Miniature masterpiece …


I had an hour of spare time in Edinburgh last week, and dived into the Scottish National Gallery, conveniently positioned just five minutes from Waverley station.   There is plenty in the permanent collections to make this a worthwhile diversion but, today, and totally unexpectedly, I was in for a particular, treat, as Carel Fabritus’ The Goldfinch was on display, loaned from the Mauritshuis in The Hague.   It is a tiny picture – measuring just 33.5 by 23 cm – but it is a wonderful little canvas, depicting – as the name suggests –a lifesize goldfinch, one of the most regular visitors to our bird table here in Bowburn.

My interest in Dutch painting occasionally spills over into this blog (see “How to paint like Vermeer” and “A wet afternoon in Berlin”) and Fabritus plays a small but important role in the story of the Dutch Golden Age, being a pupil of Rembrandt but also, possibly, a mentor to Vermeer himself.  He provides the elusive link between these two great masters (though the link with Vermeer is only circumstantial).   He was killed at the young age of 32 just after this picture was painted, when a magazine of gunpowder exploded in the city of Delft where he lived.   Looking at the picture – which is, in effect, a trompe d’oeil – the similarities to Vermeer become apparent: the modest subject matter, the attention to detail and, in particular, the realistic treatment of light and shadow.  The tiny picture draws the viewer into its world and, in Edinburgh, it completely overshadows the much larger works that surround it including, ironically, one by Vermeer himself.

My last encounter with The Goldfinch was via the printed word: Donna Tartt uses an encounter with this picture (on loan to the Met in New York in her treatment) as a plot device in her novel The Goldfinch.   It thus joins Tracy Chevalier’s Girl With A Pearl Earring in the exclusive club of novels named after great Dutch paintings.  That has got me thinking … what other novels have Dutch paintings as their titles?  Send me your suggestions  …


A rare excursion behind a telephoto lens: a goldfinch photographed in our garden, May 2016.

Fascination in ecology’s dark side …


There is, we are told frequently, too much sex and violence on the television.  Much of it, I am afraid to say, courtesy of natural history documentaries which are too quick to focus on anthropomorphic organisms participating in acts to which humans can relate than on the more prosaic organisms that constitute the bulk of both biomass and diversity in ecosystems.   I’ve written about this subject before (see “The complicated life of simple plants”) but a quick analysis of the index for The Blue Planet – the book which accompanied David Attenborough’s series for the BBC – offers some (semi-) objective evidence.

No surprise, for me at least, to see “phytoplankton” and “diatom” on the right hand side of the graph when I ranked organism groups from the most cited to the least.   It was a desire to promote the “unfashionable end of biodiversity” that prompted me to start this blog, to raise the profile of organisms that are responsible for half the primary production on the planet (see “every second breath …“).  On the other hand, I was pleasantly surprised to see “kelp” in a strong mid-table position.   The Blue Planet book has a beautifully-illustrated chapter on kelp forests, describing the brown seaweeds that live in ocean littoral zones and the organisms that live on and amongst them in detail.


An analysis of index entries in The Blue Planet for major organism groups.   Each category contains all page references to the organism group, along with any sub-categories classified underneath this (so, for example, “dolphin” includes references to “care of young”, “hunting”, “sonar” etc.)

Having set out my argument for anthropomorphism as the driver behind natural history documentary programming, I was surprised to see that sharks came out as top of my list of index entries (which, I assume, roughly correlates to the amount of space that the authors devote to these organisms).   My explanation is simply that interest in sharks reflects human fascination with the dark and macabre: they are the Hannibal Lectors or Walter Whites of the underwater world.

I don’t underestimate the effort and technical skill needed to get good footage of charismatic aquatic vertebrates, whether sharks, whales or penguins.   However, once the footage has been obtained, it is easy to weave stories with which viewers can empathise.   Making documentary programmes about microscopic algae carries its own technical challenges but, even when the footage has been obtained, for how long can you hold the viewer’s attention?   Or, perhaps more to the point, can you persuade a commissioning editor that you can hold the viewer’s attention for long enough to justify the investment?

Whilst musing on the fascination with the dark and the sinister reminded me of press coverage of an upcoming exhibition on the art and influence of Caravaggio at the National Gallery and, from here, to other great artists whose works often have macabre undertones.  Géricault’s Raft of Medusa and Artemesia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes were two works that immediately sprang to my mind but you could include almost every crucifixion scene painted from the Renaissance onwards.   The Dutch Golden Age stands in stark contrast to these, often focusing on the everyday, the mundane.   Every time I look at a Vermeer, I marvel at how he can raise prosaic activities to this higher level, how he can convert a mundane act such as pouring milk from a jug into a transcendent moment (see “A wet afternoon in Berlin“).   The analogy between the existential drama that seems to be a subtext for every natural history documentary and the quietly spinning flywheels of nature that convert solar energy to sugars and, from there, power the processes that drive the ecosystems of which the charismatic organisms beloved of television natural historians, are obvious.

I have a theory that television natural history is a prime recruiting agent for undergraduate ecologists whilst, at the same time, presenting a very distorted view of the reality of ecology.   The reality is that the bulk of the biomass in ecosystems is in the primary producers – the plants – followed by the organisms that eat these and finally by the predators.   The histogram at the top of this article, by contrast, has sharks and whales receiving far greater attention than kelp and phytoplankton (coral reefs are a complication to this argument to which I will return at some point).   Students may be entranced by the images they see on television, but the reality of ecology is very different and, dare I say, involves more mathematics than most biology undergraduates want to contemplate.

The point of my diversion on the art of Vermeer was to offer a suggest that the route to greater public understanding of the unfashionable end of biodiversity lies not in trying to hype this up to be something that it will never be, but to appeal to a quieter, more contemplative side of human nature.   Algae are not for those with short attention spans, looking for instant gratification, but they are perfect objects for meditating on the diversity of life on earth and, indeed, for the myriad of hidden processes that keep life on earth ticking over …


Byatt, A., Fothergill, A. & Holmes, M. (2001).  The Blue Planet: A Natural History of the Oceans.  BBC Publications, London.

A wet afternoon in Berlin …

A happy coincidence brought me to the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin just as I was reading Laura J. Snyder’s book Eye of the Beholder, which is a joint biography of Anton van Leuwenhoek, the pioneer microscopist, and his neighbour (and, most likely, friend) Johannes Vermeer.   The Gemäldegalerie has two fine Vermeers, the culmination of a series of galleries which gives an impressive and coherent overview of the Northern Renaissance which then lead into a series of galleries showing paintings from the Dutch Golden Age.   What we see in the Northern Renaissance can be very roughly summarised as the outcome of experimentation at many levels – with oil paint rather than tempera, with non-religious subject matter and with compositional techniques such as single-point perspective.   Ideas had filtered up to the north from Italy, but the range of outputs is distinctively different from those of their southern European contemporaries.   There is no hard and fast delineation between the Northern Renaissance (roughly 16th century) and the Dutch Golden Age (roughly 17th century) but the Golden Age pictures are distinctively different. Experiments with light and perspective have borne fruit (Vermeer, of course, but also Pieter Saenredam), portraiture becomes more naturalistic and, indeed, intense (Rembrandt and Frans Hals), landscape, the “background” to many Northern Renaissance paintings, becomes a legitimate subject in its own right (Jacob van Ruisdaal, Aelbert Cuyp) and activities hitherto too mundane for consideration become legitimate subjects (Vermeer’s domestic interiors; also Pieter de Hooch).


Johannes Vermeer: Woman with a pearl necklace (1664, left) and The Wine Glass (1660, right). Both in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin.

Laura Snyder’s book offers some insights. The possibility that Vermeer used optical technology such as the camera obscura to ensure accurate depiction of perspective has been examined before.   The issue, however, may be less to do with the “tricks” that Vermeer used than with the broader intersections between artists and natural scientists at the time, both exploring new ways to “see” the natural world. Look at Jan van Eyck’s Madonna and Child, in the Gemäldegalerie. In this masterpiece of the Northern Renaissance there are aspects of perspective and the proportions of the baby Jesus that suggests that he is following tradition rather than looking afresh at the world.   The priority on direct experience over tradition is key to understanding both the scientific revolution and the art of the Dutch Golden Age and the intersection of the lives of van Leuwenhoek and Vermeer – two men who are remembered for the way in which they saw the world around them – is no mere coincidence.


Jan van Eyck: Madonna in the Church (c. 1440). Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

This, however, is not the whole story.   Snyder and others (Simon Scharma’s Embarrassment of Riches springs to mind) point to the wealth of the Dutch Republic during this period and how this fuelled an art market to provide paintings for the burgeoning and prosperous middle classes to decorate their homes. The market, in other words, fuelled creativity.   This takes us down some interesting paths: is it demand, or is it competition amongst artists to satisfy the demand?   There was an interesting item on the BBC website recently that argued that creativity is, to some extent, dependent upon repetition.   The demand for art, in other words, drives the process.   Vermeer, to be fair, with only 34 paintings unambiguously attributed to him, may be the exception to this rule, but living in an environment where so many artists were simultaneously trying to solve the same problems of perspective, colour and composition must surely have fuelled his own investigations into the depiction of the world around him?

Just to be clear, the free market coupled with craftsmanship may have produced the best art in the seventeenth century.   In our age of mass production and multinational corporations the opposite may well be true. That’s a topic for another day…


Snyder, L.J. (2015). Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek and the reinvention of seeing. Norton, New York and London.

How to paint like Vermeer

I have to confess that New York’s art was one of the main incentives for my trip and the two galleries that I visited, the Met and MoMA, did not disappoint.   Curiously, it was the European Art that was the biggest draw for me, as a large number of major works that I knew from reproductions had crossed the Atlantic over the years.   MoMA, for example, includes Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which was the starting point of Cubism and modern art.   I had seen it reproduced in books but this was only a partial preparation for my first encounter with the painting itself.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art – an enormous, bewildering maze of a building – holds five of the 34 paintings by Vermeer, my favourite artist of the Dutch Golden Age.   This was a treat; the only place I have seen so many on a single day was at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam a few years ago.   Two of those at the Met (Young Woman with a Water Pitcher and Woman with a Lute) are amongst his very finest paintings, epitomising both his skill at capturing the effects of natural daylight and his compositional genius, capturing an air of calmness and serenity in a manner that has rarely been matched.


Three of the Met’s five Vemeers: A Maid Asleep (ca. 1656-7); Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (ca. 1662); Study of a Young Woman (ca. 1665-67).

Most Vermeers are very small works (Young Woman with a Water Pitcher is 45.7 x 50.6 cm, for example) but with very fine brush work and great attention to detail.   Their near-photographic detail has led to many speculations about his working methods with some, including David Hockney in a recent book, suggesting that he may have used optical devices. In this, he may well have been aided and advised by his friend Anton van Leuwenhoek, the inventor of the microscope (finally … a tenuous link with the main theme of this blog!)


The other Vermeers from the Met’s collection: Woman with a Lute (ca. 1662-63) and Allegory of the Catholic Faith (ca. 1670-72).

One of the unexpected delights of the return flight was finding a documentary, Tim’s Vermeer (2013), on the in-flight entertainment system, which explored this idea.   The “Tim” of the title is an American inventor and entrepreneur who was sufficiently intrigued by the possibilities that devices such as Camera Lucida may have offered to seventeenth century artists that he first re-created the scene that Vermeer portrayed in The Music Lesson (ca. 1662-65) and then, with the aid of mirrors and lenses, produced a very accurate likeness of the original painting.   Tim Jenison, it should be noted, had never painted before embarking on these experiments, which makes his achievement all the more remarkable. Some are not convinced, regarding Jenison’s finished painting as a “pedantic and laborious imitation” rather than a step towards a better understanding of Vermeer’s methods. I’m not so sure.   To understand his working methods is not to undermine his compositional genius. Modern art history is, in my opinion, too readily inclined to believe in the lone creative genius rather than recognise the way society moulds and shapes artistic production.   This film cannot prove that Vermeer used optical devices, but it does show that the idea is worthy of consideration.  And, with the final credits rolling just as we began our final descent to Heathrow, it made an otherwise sleepless night much more enjoyable.