Haydn in Camera?

Did Haydn ever look through a camera obscura? Darkened rooms with a pinhole to allow light in have been used since ancient times to safely watch solar eclipses.

Portable tent-type camera obscuras with an arrangement of convex lenses and mirrors were well known by the seventeenth century. The lens would have made the image brighter by allowing more light in.

And by the eighteenth century, box-type camera obscuras were being manufactured on a mass scale as well!

Dutch Perspective Box – Hoogstraten

Certainly there is evidence to show that the camera obscura and its images were not only known but widely appreciated in seventeenth-century Vienna.

In an Introduction to the Great Art of Painting, Dutch painter Samuel van Hoogstraten—distantly connected to that master of illusion, Johannes Vermeer, through a slightly older contemporary of the Delft artist, Carel Fabritius—writes about the many cameras he’s seen on his travels:

“In Vienna, I saw countless people walking and turning about on a piece of paper in a small room; and in London I saw hundreds of little barges with passengers and the whole river, landscape and sky on a wall, and everything that was capable of motion was moving.”

Maria Theresa’s Habsburg forebears, the Emperors Rudolph and Ferdinand III were fascinated by optics. Rudoph II surrounded himself with men such as Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler.

In a letter to Francis Bacon, the English diplomat Henry Wotton describes a tent-like camera shown to him by Kepler. The device, Wotton, comments would be extremely useful for the making of maps and the accurate rendering of topographic features.

Kepler may in fact have been using his tent camera for just such a purpose in Linz, Austria. The device was portable and by rotating the mirror affixed to the top, one could easily capture a 360 degree view of the area being surveyed.

It’s tempting to think that Haydn might have observed astronomers, engineers, and other men of science using a tent-type camera. The box-type seems to have been better suited for home use and for the entertainment of lay people. The image was reflected on the top of the box and was, as a result, quite a bit dimmer than the image a tent-type camera with its interior protected from ambient light could produce.

But perhaps Haydn saw cameras being used closer to home, used by the many artists and scene painters his employer, Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, employed to create sets for the plays and operas produced at court.

The first mention of the use of a camera for the creation of a work of art appears in Leonardo da Vinci’s writings. Da Vinci suggests using a translucent screen to intercept the image before it can reach the wall. The artist can then sit behind the screen and trace the image without his own shadow obscuring it.

Both Carel Fabritius and van Hoogstraten were fascinated by perspective illusion. Many of their works appear to have been meant for curved surfaces where the distortions and elongations visible when the painting was viewed flat would have resolved into a recognizable image.

Van Hoogstraten had the honor of working at the Habsburg Court for Emperor Ferdinand III. The trompe-l’oeil still lifes that so fascinated his patron must have been available for the Emperor’s great-grand-daughter to view as well.

Bellotto’s Schonbrunn

Haydn would have been a young choirboy when the Italian Vedute painter, Bellotto, nephew of the great Canaletto, came to Vienna to paint a stunning view of the imperial summer palace Schonbrunn. Bellotto’s art, like Canaletto’s, has a photographic quality about it. The breadth of view and the details he’s able to capture have to be seen to be believed.

Perhaps the young Sepperl poked his head into Bellotto’s tent, intent on the images captured on the screen within. Did he try to trace them? Or was he too busy clambering up the scaffolding the construction workers had set up to be impressed by the magic of a camera obscura?

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2 Responses to Haydn in Camera?

  1. I know artists of that era used camera obscura and that’s how they managed to create such realistic images on canvas.

  2. Nupur says:

    Yes, in a sense, artists were the first photographers!

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