Hockney–Falco thesis

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A diagram of the camera obscura from 1772. According to the Hockney-Falco thesis, such devices were central to much of the great art from the Renaissance period to the dawn of modern art. Camera obscura.jpg
A diagram of the camera obscura from 1772. According to the Hockney–Falco thesis, such devices were central to much of the great art from the Renaissance period to the dawn of modern art.

The Hockney–Falco thesis is a theory of art history, advanced by artist David Hockney and physicist Charles M. Falco. Both claimed that advances in realism and accuracy in the history of Western art since the Renaissance were primarily the result of optical instruments such as the camera obscura, camera lucida, and curved mirrors, rather than solely due to the development of artistic technique and skill. Nineteenth-century artists' use of photography had been well documented. [1] In a 2001 book, Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, Hockney analyzed the work of the Old Masters and argued that the level of accuracy represented in their work is impossible to create by "eyeballing it". Since then, Hockney and Falco have produced a number of publications on positive evidence of the use of optical aids, and the historical plausibility of such methods. The hypothesis led to a variety of conferences and heated discussions.

Art history the academic study of objects of art in their historical development

Art history is the study of objects of art in their historical development and stylistic contexts; that is genre, design, format, and style. The study includes painting, sculpture, architecture, ceramics, furniture, and other decorative objects.

David Hockney, is an English painter, draftsman, printmaker, stage designer, and photographer. As an important contributor to the pop art movement of the 1960s, he is considered one of the most influential British artists of the 20th century.

Charles M. Falco Physicists

Charles M. Falco is an American experimental physicist and an expert on the magnetic and optical properties of thin film materials.


Setup of the 2001 publication

Part of Hockney's work involved collaboration with Charles Falco, a condensed matter physicist and an expert in optics. While the use of optical aids would generally enhance accuracy, Falco calculated the types of distortion that would result from specific optical devices; Hockney and Falco argued that such errors could in fact be found in the work of some of the Old Masters. [2] [ citation needed ]

Condensed matter physics branch of physics

Condensed matter physics is the field of physics that deals with the macroscopic and microscopic physical properties of matter. In particular it is concerned with the "condensed" phases that appear whenever the number of constituents in a system is extremely large and the interactions between the constituents are strong. The most familiar examples of condensed phases are solids and liquids, which arise from the electromagnetic forces between atoms. Condensed matter physicists seek to understand the behavior of these phases by using physical laws. In particular, they include the laws of quantum mechanics, electromagnetism and statistical mechanics.

Optics The branch of physics that studies light

Optics is the branch of physics that studies the behaviour and properties of light, including its interactions with matter and the construction of instruments that use or detect it. Optics usually describes the behaviour of visible, ultraviolet, and infrared light. Because light is an electromagnetic wave, other forms of electromagnetic radiation such as X-rays, microwaves, and radio waves exhibit similar properties.

Distortion is the alteration of the original shape of something. In communications and electronics it means the alteration of the waveform of an information-bearing signal, such as an audio signal representing sound or a video signal representing images, in an electronic device or communication channel.

Hockney's book prompted intense and sustained debate among artists, art historians, and a wide variety of other scholars. In particular, it has spurred increased interest in the actual methods and techniques of artists among scientists and historians of science, as well as general historians and art historians. The latter have in general reacted unfavorably, interpreting the Hockney–Falco thesis as an accusation that the Old Masters "cheated" and intentionally obscured their methods. [3] Physicist David G. Stork and several co-authors have argued against the Hockney–Falco thesis from a technical standpoint. [4] [5] [6]

History of science study of the historical development of science and scientific knowledge

The history of science is the study of the development of science and scientific knowledge, including both the natural and social sciences. Science is a body of empirical, theoretical, and practical knowledge about the natural world, produced by scientists who emphasize the observation, explanation, and prediction of real-world phenomena. Historiography of science, in contrast, studies the methods employed by historians of science.

Hockney and Falco's theory has already inspired an increase in research regarding the use of optics throughout the history of art. [7] For instance, there was the case of the decade-long research on Rembrandt's works conducted by painter Francis O'Neill. [8] In the published paper he wrote with Sofia Palazzo Corner entitled, Rembrandt's Self-portraits, O'Neill presented recurring themes in the painter's works that serve as evidence in his use of mirrors, particularly, in his self-portraits. [9] These include the use of chiaroscuro, which is a signature of the lighting conditions necessary for projections as well as Rembrandt's off-center gaze in his self-portraits, which - according to O'Neill - indicated that the artist might have been looking at a projection surface off to the side rather than straight onto a flat mirror. [9]

Rembrandt 17th-century Dutch painter and printmaker

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was a Dutch draughtsman, painter and printmaker. An innovative and prolific master in three media, he is generally considered one of the greatest visual artists in the history of art and the most important in Dutch art history. Unlike most Dutch masters of the 17th century, Rembrandt's works depict a wide range of style and subject matter, from portraits and self-portraits to landscapes, genre scenes, allegorical and historical scenes, biblical and mythological themes as well as animal studies. His contributions to art came in a period of great wealth and cultural achievement that historians call the Dutch Golden Age, when Dutch art, although in many ways antithetical to the Baroque style that dominated Europe, was extremely prolific and innovative, and gave rise to important new genres. Like many artists of the Dutch Golden Age, such as Jan Vermeer of Delft, Rembrandt was also an avid art collector and dealer.

Chiaroscuro use of strong contrasts between light and dark, usually bold contrasts affecting a whole composition in art

Chiaroscuro, in art, is the use of strong contrasts between light and dark, usually bold contrasts affecting a whole composition. It is also a technical term used by artists and art historians for the use of contrasts of light to achieve a sense of volume in modelling three-dimensional objects and figures. Similar effects in cinema and photography also are called chiaroscuro.

Origins of the thesis

As described in Secret Knowledge, in January 1999 during a visit to the National Gallery, London, Hockney conceived of the idea that optical aids were the key factor in the development of artistic realism. He was struck by the accuracy of portraits by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, and became convinced that Ingres had used a camera lucida or similar device. From there, Hockney began looking for signs of the use of optical aids in earlier paintings, creating what he called the Great Wall in his studio by organizing images of great realistic art by time period. What he saw as a sudden rise of realism around 1420, combined with Charles Falco's suggestion that concave mirrors could have been used in that period to project images, was the germ of the Hockney–Falco thesis. [10]

<i>Camera lucida</i> optical device used as a drawing aid by artists

A camera lucida is an optical device used as a drawing aid by artists.

In 2000, Falco and Hockney published an analysis ("Optical Insights into Renaissance Art") of the likely use of concave mirrors in Jan van Eyck's work in Optics & Photonics News, vol. 11. In 2001, Hockney published an extended form of his argument in Secret Knowledge.

The hypothesis that technology was used in the production of Renaissance Art was not much in dispute in early studies and literature. [11] The 1929 Encyclopædia Britannica contained an extensive article on the camera obscura and cited Leon Battista Alberti as the first documented user of the device as early as 1437. [11] The discussion started by the Hockney–Falco thesis ignored the abundant evidence for widespread use of various technical devices, at least in the Renaissance, and, e.g., Early Netherlandish painting. [12]

<i>Encyclopædia Britannica</i> General knowledge English-language encyclopaedia

The Encyclopædia Britannica, formerly published by Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., is a general knowledge English-language encyclopaedia. It was written by about 100 full-time editors and more than 4,000 contributors. The 2010 version of the 15th edition, which spans 32 volumes and 32,640 pages, was the last printed edition.

Camera obscura optical device that projects an image of its surroundings on a screen

Camera obscura, also referred to as pinhole image, is the natural optical phenomenon that occurs when an image of a scene at the other side of a screen is projected through a small hole in that screen as a reversed and inverted image on a surface opposite to the opening. The surroundings of the projected image have to be relatively dark for the image to be clear, so many historical camera obscura experiments were performed in dark rooms.

Leon Battista Alberti Italian architect

Leon Battista Alberti was an Italian humanist author, artist, architect, poet, priest, linguist, philosopher and cryptographer; he epitomised the Renaissance Man. Although he is often characterized exclusively as an architect, as James Beck has observed, "to single out one of Leon Battista's 'fields' over others as somehow functionally independent and self-sufficient is of no help at all to any effort to characterize Alberti's extensive explorations in the fine arts." Although Alberti is known mostly for being an artist, he was also a mathematician of many sorts and made great advances to this field during the 15th century. Alberti's life was described in Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects.

Hockney's argument

Detail of the chandelier and mirror from Van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait, one of Hockney's key examples Jan van Eyck 008.jpg
Detail of the chandelier and mirror from Van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait , one of Hockney's key examples

In Secret Knowledge, Hockney argues that early Renaissance artists such as Jan van Eyck and Lorenzo Lotto used concave mirrors; as evidence, he points to the chandelier in Van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait , the ear in Van Eyck's portrait of Cardinal Albergati, and the carpet in Lotto's Husband and Wife. Hockney suggests that later artists, beginning with Caravaggio, used convex mirrors as well, to achieve a large field of view.

Secret Knowledge recounts Hockney's search for evidence of optical aids in the work of earlier artists, including the assembly of a "Great Wall" of the history of Western art. The 15th century work of Jan van Eyck seems to be the turning point, he argues, after which elements of realism became increasingly prominent. He correlates shifts toward increased realism with advances in optical technologies. The argument of Secret Knowledge is primarily a visual one, as Hockney was largely unable to determine when and how optical aids were used by textual or direct evidence. [13]

Falco and Ibn al-Haytham

At a scientific conference in February 2007, Falco further argued that the Arabic physicist Ibn al-Haytham's (965–1040) work on optics, in his Book of Optics , may have influenced the use of optical aids by Renaissance artists. Falco said that his and Hockney's examples of Renaissance art "demonstrate a continuum in the use of optics by artists from c. 1430, arguably initiated as a result of Ibn al-Haytham's influence, until today." [14]


Artist's skill

Art historians and others have criticized Hockney's argument on the grounds that the use of optical aids, though well-established in individual cases, has little value for explaining the overall development of Western art, and that historical records and paintings and photographs of art studios (sans optical devices), as well as present-day realist artists, demonstrate that high levels of realism are possible without optical aids. [10]

Optical distortion

In addition to incredulity on the part of art historians and critics of modern art, some of the harshest criticism of the Hockney–Falco thesis came from another expert in optics, image processing and pattern recognition, David G. Stork. Stork analyzed the images used by Falco and Hockney, and came to the conclusion that they do not demonstrate the kinds of optical distortion that curved mirrors or converging lenses would cause. [15] Falco has claimed that Stork's published criticisms have relied on fabricated data and misrepresentations of Hockney and Falco's theory. [16] Stork has rebutted this claim. [17]

Renaissance optics

Critics of the Hockney–Falco theory claim that the quality of mirrors and optical glass for the period before 1550 and a lack of textual evidence (excluding paintings themselves as "documentary evidence") of their use for image projection during this period casts doubt on the theory. [18] Historians are more inclined to agree about the possible relevance of the thesis between 1550 and the invention of the telescope, and cautiously supportive after that period, when there clearly was interest and capacity to project realistic images; 17th century painters such as Johannes Vermeer and Gaspar van Wittel used optical devices in a variety of ways, though not the ways postulated by Hockney. [19]

Leaving the technical optical arguments aside, historians of science investigated several aspects of the historical plausibility of the thesis in a 2005 set of articles in Early Science and Medicine. In his introduction to the volume, Sven Dupré claimed the Hockney–Falco analysis rests heavily on a small number of examples, "a few dozen square centimeters" of canvas that seem to show signs that optical devices were used. [10]

Image projection

Leonardo's notebooks include several designs for creating concave mirrors. Leonardo also describes a camera obscura in his Codex Atlanticus of 1478–1519.

The camera obscura was well known for centuries and documented by Ibn al-Haitham in his Book of Optics of 1011–1021. In 13th-century England Roger Bacon described the use of a camera obscura for the safe observation of solar eclipses, exactly because the viewer looks at the projected image and not the sun itself.

David Lindberg's A Catalogue of Medieval and Renaissance Optical Manuscripts (Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1974) lists 61 manuscripts written in the years 1000–1425. These manuscripts not only describe methods for making mirrors and parabolic mirrors but also discuss their use for image projection.

Optical glass

Sara J. Schechner claimed that surviving glassware from the 15th and 16th centuries is far too imperfect to have been used to create realistic images, while "even thinking about projecting images was alien to the contemporary conceptual frame of mind." [20] Vincent Ilardi, a historian of Renaissance optical glass, subsequently argued against Schechner's conclusions based on surviving glassware, suggesting that the present condition of Renaissance glassware is not likely to reflect the optical quality of such glassware when it was new. Ilardi documents Lorenzo Lotto's purchase of a high-priced crystal mirror in 1549, bolstering the Hockney–Falco thesis in Lotto's case. [21] Furthermore, even normal eyeglasses (spectacles) can also project images of sufficient optical quality to support the Hockney–Falco thesis and such eyeglasses, along with magnifying glasses and mirrors, were not only available at the time, but actually pictured in 14th century paintings by artists such as Tommaso da Modena.

Dutch draper and pioneering microbiologist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632–1723), a contemporary of artist Vermeer (and an executor for Vermeer when he died in 1675) in Delft was known to have exceptional lens making skills, having created single small lenses capable of 200x magnification, far exceeding those of more complex compound microscopes of the period. Indeed, his feats of lens making were not matched for a considerable time as he kept aspects of their construction secret; in the 1950s, C.L. Stong used thin glass thread fusing instead of polishing to recreate Leeuwenhoek design microscopes. It was long believed that Antonie van Leeuwenhoek was a master lens grinder (a notion repeated in the recent BBC television documentary "Cell"). However, it is now believed[ by whom? ] that he came upon a relatively simple method of making small, high quality glass spheres by heating and manipulating a small rod of soda lime glass.[ citation needed ]

Metal mirrors

On his website, Falco also claims Schechner overlooked manuscript evidence for the use of mirrors made from steel and other metals, as well as numerous metal artifacts that belie the claim that sufficiently large and reflective metal mirrors were unavailable, and that other contributors to the Early Science and Medicine volume relied on Schechner's mistaken work in dismissing the thesis. [22]

Earlier evidence of the use of optical tools

Detail of the Annunciation (van Eyck, Washington) with three crown glass windows behind Mary Annunciation - Virgin and Angel - Jan van Eyck - 1434 - NG Wash DC.jpg
Detail of the Annunciation (van Eyck, Washington) with three crown glass windows behind Mary
Mirror depicted in the 1434 Arnolfini Portrait The Arnolfini Portrait, detail (2).jpg
Mirror depicted in the 1434 Arnolfini Portrait

Don Ihde called the hypothesis being 'hyped' and referred to clear evidence about the use of optical tools by, e.g., Albrecht Dürer and Leonardo da Vinci and others. As well the 1929 Encyclopædia Britannica [11] contains an extensive article on the camera obscura and cites Leon Battista Alberti as the first documented user of the device as early as 1437. [11] Ihde states abundant evidence for widespread use of various technical devices at least in the Renaissance and e.g. in Early Netherlandish painting. [12] Jan van Eyck's 1434 painting Arnolfini Portrait shows a convex mirror in the centre of the painting. Van Eyck also left his signature above this mirror, [12] showing the importance of the tool. The painting includes a crown glass window in the upper left side, a rather expensive luxury at the time. Van Eyck was rather fascinated by glass and its qualities, which was as well of high symbolic importance for his contemporaries. [23] Early optical instruments were comparatively expensive in the Medieval age and the Renaissance. [24]

See also

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  1. In Aaron Scharf's 1968 book Art and Photography (Allen Lane, The Penguin Press), referred to by Hockney in his 1977 painting My Parents (Tate, London) in which his father attentively reads the volume. Scharf notes in his introduction (p.1); 'In 1568 Daniele Barbaro, the Venetian writer on architecture, recommended the camera Obscura as an aid to artists: "By holding the paper steady you can trace the whole perspective outline with a pen, shade it, and delicately colour it from nature."'
  2. Charles Falco, FAQ (accessed March 16, 2007). Archived February 20, 2007, at the Wayback Machine
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