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Monconys’ Visit: Six Degrees of Separation for Spinoza


The Distance from Spinoza’s Tydeman home, just 5 minutes walk from the Huygens Estate, and The Hague is just over 2 miles. The distance from the Huygens Estate and Vermeer’s House, just about 4 miles.

Veermer, Van Leeuwenhoek, Huygens, Hudde, Monconys, Oldenburg

A selection from Philp Steadman’s Vermeer’s Camera, which works to establish a fine net of painterly and optical relations to which Spinoza was connected in 1664-5. :

Six years previously, in 1663, Vermeer had received another distinguished visitor, the French diplomat and traveller Balthasar de Monconys. Monconys records in the Journal of his travels how he went to Delft briefly on August 3 where he admired the tombs of Admiral Tromp, Piet Hein, and William of Orange. Eight days later, on the 11th, he was back again with the sole purpose of visiting Vermeer. The meeting was not, by Monconys’ account, a great success. He was disappointed in his hopes to buy a painting…

…Broos notes that how, before going to Delft,  Monconys had been to see the Huygens family in The Hague, and had passed by again after this meeting with Veermer. “One gains the strong impression,” says Broos, “that it was thanks to his contacts in The Hague that the French diplomat had been able to take note of the most famous Dutch artists of that era, such as van Mieris and Dou in Leiden, and Johannes Veermer in Delft…”

…[and then on Monconys’s optical concerns, in addition to his pursuit of high art] Indeed, while he was with the Huygens family in The Hague, Monconyswas comparing their designs of telescopes with his own, and admiring the clarity and sharpness of the images produced by their lenses. On this same trip he went on to call on the mathematician Johan Hudde in Amsterdam and on the scholar Vossius in The Hague to see their microscopes…Both men’s instruments had single lenses. Hudde demonstrated to Monconys his methods for melting glass bead lenses and polishing them with salt. He also described his techniques for illuminating specimens (55-56).

Steadman makes this chain of associations part of a story of the possible optical resources for Vermeer, concluding that Constantijn Huygens is a candidate [earlier in the text he strongly considers a van Leeuwenhoek influence], but it also works as a roadmap for the web of relations which characterize Spinoza’s own artisitic and lense oriented connections. Monconys’ visit to Delft and Voorburg occurred only a few months after Spinoza had moved to that quite village in the Spring. Spinoza’s Voorburg landlord was a “Master painter”, [as would be his next one] and If indeed Spinoza had some reputation for either lenses or instruments, as is possible, his coming to the neighborhood must have been noted with special interest by the Huygens Three. Spinoza may have meet mathmatician and lens-grinder Johannes Hudde several years before while living at Rijnsburg, through the Leiden Cartesian Circle, as suggested by Klever to Nadler, or he might have met him later through Christiaan Huygens himself (although F. J. Dijksterhuis attempts to minimize the connection between the two, Ruestow tells of how Huygens actually translated some of the Micrographia for Hudde); in any case Spinoza was in correspondence with him in early 1666, and took his optical theories largely to be right ones. This net of contacts and friendships both in the arts and optics circles rather tightly around Spinoza’s person. If we allow Philip Steadman’s groupings of influences, we can see that they indeed are more those for Spinoza, than for Vermeer. The Guild of Luke tensions between Delft and The Hague artists notwithstanding, if the Huygens House was a confluence of paintings and optical knowledge, we can assume to some degree Spinoza too was touched.

 As Steadman concludes, if it was not Van Leeuwenhoek who introduced Vermeer to lenses and cameras, it likely was Huygens senior, quoting Heinrich Schwartz,

…the evidence makes it rather possible that one of Monconys Dutch scientist friends may have called his attention to a painter in Delft who used with some amazing results an optical contrivance and that, therefore, his paint may have had a particular interest and appeal for him (58 )

Just as the conflation of paint and optics occurs in the figure of Vermeer, so too it does with Spinoza, who taught himself to draw (camera obscura? reflecting concave mirror?) and associated with painters of the Guild.


The Hockney-Falco Thesis: New Space

Ever Wonder How They Made that Fabric So Real?


I must write briefly here, but highly recommended is artist David Hockney’s Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters. I’ve had it for a few months as part of my investigation into Spinoza and lenses, but only today did I enter it. It enters like a film. First, it is a gorgeous book, filled which large format, glossy copies and enlarged details of some of the greatest painted images in Western History, (at a fairly inexpensive price). Second, is just the investigative and painterly-minded search that Hockney conducts. Apart from its value as a historical thesis (is it correct or not?), the simple following of an intuition and visual perspicuity across the centuries is invigorating in the most mental of senses. One sees through the track-finding eyes of a man who stakes his claim as a seer of images. But thirdly, and most importantly, is the intrusion of the lens and mirror upon the growing rational scene of Dutch thinking and art. Hockney documents a literal refiguration of space, the construction of new internal and aesthetic relations sprung up from the capacities of a found realist, representational technique. Not only are the possible technes of detail capture outlined and exhibited, but these technical discoveries are nuanced by Hockney to the degree that the restrictions and distortions that accompany the machine of a lens and mirror are made evident. As a space and figuration evolved, it was no longer simply a matter of capture or exactness, in expression, but the artist at that time had to synthesize his vision to his lens/mirror, synergistically, along with the newly imposed compositional restraints. The lens/mirror became a part of the eye-hand-brush-palette-easel-model-light source assemblage, creating a recursive event. As such there was, if Hockney is correct, such profusion of lens and mirror in the Dutch Republic in the 17th century, especially within the field of craft and aesthetic, one really cannot underplay the relation between these devices (and their compositional, experiential characteristics) and the philosophical conceptions of representation and perception that were one the rise. To represent was to focus.

Details of the Hockney-Falco Thesis can be found here, and wikiAlso Philip Steadman’s optical study of Vermeer Vermeer’s Camera, is painstakingly accurate and of very good use. Perhaps, for me, a conclusion will follow as to how this lens/mirror relation to aesthetic production helped shape the ideas of Spinoza, the lens-maker.

Ever Wonder How Space Could Be So Stablized by Detail, But Still Could Wobble?