Well thank you all for coming this morning. Soon we’ll be taking a look at our Renaissance collection and some of our other collections as well. But first I’d like to prepare for the tour by telling you a bit about an interesting theory that’s been proposed recently. Hopefully, considering this theory will help us to look at some of the paintings in our collections in a new way.

Soon we’ll be looking at works by some artists who produced their work during the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. As you’ll notice, many of these masters had an amazing ability to capture the most minute details in their work: colored threads on a tapestry or on a silk dress, reflections off pitchers, glasses, and chandeliers. This detailed realism has always been a source of fascination to art lovers. Many have wondered at the skill and patience of these masters.

But recently some researchers have begun to suspect that these artists may have had some help. They believe these masters may have used a form of camera obscura to project images on a flat surface, like a canvas; thus, providing them with a guideline, or blueprint of sorts. A painter would simply have to paint over the image projected on the canvas, making an easy task of illustrating objects in tremendous, accurate detail.

For those of you who have never heard the term camera obscura before, let me explain. Long ago, even as far back as the time of Aristotle, people began to notice that if a very dark room had a very small hole in it, and the light outside was very bright, a reflected image of what was outside, appeared on the opposite wall of the dark room. Many people studied this strange visual phenomenon, including Alhazen, an Arabian intellectual living around 900, and Roger Bacon in the 1200s. Even Leonardo DaVinci’s writings show knowledge of this optical property. It is thought that Giovanni Battista Della Porta, an Italian scientist, was the first to propose using camera obscura for the purposes of art.

So, is this true? Did Renaissance painters use optics to help achieve the quality of precision in many paintings from that period? Well, there is debate on both sides of the issue.

It’s generally accepted that the Dutch artist, Johannes Vermeer used a sort of camera obscura to help him with details in his pictures, painted in the 17th century. We’ll see one of his paintings later in the tour. So why do many people think he used a camera obscura? Let’s consider the evidence.

In Vermeer’s work, many experts say, the evidence is in paintings with more than one figure. First of all, in these paintings, the figures in the foreground, the area nearest the viewer, are unusually large, looking like they would in a photograph. Additionally, the maps that appear on the walls in many of his pieces still exist today, and if we compare them to the reproductions, they match almost exactly. Also, in many of Vermeer’s paintings, reflections of light appear as small bright circles of paint, just as they would if you looked at them through a lens.

Furthermore, Vermeer did not seem to sketch his work first before painting. Of course, he would not have needed to sketch if he had a photographic plan to follow while painting.

Finally, a few scholars have proposed that the Reason Vermeer completed only 30 or so paintings in his lifetime is because it would have taken a very long time to project an image with such detailed accuracy…Yes, do you have a question?

B:   This is interesting, but I’ve never heard of a camera obscura before. Are there any other paintings or painters that may have used them?

A:   Well, yes, there are. Thank you for asking. We’ll see some of those other paintings later in our tour. But for now I’ll mention just one example. If we look carefully at Lorenzo Lotto’s Family Portrait, a painting some of you may be familiar with, we see evidence that he may have used a camera obscura. You’ll have a chance to look at this painting later and make up your own mind.

Well, to finish up… Did Vermeer and others use primitive cameras to give their paintings realistic perspective and detail? Some experts say no. They argue that although scientists at that time understood properties of optics and light, there is no hard evidence to suggest that these painters ever used a camera obscura. Perhaps we will all have to decide for ourselves. But here’s a question to consider. Even if we determine that some painters did use a camera obscura, does knowing they used the most recent technology of their time take away from the beauty of their paintings?

We know that artists today make use of modern technology in their work, so one could say that Renaissance artists using the optical technology of their day truly made them Renaissance men.

Well, if there are no more questions on this subject, let’s begin the tour. Please follow me.

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