“Most rare workmen”: Optical practitioners in early seventeenth-century Delft”
Huib J. Zuidervaart and Marlise Rijks
The British Journal for the History of Science, pp. 1 – 33, (March 2014)
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A special interest in optics among various seventeenth-century painters living in the Dutch city of Delft has intrigued historians, including art historians, for a long time. Equally, the impressive career of the Delft microscopist Antoni van Leeuwenhoek has been studied by many historians of science. However, it has never been investigated who, at that time, had access to the mathematical and optical knowledge necessary for the impressive achievements of these Delft practitioners. We have tried to gain insight into Delft as a ‘node’ of optical knowledge by following the careers of three minor local figures in early seventeenth-century Delft. We argue that through their work, products, discussions in the vernacular and exchange of skills, rather than via learned publications, these practitioners constituted a foundation on which the later scientific and artistic achievements of other Delft citizens were built. Our Delft case demonstrates that these practitioners were not simple and isolated craftsmen; rather they were crucial components in a network of scholars, savants, painters and rich virtuosi. Decades before Vermeer made his masterworks, or Van Leeuwenhoek started his famous microscopic investigations, the intellectual atmosphere and artisanal knowledge in this city centered on optical topics.
Especially of interest is the authors’ tie between three optical practitioners who lived in Delft simultaneously with Vermeer. One of them, Jacob Spoors, was in 1674 the notary of Vermeer and his mother-in-law Maria Thins. Another was an acquaintance of Spoors, the military engineer Johan van der Wyck, who made an optical device in Delft in 1654, most likely a camera obscura. A report about the demonstration in nearby The Hague has been preserved. Van der Wyck also made telescopes and microscopes and an apparatus that probably was a kind of perspective box. As a telescope maker he was preceded by Evert Harmansz Steenwyck, brother-in- law of the Leiden painter David Bailly and father of two Delft still-life painters: Harman and Pieter Steenwyck. The latter was familiar with Vermeer’s father Reynier Jansz Vermeer, at a time when the young Vermeer was still living with his parents. According to the authors, this is the first real archival evidence that such a device existed in Delft during Vermeer’s life.