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

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

by Laura J. Snyder

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The remarkable story of how an artist and a scientist in seventeenth-century Holland transformed the way we see the world.On a summer day in 1674, in the small Dutch city of Delft, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek—a cloth salesman, local bureaucrat, and self-taught natural philosopher—gazed through a tiny lens set into a brass holder and discovered a never-before


The remarkable story of how an artist and a scientist in seventeenth-century Holland transformed the way we see the world.On a summer day in 1674, in the small Dutch city of Delft, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek—a cloth salesman, local bureaucrat, and self-taught natural philosopher—gazed through a tiny lens set into a brass holder and discovered a never-before imagined world of microscopic life. At the same time, in a nearby attic, the painter Johannes Vermeer was using another optical device, a camera obscura, to experiment with light and create the most luminous pictures ever beheld.“See for yourself!” was the clarion call of the 1600s. Scientists peered at nature through microscopes and telescopes, making the discoveries in astronomy, physics, chemistry, and anatomy that ignited the Scientific Revolution. Artists investigated nature with lenses, mirrors, and camera obscuras, creating extraordinarily detailed paintings of flowers and insects, and scenes filled with realistic effects of light, shadow, and color. By extending the reach of sight the new optical instruments prompted the realization that there is more than meets the eye. But they also raised questions about how we see and what it means to see. In answering these questions, scientists and artists in Delft changed how we perceive the world.In Eye of the Beholder, Laura J. Snyder transports us to the streets, inns, and guildhalls of seventeenth-century Holland, where artists and scientists gathered, and to their studios and laboratories, where they mixed paints and prepared canvases, ground and polished lenses, examined and dissected insects and other animals, and invented the modern notion of seeing. With charm and narrative flair Snyder brings Vermeer and Van Leeuwenhoek—and the men and women around them—vividly to life. The story of these two geniuses and the transformation they engendered shows us why we see the world—and our place within it—as we do today.Eye of the Beholder was named "A Best Art Book of the Year" by Christie's and "A Best Read of the Year" by New Scientistin 2015.

Editorial Reviews

Russell Shorto
“A thoughtful elaboration of the modern notion of seeing. Laura J. Snyder delves into the seventeenth century fascination with the tools of art and science, and shows how they came together to help us make sense of what is right in front of our eyes.”
Walter Liedtke
“As in The Philosophical Breakfast Club, Laura Snyder tells the tale of a crucial moment in human discovery by focusing on the interplay between the personalities involved, in this case the great Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer and the amateur scientist Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, best known for his miniature microscopes and his pioneering work as a microbiologist. This was an age when artists as well as scientists explored nature, occasionally with the same technical means, such as optical devices. This delightful book is solidly researched but reads like a novel—and a good one at that!”
Oliver Sacks
“Laura Snyder is both a masterly scholar and a powerful storyteller. In Eye of the Beholder, she transports us to the wonder-age of seventeenth-century Holland, as new discoveries in optics were shaping the two great geniuses of Delft—Vermeer and van Leeuwenhoek—and changing the course of art and science forever. A fabulous book.”
Jonathan Lopez - Wall Street Journal
“An engaging and richly detailed work of interdisciplinary history.”
Jonathon Keats - New Scientist
“Irresistible. . . . [Snyder] ingeniously explores the minutiae of her subjects’ lives to reveal sweeping changes in how their world was understood—ones that still resonate today.”
Philip Ball - Nature
“Beautifully evokes the ambience of late-seventeenth-century Delft . . . revelatory about Vermeer’s aims and methods, helping to explain what is so mesmeric about his work.”
Wendy Smith - The Daily Beast
“Vivid and persuasive. . . . This poetic, inclusive approach to popular science writing makes Eye of the Beholder an unfailing pleasure to read.”
Deborah Blum - New York Times Book Review
“Elegantly written intellectual history . . . fascinating.”
Hanneke Grootenboer - History Today
“[Snyder] paints this vibrant world with verve, adding a wealth of details—as if following the slow and conscientious working methods of her protagonists....[giving] us as readers a lively sense of this exciting period and a thorough insight into the wider implications of these technological developments.”
The New York Times Book Review - Deborah Blum
"The true allure of the story of their lives and works," [Snyder] writes, "is the way both men played key roles in the sea change in the notion of seeing that occurred in this time and place." It's that idea, then, of a revolutionary moment in human perception that Snyder considers in this elegantly written intellectual history. The result is a fascinating…study of a time when Western civilization was first beginning to appreciate the world's multilayered complexity, and Snyder…proves an able and engaging guide.
Publishers Weekly
Snyder (The Philosophical Breakfast Club) transports readers to the small Dutch city of Delft during the height of the scientific revolution to examine the lives of artists Johannes Vermeer and Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, and the changing notions of “seeing” in both art and science in 17th-century Europe. Though Snyder makes a convincing case that optics and natural philosophy changed the way people saw, why she chose to focus on Vermeer and Leeuwenhoek is less clear. Their narratives are given historical context, which sometimes relies on speculation. But many of the historical facts included are irrelevant to understanding the topic at hand. For example, Snyder gives descriptions of a single receipt from Leeuwenhoek’s fabric store, and the details of Vermeer’s marriage certificate. Numerous tangents about their contemporaries in the fields of optics and painting serve to illuminate the environment in which these men worked, but often seem to paint these other artists and scientists more vividly than Vermeer and Leeuwenhoek. Agent: Howard Morhaim, Howard Morhaim Agency. (Mar.)
Katharine Weber
“Laura J. Snyder's Eye of the Beholder is an irresistible invitation into the lives and work of Vermeer and van Leeuwenhoek and how the extraordinary intersection of their genius in Seventeenth century Delft awakened our perceptions of how we see the world. It's a wonderful and vivid book.”
Roma Tearne - The Independent [UK]
“Absorbing…. Snyder takes us back through time, beyond the reflections and shadows, to the very heart of Vermeer’s art.”
Deborah Blum - The New York Times Book Review
“Elegantly written intellectual history…fascinating.”
Graeme Wood - The American Scholar
“Rich and rewarding.”
Kirkus Reviews
A fine addition to the burgeoning genre of dual biography of great figures whose lives were related, if often distantly. Snyder (Philosophy/St. John's Univ.; The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends Who Transformed Science and Changed the World, 2010, etc.) chronicles the lives of two significant Dutchmen: Antoni Van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723), founder of microbiology, and his contemporary, painter Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675). Born almost simultaneously in 1632, they worked barely a block apart. Leeuwenhoek was executor of Vermeer's estate after his death, but historians still debate whether they were more than just mere acquaintances. A prosperous merchant, Leeuwenhoek grew fascinated by lenses. Spectacles and magnifying glasses had existed for centuries and microscopes for decades, but the existing crude compound microscopes were limited to about a tenfold magnification. Using a technique he kept secret (only rediscovered in 1957), Leeuwenhoek made tiny glass beads that magnified 200 to 500 times. His microscopes were complex devices that were difficult to use, but through them, Leeuwenhoek discovered formerly invisible bacteria and other unknown organisms, flabbergasting but ultimately convincing Britain's Royal Society, whose members read his letters, his only scientific publications. Aiming at an accurate depiction of nature, 17th-century Dutch painters were as obsessive in their studies as scientists. Snyder accompanies her biography of Vermeer with an intense, relentlessly detailed analysis of his technique and use of color, arguing that his sublime, luminous style accorded with the new optical theories. He certainly used technical devices, including the camera obscura, much as early scientists did to experiment with light and uncover its properties. "[A]rtists—like Vermeer—have always relied upon science and technology to push the limits of their arts," writes the author, "and they will always do so, especially when science opens up a new way of seeing the world." Ingenious, lucid and revealing look at the lives of two brilliant men who changed our way of seeing the world.

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Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.30(d)

Meet the Author

Fulbright scholar Laura J. Snyder is the author of The Philosophical Breakfast Club, a Scientific American Notable Book, winner of the 2011 Royal Institution of Australia poll for Favorite Science Book, and an official selection of the TED Book Club. She is also the author of Eye of the Beholder and Reforming Philosophy. Snyder writes about science and ideas for the Wall Street Journal. She is a professor at St. John’s University and lives in New York City.

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