“Engaging . . . . Marvelous . . . . Poetic” — The Daily Beast

I am honored to have received such a gorgeously written review by Wendy Smith in The Daily Beast, one that captures exactly what I wanted to accomplish with the book.  She starts by praising Eye of the Beholder for being “one of those engaging books that make you smarter without making you suffer,” and ends with “This poetic, inclusive approach to popular science writing makes Eye of the Beholder an unfailing pleasure to read.”

How Two Dutch Geniuses Taught Us to See

Vermeer the painter and Leeuwenhoek the scientist were contemporaries in 17th century Delft, where each man pioneered breakthroughs that upended conventional wisdom about reality.

Vermeer the painter and Leeuwenhoek the scientist were contemporaries in 17th century Delft, where each man pioneered breakthroughs that upended conventional wisdom about reality.
Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing is one of those engaging books that makes you smarter without making you suffer. Laura J. Snyder’s scholarly yet accessible narrative offers refresher courses on the Scientific Revolution and the golden age of Dutch art, contextualized in a lively portrait of 17th-century Dutch society and personalized in the stories of two brilliant innovators who happened to live in the same bustling town.

Johannes Vermeer and Antoni van Leeuwenhoek were born and baptized in Delft within four days of each other in 1632, although it’s unclear whether or not they knew each other. Snyder makes a vivid and persuasive argument, however, that Vermeer’s paintings and Leeuwenhoek’s microscopic investigations were both instances of a new way of looking at the world, driven by advances in the science of optics and an emphasis on empirical observation that was congenial to the pragmatic Dutch in many different professions.

Leeuwenhoek, in fact, began his adult life as a cloth merchant; it was during his apprenticeship in Amsterdam, Snyder plausibly speculates, that he first used a convex lens to see something inaccessible to the naked eye, in this case the thread count of fabric. He was nearly 30 when a civil service appointment enabled him to devote most of his time to making his own lenses and the microscopes that contained them. By this time, around 1660, Vermeer was painting with the aid of a camera obscura, a device that passes light through a lens and projects the image on a flat surface, giving a much more accurate reproduction of how three-dimensional scenes look in two dimensions.

“The fascination with lenses pervaded both the artistic and the scientific communities,” Snyder contends. “These communities can be seen as one, united by the shared goal of investigating nature and the collective employment of optical devices.” Her sensitive exegeses of Vermeer’s work methods show him applying what he learned from the camera obscura about alterations in color and tone to the rich hues of A View of Delft and the variegated shadows of The Milkmaid. He mimicked the device’s variations of focus—middle ground sharp, foreground and background fuzzier—in The Lacemaker; what he saw through the camera obscura fueled his extraordinary sensitivity to different intensities of light, showcased in such bravura canvases as Young Woman with a Water Pitcher.

None of this makes Vermeer a mindless transcriber of visual information, Snyder is careful to note; his technique “evok[ed] the way nature manifested itself to human vision. He was experimentally exploring the concept of sight.” Her deft pocket history of 17th-century scientists’ challenge to classical theories of vision, buttressed by the development of instruments like the telescope and microscope, shows increasing acceptance of the idea that human beings had to learn how to see; part of that process involved learning to see what was actually there, not what outdated ideas or religious dogma told them to expect to see.

It was certainly not what Leeuwenhoek expected when, in 1674, he looked at a drop of lake water through one of his microscopes and saw tiny creatures moving in it. He had discovered “a new world of living beings, a world never before seen, never before even imagined,” Snyder writes, her expressive prose capturing the excitement of the moment. Like Galileo, who some 60 years earlier had viewed the moon’s surface through a telescope, Leeuwenhoek used an optical instrument to observe things in nature formerly invisible to human eyes. Bacteria and sperm were among the other microscopic entities he was the first to identify.

Like the artists of the day, who jealously guarded their professional tools and techniques, Leeuwenhoek was secretive about his methods and refused to divulge the specifications of his microscopes. But the Royal Society of London, with which he corresponded to announce all his major discoveries, aimed to set science apart from such dubious disciplines as alchemy by stressing openness and repeatability; not until 1677, when English microscope pioneer Robert Hooke was able to discern miniscule animals frolicking in rainwater and show them to a group of Royal Society fellows, did the society officially accept Leeuwenhoek’s findings.

By then, Vermeer was dead, suddenly felled at age 43 by a “frenzy” that may have been a heart attack or stroke. He left his widow with ten dependent children and huge debts; the fact that Leeuwenhoek was appointed trustee of his beleaguered estate strongly suggests that the two men were acquainted. Snyder, as meticulous about evidence here as she was in her stimulating group biography of four 19th-century scientists (The Philosophical Breakfast Club), concludes only that this would be the “simplest” explanation.

Her main interest is not in any personal relationship Vermeer and Leeuwenhoek may have had, but in the shared spirit of empirical inquiry that made them avatars of an age that transformed the practice of both science and art. “Daring to know required, first of all, daring to see,” she reminds us in a vivid epilogue that links the guiding principle of the Scientific Revolution with the optical experiments performed by Vermeer and Leeuwenhoek in fields that did not seem as separate to them as they do to us. The book closes with a final glimpse at Vermeer’s 1668 painting The Astronomer, a figure possibly modeled on Leeuwenhoek, who leans toward a globe bathed in sunlight. In one marvelous paragraph, Snyder draws together images of mapmaking, light, and shadow to capture the 17th-century’s dream of the freer, more rational future. This poetic, inclusive approach to popular science writing makes Eye of the Beholder an unfailing pleasure to read.

“Portrait of an age of insatiable intellectual curiosity” — Daily Mail

Eye of the Beholder has received this delightful review from the Daily Mail in the UK.  I love how the author captured the experimental exuberance of the age!

A quick autopsy my love, then off to the ball: The eccentric behaviour of Dutch natural scientist Antoni van Leeuwenhoek and painter Johannes Vermeer

  • At 41 van Leeuwenhoek used his body as a guinea pig in an experiment
  • Vermeer spent hours peering into the box-like interior of a camera obscura 
  • Could Vermeer and van Leeuwenhoek have inspired each other’s work?


PUBLISHED: 16:00 EST, 23 April 2015 | UPDATED: 16:00 EST, 23 April 2015

Eye of the Beholder by Laura J Snyder (Head of Zeus, £25)

The behaviour of Dutch natural scientist Antoni van Leeuwenhoek was nothing if not eccentric. In 1677, at the age of 41, he embarked on an extraordinarily gruesome experiment, using his body as a guinea pig.

Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (pictured in a portrait ) used his body as a guinea pig in an experiment

Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (pictured in a portrait ) used his body as a guinea pig in an experiment


He took three lice, nestled them among the hairs of his calf, rolled up a tight stocking so that the insects were bound to his leg and then left the stocking on and did not bathe for six days.

On the seventh day, he removed the stocking and counted more than 80 eggs but no young lice. In the interests of empiricism, the stocking went back on for another three days. Finally, the stocking came off to reveal at least 25 lice running up and down his leg.

‘This spectacle of all the young lice filled me with such aversion to the stocking,’ he wrote, ‘that I threw it, along with all the lice in it, out the window.’

He rubbed down his legs with ice, then took up his pen to calculate the louse’s reproduction rate. He estimated that two pairs of lice could generate 10,000 young in only eight weeks.

While Leeuwenhoeck was thus engaged, another great Dutchman, Johannes Vermeer, was intent on his own more genteel studies in his house on the opposite side of Delft’s market square.

Draped in a black cloth, Vermeer spent hours peering into the box-like interior of a camera obscura, an ancestor of the photographic camera. This was a light-tight wooden chamber with a hole or lens on one side, which could be used to project an image of a scene on to a glass plate or wall. They had been used for party tricks and for viewing solar eclipses but were increasingly being employed by artists to render paintings more lifelike than ever.

The experiments of these two men are the subject of Laura J. Snyder’s new biography. She asks an intriguing question: could Vermeer and Leeuwenhoek, who were born in the same week, lived and worked their entire lives in an area not much larger than a football pitch, and who had friends in common, have exchanged ideas and inspired each other’s work?

This is much more than a joint biography. It is a portrait of an age of insatiable intellectual curiosity.

The 17th century gave us an inventory of instruments which far extended man’s understanding of the world: accurate thermometers and barometers, the air pump, the pendulum clock, improvements to the telescope, the refinement of the microscope. Leeuwenhoek’s mastery of lens-grinding saw him build a microscope capable of magnification up to 480 times.

Scientists and dilettanti assembled cabinets of curiosity filled with rare animal and shell specimens. Leeuwenhoek’s collection included the eye of a whale, pickled in brandy.

Anatomical theatres for the dissection of bodies were built in Padua, Bologna, Leiden, Delft and Amsterdam. According to one chronicler, sumptuously dressed ladies would attend dissections of the bodies of executed criminals and then go straight to that night’s ball.

Snyder moves effortlessly not just between Vermeer’s studio and Leeuwenhoek’s laboratory, but all over Europe, from the universities of Italy, to the halls of the Royal Society in London, then the world’s pre-eminent scientific institution. Leeuwenhoeck wrote about 300 letters to the Royal Society, charting 50 years of experiments. He addressed them as ‘curious gentlemen dabblers’.

One of his great discoveries was the observation of thousands of swimming creatures, which he called animaculae or little animals, in murky water. He estimated there could be more than eight million of them in a single drop. Later generations would recognise them as bacteria.

He was also the first scientist to observe the existence and movement of sperm. No one had yet seen the human sperm or the egg or understood their part in reproduction.

Leeuwenhoek politely wrote to the President of the Royal Society: ‘What I investigate is only what, without sinfully defiling myself, remains as a residue of conjugal coitus.’

One feels a certain amount of sympathy for his wife, Cornelia. What with the lice and the post-conjugal microscope experiments, she must have been a very patient woman.

The great pleasure of this book is how Snyder makes the science clear to the layman. I have a degree in history of art and only one measly science GCSE in biology. Yet I was left more eager to peer down the lens at one of Leeuwenhoek’s slides, than to stand before even the most pellucid of Vermeer’s exquisite paintings.

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“Revelatory” — Philip Ball, Nature

Science writer Philip Ball wrote a lovely essay for Nature connecting Eye of the Beholder with Galileo’s Telescope, another new book having to do with the use of optical instruments in the 17th century.  Ball writes “Snyder beautifully evokes the ambience of late-seventeenth-century Delft. . . . She is revelatory about Vermeer’s aims and methods, helping to explain what is so mesmeric about his work.”

I’m a big fan of Philip Ball’s writings, so his praise of my book is a real thrill.



“Engaging and Richly Detailed” — Wall Street Journal

I was delighted to see this terrific (and lengthy) review of Eye of the Beholder in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal. I’m particularly pleased that the author, Jonathan Lopez, mentioned our colleague Walter Liedtke, whose recent tragic death was a blow to us all. And my son loved the reference to Leeuwenhoek as “the shambling, sighing, self-deprecating Columbo of 17th century science!”


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“Rich and Rewarding” — Graeme Wood, The American Scholar

Eye of the Beholder received a lovely review by Graeme Wood in The American Scholar. 

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“Ingenious, Lucid and Revealing” — Kirkus

Even though books have not yet come off the printing press (as I like to imagine it) the roll-out of Eye of the Beholder has begun!  The book received its first review: a prepublication Kirkus review.  It’s very complimentary, and I particularly love the final line:

“Ingenious, lucid and revealing look at the lives of two brilliant men who changed our way of seeing the world.”

The next few months promise to be exciting—and nerve-racking.  I look forward to sharing the journey with my readers.

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