Vermeer’s painting also shows that the artist was interested in optical devices that were forerunners to the camera.
As the light hits the string of pearls, it breaks into round, blurry highlights, which are called “circles of confusion.”
Bright points of light, such as light glinting off a metallic surface, produces this same effect in a camera obscura, a
large darkened box fitted with a lens, in which image is projected (although without any means of fixing the image
permanently). Vermeer probably used this device to study his arrangement, which he then painted on canvas.
Vermeer, Woman Holding a Balance, 1662-3
The interests of the middle class are reflected in type of paintings that artists began to create as specialized products.
We have already seen examples of genre painting—scenes of everyday life—by Honthorst and Vermeer. Still life
was another popular type of painting among the new middle-class patrons of art in the Dutch Republic. These images
often display expensive glassware and silver set with artful disarray on a tabletop along with the remnants of a just-
finished meal. While the luxurious objects surely display the wealth and good taste of their owners (and of the
painting’s owners), many of these paintings also include objects that are broken, fruit that is rotten, or other clearly
symbolic items like an hourglass or a skull. Such objects suggest an allegorical meaning about the vanity of earthly
possessions; for that reason they are often called “vanitas still-lifes.” Similarly, flower paintings, another popular
type of still life, might include an array of flowers that could not all be in bloom at the same time or some flowers
that are already wilted.
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