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.