Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing by Laura J Snyder - review by Jerry Brotton

Jerry Brotton

Delft Touches

Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing

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There have been innumerable books written on Vermeer since Tracy Chevalier’s bestselling historical novel Girl with a Pearl Earring, first published in 1999, inspired a trend. Laura Snyder’s new contribution to the field, Eye of the Beholder, suggests that it is now time for a moratorium on books about the poor painter from Delft. Snyder, who found popularity in the United States with The Philosophical Breakfast Club, a group biography of the scientific collaborations of Charles Babbage, John Herschel, William Whewell and Richard Jones in Cambridge in the early 19th century, has tried to re-create her success with this account of the life and work of Vermeer (1632–75) and his contemporary Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (1632–1723), a fellow inhabitant of Delft and the man widely regarded as the first microbiologist thanks to his obsessive development of some of the finest 17th-century microscopes. 

Snyder argues that, at the same time as Leeuwenhoek was using his microscopes to observe unicellular organisms in blood and sperm (which he called ‘animalcules’), Vermeer was employing the same instruments (along with telescopes and the camera obscura) to transform his painting. The result, according to Snyder, was that ‘a

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