June 2002 [oberlin online]
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When 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

Renowned 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 trace them.

His 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.

Realistic 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.

In 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.

However, 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.

Moreover, 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.

We 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.

Whatever 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.

This 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.

The 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.

Ultimately, 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 to it.

As a result, I am led to suspect obsession rather than studied inquiry as the basis of Hockney's theory. ATS

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