Like Leather, like Snakes

Julian Bell

  • Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek and the Reinvention of Seeing by Laura Snyder
    Head of Zeus, 448 pp, £14.99, December 2016, ISBN 978 1 78497 025 3

Frogs could be heard croaking, one hot spring day in 1688, in a ditch beside a meadow where Antoni van Leeuwenhoek liked, as he put it, to wander ‘for my amusement’. Peering down, he glimpsed spawn clinging to the pondweed. A servant must have been at hand, for Leeuwenhoek wrote: ‘I then had some of this green plant to which these Eggs were attached brought to my house.’ Later, in his study, he closed in with his razors and his microscope – an instrument invented some eighty years before, but which he was now deploying with unprecedented finesse. Having prised the eggs from the surrounding jelly, he noted that their outward covering mostly consisted of ‘small black dots’ – knobbly, ‘like shagreen leather’ – below which there lay ‘watery fluid, and an incredible number of globules, each of which globules again consisted of a large number of smaller globules, each of which had in its centre a larger globule, so that each of the former globules looked, as it were, like an Egg with a very tiny yolk.’

Vermeer’s ‘View of Delft’ (1660)
Vermeer’s ‘View of Delft’ (1660)

Globulen, or sometimes klootjens or bolletjens (‘little balls’) were the units on which Leeuwenhoek’s sixty years of hard looking would commonly converge. Between the 1660s and his death, aged ninety, in 1723, bodies familiar to the naked eye would unravel beneath his home-made lenses to reveal ever smaller bodies which, like the planet itself, were rounded and compact. While the bodies always occupied some medium – the eggs’ ‘watery fluid’, say, or the bloodstream in which corpuscles swam – and while these media might vary, they couldn’t supply answers to the underlying question, which was why the living world was so various. Why did it swell, pulse and shrivel in so many diverse and interpenetrating ways? How did it come to be so rich in textures and transitions? Globules, it seemed, no matter how subdivided, must have multiple inner principles, many natures. Leeuwenhoek was happy to stop at this, rather than demanding – like Newton or Leibniz – some single building block for phenomena such as a ‘particle’ or a ‘monad’.

Instead, he expected observations to keep pouring forth from his microscope, and this was the reason people took to his work. From the 1670s Leeuwenhoek, the sheriffs’ chamberlain of Delft, became an international celebrity, with savants and princes making detours to his townhouse. It was Leibniz who, having paid such a pilgrimage, remarked that ‘I care more for a Leeuwenhoek, who tells me what he sees, than a Cartesian, who tells me what he thinks.’ It was not reliance on reasoning that enabled Leeuwenhoek to home in for the first time on spermatozoa: round bodies, a thousand or more to a sandgrain’s volume of ejaculate, that were ‘furnished with a thin tail’ and moved forward like ‘a snake or an eel swimming in water’. Leeuwenhoek’s subsequent inference – that these were the agents shaping the foetus and that the female’s ovum was no more than nutriment for their masculine structuring – may have been wayward; but he had provided a firm image against which others could pit their minds, an image enlivened by similes from more familiar scales of experience. His new microbiology captivated because even while it giddied the imagination, pointing towards the infinitely minute, it remained trenchant and concrete: ‘like leather’, ‘like snakes’.

Microbes, along with spermatozoa, proved the most significant of Leeuwenhoek’s discoveries of the 1670s. Laura Snyder opens Eye of the Beholder, her engaging study of Leeuwenhoek and his fellow Delft citizen Johannes Vermeer, with a vivid description of the researcher in his study examining water scooped from a lake outside town and gazing, as no one had before, on the teeming protozoa: ‘The motion of these little animals in the water was so swift, and so various, upwards, downwards, and round about, that I confess I could not but wonder at it.’ Snyder underlines the accent of wonder and delight in Leeuwenhoek’s accounts, which launch out into the droplet-sized oceans, leaping from scale to scale: here, ‘very small animalcula did swim gently among one another, moving like as Gnats do in the Air’; there, larger swimmers would ‘move more swiftly, tumbling round as ’twere, and then making a sudden downfall’; whereas other ‘poor little creatures’ would get hopelessly entangled among dead filaments. The empathetic excitement in these descriptions feels primal, one might say innocent; although, inevitably, the water would soon evaporate and the animalcula die.

The larger bodily systems through which single cells moved were also becoming translucent to the microscopist’s eye. On his hunt for the secrets of procreation, Leeuwenhoek had a pair of dogs mate three times, after which, as he coolly related, he ‘had the bitch killed with an awl or dagger thrust into the spine close to the head’ and examined the substance lining her vagina. To further the investigation he took the microscope to his own semen – not, he insisted, a product of ‘sinfully defiling myself’, but rather a promptly sampled ‘residue of conjugal coitus’. (‘History does not record what his wife Cornelia felt about this,’ Snyder notes.) The use of Leeuwenhoek’s own person as a laboratory extended to the hatching of lice on his leg hairs, under a stocking left unwashed for ten days, to assess their rate of generation, and the rapid consumption of copious draughts of wine and tea so as to investigate the resulting sweats. Such bodily self-management was what the natural philosophy of the day demanded: compare the Venetian physiologist Sanctorius sitting daily in his self-devised ‘weighing chair’ while measuring his own excreta, or Newton poking a needle between his eyeball and his orbital socket to discover what optical effects arose.

Antoni van Leeuwenhoek by Jan Verkolje (c.1673)
Antoni van Leeuwenhoek by Jan Verkolje (c.1673)

Individuals were almost incidental: the draughtsmen whose illustrations complemented Leeuwenhoek’s punctilious accounts remained as nameless as the frogspawn collector and the dog-handler. Most of those reports were posted to people overseas whom Leeuwenhoek would never meet, notes of scholarly recognition being their chief reward. There was again a kind of innocence in this. Leeuwenhoek’s most frequent addressee was the Royal Society, founded in London in 1660, the institution that best represented the style of empirical, fact-collecting investigation he excelled in. His letters began in 1673, when his nation was at war with England, and, until the Dutch in 1688 helped England’s Whigs overthrow their Stuart rulers, were punctuated with polite salutes to that dynasty’s patronage; but throughout, politics deferred to higher motivations. It was, Leeuwenhoek explained, purely out of his own ‘impulse and curiosity’ that he was addressing London’s Heeren Curiuse Lieffhebbers – ‘lovers’, literally, of knowledge.

Snyder translates the word more freely as ‘dabblers’, responding to the near-playful demeanour of the era’s science. ‘We wander through a world of tiny creatures till now unknown, as if it were a newly discovered continent of our globe,’ wrote the intellectual and diplomat Constantijn Huygens not long after the microscope’s invention. The ‘amusement’ with which Leeuwenhoek would likewise ‘wander’ out of town, waiting for nature to seize his attention ‘without any particular order’, counterpointed his self-positioning. He had initially tangled with lenses as a cloth merchant, using them to examine twills, rather than as a classically educated Heer, or gentleman, such as Huygens. Technology was one area in which he could meet the likes of Huygens eye to eye. Snyder’s survey of Leeuwenhoek’s career attends carefully to his lens-making, which, while using accepted methods for grinding and blowing glass, delivered results no other microscopist could match. A bluebottle viewed through the blown lens of his most powerful surviving instrument ‘would appear one metre in length’ – a degree of magnification that wouldn’t be exceeded for another 150 years. Armed with this power of observation, Leeuwenhoek was willing to face down any philosopher, including ‘that famous man Renatus Descartes’, and even to put forward a little combative ‘brain-work’ of his own.

One might suppose that Leeuwenhoek was driven by a wish to understand nature in all its material complexity, globule by globule. Not so, Snyder argues. It was the globules through which he examined nature, the lenses themselves, that were his abiding concern. She concludes that Leeuwenhoek ‘was primarily interested not in anatomy, or in microscopic life, or in generation; his main scientific preoccupation was with the microscope, as an optical instrument … Although he never studied mathematical theories of optics, his interest was with visual perception itself.’ This contention looks rather forced when you consider that the records he left us are four parts recorded observation to one part inductive inference, with the techniques of observation largely left secret. But I can see why Snyder makes it. She is trying to squeeze Leeuwenhoek into shoes that will have him marching alongside his contemporary in Delft, Johannes Vermeer.

*

Vermeer and Leeuwenhoek were among the many Europeans who took to the new optical instruments devised between 1590 and 1620: the telescope, the microscope and the portable camera obscura. Snyder, whose background is in the history of the philosophy of science, offers a spirited account of these developments and of their conceptual as well as their practical implications. She is adept at picturing the culture in which her protagonists grew up. She has a relish for detail (‘It was not unusual … for a middle-class Dutch housewife to own 13 different bonnets’) and, like many other decent-minded progressives, she embraces Golden Age Holland, with its high standards of social provision, gender rights and civic cleanliness, as a congenial forerunner to the good modern polity. Then she zooms in on the city of Delft (although her publishers print its map back to front) and settles on a painter who died there in debt in 1675, but would eventually become its most famous son.

Snyder expresses her reverence for Vermeer in fact-finding and a wide reading of the critical literature. She supplies solid information about his studio practice, his likely cultural formation and his family background. If she tiptoes cautiously when approaching his actual canvases, the lack of illustrations in the book does her a disservice too: there is only so much a writer can convey about a painting without an adequate image for reference. I went along happily with large sections of this text. If I stepped back, however, to consider its organising thesis – the pairing of Leeuwenhoek and Vermeer – I started to stumble. It may seem notable that, say, Samuel Johnson and David Garrick set off together to conquer London from Lichfield, or that Emile Zola and Paul Cézanne were once classmates in Aix, but it’s not clear that such coincidences demand joint biographies, let alone overarching hypotheses.

Snyder is proper in her scholarship. She is at pains to point out that although only a few blocks separated the homes of Leeuwenhoek and Vermeer, and Leeuwenhoek was appointed executor to the painter’s estate, there is no documentary proof that the two were acquainted in life. If she thinks that Vermeer’s Astronomer (1668) might be a portrait of Leeuwenhoek, she makes it clear that this can only be speculation. But the connections that primary evidence won’t secure for her, Snyder ties up instead with lofty periodisation. She asserts the ‘cohesiveness of art and science’ during her protagonists’ lifetimes, and urges us to regard them as proto-Enlightenment figures, each beginning to ‘throw off the yoke of authority and tradition and focus on understanding nature on its own terms’.

This is a mismatch of historiographies. Snyder’s reference in her prologue to the ‘so-called Scientific Revolution’ is a way of acknowledging that this is a much debated interpretive construct, but she goes on to clarify that she subscribes to it. To do so is to assert that there is an incremental narrative to a certain set of human affairs, one usually seen as starting in the late 16th century. From that point forward, by this argument, observations and hypotheses build upwards, establishing a distinct new relation to nature. The editors of Leeuwenhoek’s letter about the frogspawn, for instance, note that if his ‘small black dots’ and subjacent ‘globules’ are interpreted as the larger and smaller cells into which embryos subdivide, then his observation can be confirmed as ‘wholly correct’. They believe that for the first time, Leeuwenhoek caught sight of entities whose reality would be proved by subsequent researchers and theorists. Such a formula simply won’t work if you apply it to paintings – not even to the most seemingly ‘descriptive’ of them, such as Vermeer’s View of Delft (1660). It’s not just that this townscape modifies, as has long been known and as Snyder acknowledges, details of architecture so that they better submit to the picture’s overall rhythms of light and mass. It’s that the camera obscura, the use of which undoubtedly contributed to the painting’s singular intensity, wasn’t revealing ‘the natural world as it was’ (Snyder’s phrase) in any comparable sense.

What it was offering was a shift in visual sensations – diminished figure-ground separation, enhanced colour saturation and halated highlights – that selectively interested the most ambitious Dutch painter of the mid-1600s, but which five decades later would be dismissed by the Newtonian perspectivist Willem’s Gravesande as ‘striking but false’. By that point Vermeer’s achievements – never well known outside a small circle – lay in deep obscurity, only to be rescued when Théophile Thoré started to reconstruct the oeuvre in the 1850s with eyes sharpened by the recent invention of photography. Snyder herself repeats what previous critics have argued: that if Vermeer at times (as in the View of Delft) leant on camera effects to pump up the optical stimulus, and hence a sense of the scene’s immediacy, at others (especially in his later works) he would foreground haloed beads of light as a form of Verfremdungseffekt, a deliberately estranging declaration of artifice. There is no steady incremental history here; no simple breakthrough to the ‘real’. Yet Snyder goes on to claim that Vermeer participated in a ‘transformation’ that ‘changed forever how people saw the world around them’, and that like a scientist, he was uncovering facts: ‘What Vermeer was painting was the way the eye actually sees, not the way the mind thinks it sees.’

Sight without mind strikes me as a provocative, even paradoxical formulation, though perhaps we are now half-habituated to it. If we have become so, that possibility only arose at the turn of the 17th century, when Johannes Kepler started equating the workings of the eye to those of the camera obscura. The dismantling of living organisms into their components was intrinsic to the scientific revolution, and with it came a notion of dismantling the dismantler, reducing the mind to a motion of particles – the programme of the ‘mechanical philosophers’. As for artists, they have at times since the 17th century aped or parodied aspects of this programme, but they have always done so within their roles as authors, possessed of personal intentions and temperaments.

Biography is a form that dovetails with this. You might get a better fit of treatment to material if you were to upend Snyder’s approach, and treat both the painter and the microscopist as artists rather than scientists, submitting propositions that were porous to the actual world but which stood in no particular order of proximity to it. Having shed the proto-Enlightenment narrative, you could then look these two men in the eye. The major shortcoming of Snyder’s text is that its protagonists never quite come alive. You may not care whether you get to know Leeuwenhoek, but surely we would all like to be a little closer to Vermeer, the so-called ‘sphinx of Delft’ who sits with his back to us in The Art of Painting (1666). Out of respect, perhaps, Snyder never dares ask him to look our way.

Yet it ought not to be impossible. A prudent respecter of academic consensus, Snyder omits from her bibliography a 2009 monograph that is, according to the art historian James Elkins, ‘the most comprehensive and detailed analysis ever published of Vermeer’ and ‘full of ideas that could fundamentally change the current understanding of his paintings’. Elkins, a shrewd surveyor of contemporary art studies, was discussing at a conference in 2013 why this book by the American academic Benjamin Binstock had been ignored by reviewers (with the result that I only happened on it by chance). Its racy title, Vermeer’s Family Secrets, didn’t go down well on campus, presumably, nor the combative grandiosity of Binstock’s prose; least of all, I expect, his claim that among the 39 items currently accredited to Vermeer, eight were painted not by Johannes but by his daughter Maria.[*] But the reason that this book offers a salutary counterbalance to Snyder’s is that Binstock has seriously thought about the tensions within which that extraordinary small oeuvre (it was probably never much larger) was created.

Binstock’s Vermeer compresses vaulting ambitions within a desperately cramped corner. He regards the painter (whose face does in fact almost certainly appear in an early work, The Procuress from 1656) as a Romantic avant la lettre, powered by personal conviction and a strong sense of the challenges facing the artist in mid-17th-century Holland. Rembrandt’s innovations persuaded Vermeer that painting’s content must henceforth be testamentary and autobiographical. Those of Carel Fabritius, the Delft artist killed when the town’s arsenal exploded in 1654, suggested that the means must now be optical. Vermeer – an innkeeper’s son – fitted this aesthetic programme into the tight working space provided by his in-laws when he married into a more monied family in 1653. The resulting paintings carried live attachments of meaning, as portraits do: Vermeer’s letter-reading women, for instance, represented his beloved wife, Catharina; the Girl with a Pearl Earring, his beloved eldest daughter. Yet they also detached themselves from family elbow-jostling – a distance enforced by camera effects – to stand as reflections on art’s otherness from life. View of Delft, according to Binstock, was intended to be the perfect painting: ‘an unsurpassable, crowning work’.

Vermeer’s ambitions led to a very slow rate of production. They were hardly affordable even during the interval between the 1654 explosion and the rampjaar or disaster year of 1672, when the French invaded Holland, sending its art market into an abrupt and decisive decline. Increasingly in hock to his mother-in-law from that point onwards, Vermeer collapsed in confidence, often handing Maria the brushes – so that in Girl with a Red Hat (conventionally dated to 1666 but believed by Binstock to have been produced in 1672), the ‘girl with the pearl earring’ has turned to painting her own likeness. After his death, aged only 43, his family palmed off the daughter’s work as the father’s to settle their huge bills with the neighbourhood baker.

Or so Binstock claims. For want of further documents, who can say for sure? One thing at least that feels right to me is Binstock’s insistence on the psychological tug-of-war that held the canvases taut: between a love of the subject itself and a love of the artwork. It was a precarious equipoise, and perfection was only a slip of the rope away from bizarrerie. The masterpieces of Vermeer’s thirties, from View of Delft to the Pearl Earring, were bookended by the thrilling giddiness of early work, such as the Met’s A Maid Asleep (c.1656), and the chilling alienation of his later paintings, like Allegory of the Catholic Faith (c.1671). At the same time, Binstock argues that both these pulls on Vermeer were worldly – and that the failure of the latter painting to promote its titular theme suggests where his heart did not lie. Here Binstock may half-converge with Snyder. Rather than mortify themselves for God, the modern men of 17th-century Delft were submitting themselves – along with their wives and households – to peculiar, exacting experiments that were secular in their ends. But the objectives sought by Vermeer, the dreamy family sponger, were in contradistinction, when it came to questions of mind and personhood, with those pursued by the indefatigable chamberlain of the courts. Science and fine art were already heading separate ways.

[*] Routledge, 456 pp., £30, January 2009, 978 0 415 96664 1