Books or movies are often described as an immersive experience but the ways in which these works are discussed means that it is difficult to consider whether a visual artwork could be similarly engrossing. In the world of contemporary art there are works that are truly immersive in that the viewer must directly participate in a performance or virtual reality program but there are also older, more traditional, works that build an immersive reality for the viewer. The example that comes up most commonly in art history classes is the Diego Velazquez painting “Las Meninas” but the Jan Vermeer work “The Milkmaid” provides and interesting contrast while still providing a similar viewing experience. The strategies that allow these paintings to function are often not immediately obvious as a viewer but they still give a sense of reality and physical space that is absent from other works. It is this sense of reality through artificial constructs that is worth considering not just for their use in visual art but also for the implications on other artificial environments.
“The Milkmaid” is considered a transitional work in Vermeer’s style as he developed his use of allegory and perspective, but it demonstrates several of the key features that make his work feel so immersive. One such element is the way in which the scene is composed to feel natural without obvious demonstrations of linear perspective. The room still feels like it is a real space, there is a feeling of depth, but Vermeer also hasn’t chosen to paint a hallway behind the woman in order to exercise blatant use of linear perspective. Rather the depth of the room is constructed in the way that the window recedes towards the background and the baskets that hang on the wall. A similar sense of subtlety exists in the main scene, it is a moment in progress and the viewer can imagine the space as a continuation of their own without necessarily being confronted with a strategy like eye contact with the subject of the painting. This is a quiet moment of domestic labour and the viewing experience of the work (at least in ideal conditions) is also a quiet one where the atmosphere of the painting can overlap seamlessly with that of the viewer. Vermeer’s immersive environments are built on a subtly rather than obvious attempts to mimic the physicality of the real world and this softening of artificiality is what makes it successful.
Diego Velazquez took a much more heavy-handed approach to his immersive environment as he directly engages with the viewer and although it is an interesting viewing experience it is not necessarily one that is always effective. The major conceit of the “Las Meninas” painting is that the viewer is positioned in such a way that the painting implies they are the royal family since that was the intended audience of the work. It is a very successful construction of this kind of composition which is probably why it shows up in many art history classes but it is effective in a very particular context. The way the painter in the image looks out at the viewers, coupled with the barely visible mirror in the background of the painting positions the viewer as the royal couple, having their portrait painted as their daughter plays in front of them. Unlike in “The Milkmaid” where the subject doesn’t directly acknowledge the viewer Velazquez’s work only functions as intended when the viewer is able to consider their own interaction with the subject.
These two opposing strategies for creating immersive environments in painting are not entirely disconnected from the ways in which other kinds of immersive environments are constructed. In theatre it is ‘breaking the forth wall’ when the audience is brought into the story as the characters directly engage with them but it is also present in more static works of written fiction. Books like The Perks of Being a Wallflower begin from this position by addressing the reader as if in a letter, while other texts like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy have more subtle constructions where the reader is reading a history book that has been written by a character about the events of the fourth age. Deciding which kind of approach is appropriate has very much to do with knowing one’s audience because the strategy taken can either engage or alienate the audience. Showing off with a complicated conceit like in “Las Meninas” was probably a good choice for Velazquez because he really was painting for the Spanish royal family while Vermeer was working within an existing tradition of Dutch genre paintings. There are many people who enjoy a direct fourth wall break but for me personally I only got a few pages into the Perks of Being a Wallflower book purely because I hated the constant reminders that I was reading while I actually really enjoyed the history book format of the Lord of the Rings trilogy once I realized what was happening. For some readers being directly acknowledged makes them feel more included in or connected to the text but it is probably safer to go with a strategy that readers can choose not to engage with. Often the best created environments are the ones that can be bought into without conscious consideration, all the elements that make up the illusion being cleverly hidden away.