Artists "Cheat": Realism and the Camera Obscura
Professor Disputes Relevance of a Theory that Has the Art
World in an Uproar
by Patricia Mathews, Associate Professor of Art History
British narrative painter David Hockney recently claimed that Western
artists from Jan van Eyck to Caravaggio and Ingres secretly used
optical lenses to project images onto their canvases in order to
ideas have generated outrage and its opposite in the art world,
similar to the response in the world of crime detection to popular
detective writer Patricia Cornwell's claim to have discovered the
identity of Jack the Ripper in British artist Walter Richard Sickert.
Both can show some evidence of their claims, and both are convinced
that they have made discoveries of major importance, but neither
seems capable of seeing their claim in a larger context.
details in Ingres' painting of Louis Bertin that are lacking
in his sketch convince the author that the artist did not use
optical tools to achieve realism, as argued by prominent artist
David Hockney. Images courtesy of Oberlin College Department
of Art Slide Library.
his book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques
of the Old Masters (2001), as well as in the BBC documentary
on his theory, Hockney contends that the use of an optical device
explains the powerful realism of paintings and drawings from the
years 1425 to 1870. His discussion of the work of 19th-century French
academic painter J.A.D. Ingres is especially telling. He suggests
that the surety of line and detail in Ingres' drawings, especially
the portraits, was not the result of skill alone, but required the
use of some form of refracting instrument.
Ingres' drawings of women as a whole show similarities of face,
lips, eye shape, neck length, and narrow sloping shoulders that
suggest abstract formulation rather than traced form. Surely not
all the women Ingres drew and painted actually had such strange
proportions and similar features.
Ingres' drawn portraits are only references for the much-changed
and idealized paintings for which they were made. My favorite example
is the 1830 portrait of newspaper magnate Louis Bertin. In the painting,
Bertin takes on the weight and authority of a powerful man of industry,
traits lacking in the disheveled figure in the sketch. The hair
is particularly illustrative of Ingres' technique. He takes the
flyaway, mussed hair of the rather innocuous Bertin in the drawing
and turns it into the sculpted locks of a man of power and prestige.
Not only does the drawing show little relevance to the heavier massing
of composition and bodily structure in the painting, but Bertin
himself also has as much if not more realism in the details of his
painted portrait than he does in the drawing. This alone refutes
Hockney's argument that for such realism to occur, Ingres had to
have used a technical aid such as mirroring lenses.
have known for years that the 17th-century Dutch painter Vermeer
relied on a camera obscura - a darkened room or box with
a small aperture through which an image is projected and often sharpened
by the use of lenses - for his own subtle and beautifully lit works.
So why should Hockney's so-called discovery cause such a disturbance
in the art world? The answer lies in the specter of originality.
truth Hockney's theories contain - and despite his reassurance that
only "real" artists could have made art out of such optical
tracing - audiences commonly believe that artists have cheated by
using such tools.
idea comes from outmoded modernist notions of originality as derived
from within the artist and free of any exterior influence or technical
aid. This concept did not exist in the periods prior to modernity.
great Italian baroque sculptor Bernini, for example, sought not
to create something entirely new from his interior self alone, but
rather to emulate and surpass the greatest Renaissance sculptor,
Michelangelo. Throughout these four centuries, to copy from previous
masters was to learn, not to cheat. There would have been no need
for secrecy, because there would have been no shame involved in
copying a refracted image of the real.
I find it difficult to accept Hockney's sweeping claims. Most of
his proof could
be interpreted differently, and I question how such a secret could
exist for more than 400 years with no actual written references
a result, I am led to suspect obsession rather than studied inquiry
as the basis of Hockney's theory. ATS