Jan Vermeer was a close friend and neighbor of Anton von Leewenhoek, the inventor of the microscope. Vermeer looks as closely and thoroughly as he can at his housemaid pouring milk into a bowl, at everything from the salt on the bread, to the gleam on the brass bucket in the background, to the nails in that superbly painted white plaster wall.
When we look closely, Vermeer reminds us of vision's limits and the image seems slightly out of focus (in fact he did use a camera, a camera obscura). The image begins to dissolve into its constituent colors and brush strokes.
Vermeer pays close attention to a light filled room in his house, and to the people within. No one paints late afternoon light coming into a room like Vermeer. No one paints it illumining a ceramic wine jug on a Persian carpet like him either. Always pay attention to that reflection in the mirror. The woman appears to be taking a music lesson on an early ancestor of the piano. In the mirror, she's clearly more interested in her teacher than in the lesson (if that is her teacher and not her boyfriend interrupting her). Vermeer himself appears in the mirror; at least his easel and his foot are there.
Edouard Manet painted Breakfast in the Studio as a sly homage to the Dutch masters, including Vermeer, by including so much for us to look at and to notice.
Monet discarded the fine detail and kept the over-all light effect in his view of the Terrace at Sainte Andresse by the sea.
Jan Van Eyck insisted that we look very carefully at the world into order to discern God's workings in it. As we look carefully and thoughtfully at his paintings, so he wanted us to do the same with the world. Here is the Chancellor to the Duke of Burgundy, Nicholas Rolin, at morning prayer, saying the 95th Psalm, seeing the object of his prayers, the Virgin and Child.
Out the window in this painting is one of the greatest landscapes of the Renaissance. A river town gleams in the golden light of early morning. We can see people on their way to work and to market, vineyards on the hillside, boats on the river, and the gleam of distant mountains rising in the morning mists. Two figures on the parapet are stand-ins for us looking with wonder at the view.
Here they are with the bridge and the gleaming river.
Here is a detail with the Christ child and the traffic in the town beneath.
Everything in this painting means more than itself. We view the landscape through three arches. What does that suggest? Note the bridge beginning at Christ's blessing hand. Note that the town on the Virgin's side of the painting is full of large splendid churches, while there is only one on Rolin's side. Note the roses and lilies in the garden behind the parapet. While the angel crowns the Virgin, over Rolin's head are carved scenes of Adam and Eve and the Drunken Noah. This painting is a hymn of praise to God the Creator, and about Rolin's salvation. We have to look carefully and thoughtfully to see it. Van Eyck makes it a pleasure.
Finally, here is a painting by Poussin of Christ healing the blind men on the road to Jericho. This too is a painting about looking and seeing. Most of the colors and details are crowded around blind man being healed. This miracle is for the instruction of the Apostles, but they have to look hard to see it and understand. The buildings on the left are darkened with dark blind windows, the state from which the blind men are emerging. Christ walks toward the left, to the darkness of their blindness and to His death in Jerusalem. It is a painting about looking and compassion.
Now do you not see that the eye embraced the beauty of the whole world?...It counsels and corrects all the arts of mankind...it is the prince of mathematics, and the sciences founded on it are absolutely certain. It has measured the distances and sizes of the stars; it has discovered the elements and their location...it has given birth to architecture and to perspective and to the divine art of painting.
Oh excellent, superior to all others created by God! What praises can do justice to your nobility? What peoples, what tongues will fully describe your function? The eye is the window of the human body through which its feels its way and enjoys the beauty of the world. Owing to the eye the soul is content to say in its bodily prison, for without it such bodily prison is torture.
--Leonardo da Vinci