For the most part, art historians have long assumed that most of the Old Masters achieved their astonishing effects either through preternaturally gifted "eyeballing" or else (in the wake of the Italian Renaissance) through recourse to elaborate mathematical perspectives. Over the last few years, however, David Hockney and his collaborator, the physicist Charles Falco have been exploring an alternative possibility...
Hockney and Falco consider this 1543 double Lorenzo Lotto the Rosetto stone of their entire theory. Note the oriental rug on the table, how its patern goes out of focus in the middle, an effect unseeable in real life (where everything goes into focus the moment it is being tended to) but inevitable if a lens, with a limited depth of field, is projecting the subject magger onto a two-dimensional surface. Note how the back of the image snaps into focus once again, thanks to a refocussing of the lens, which in turn leads to a slight warpage between two different vanishing rays -- not the sole one that would have been expected were the image constructed on the basis of simple geometric perspective.
But where and when did the "optical look" first arise? Consider the sequence at left: Giotto (1300); and unknown Austrian (1365); Masolino da Panicale (1425); and Robert Campin (1430). Clearly something radical happens -- abruptly, with no apparent groping-towrd -- around 1430 in Bruges. Seemingly out of nowhere, it is as if Western painting has suddenly put on its spectacles: Awkwardness disapppears, and the clarity of the optical appears. But how?
Cardinal Niccolo Albergati visited Bruges only once, for three busy days in 1431, during which van Eyck managed to wedge in a quick drawing session. (Note the pinprick pupils and the dark shadows, suggestive of the sort of bright outdoor lighting an optical projection would have required.) The drawing was approximately 50% lifesize; the painted portrait, created the following year, was 40% larger than the drawing, and yet -- observe -- when recast at the same size, matches it almost perfectly. How else to acccount for the convergence except by way of some sort of optical projection?
In Bruges in the 1430's, one hundred years before Lotto, there likely didn't yet exist the requisite lenses. How, then, to account for the sudden transformation? No problem, suggests Falco, since concave mirrors envince virtually the same optical effects as lenses. (Try it yourself tomorrow morning: Take the make-up mirror in your bathroom, gather light from outside and project it onto your still dark interior wall. You may get a technicolor-vivid image of the outside world, only upside down -- perfect for tracing.) van Eyck placed a convex mirror at the very center of this masterpiece, the very mirror which, turned around, he may well have used to construct the image!
Hockney's first inklings regaring his theory occured as he was attending the great Ingres retrospective in London in January 1999. He was dumstruck by the clarity and precision of the quick pencil portraits Ingres had produced in Rome during the early 1800's. Presently, however, he became convinced that he'd encountered the French master's line -- fast, confident, without the slightest groping -- somewhere before, that indeed it bore and uncanny resemblance to Andy Warhol's. Warhol had famously traced his images from slide projections. Mightn't Ingres have been deploying some similar sort of optical device -- say, a camera lucida? And come to think of it, Hockney now surmised, couldn't one make out a similar optically derived look in Carravagio, Holbein, Vermeer, and Velazquez?
Optical devices, because of the limited "sweet spots" of their focus, require multiple refocussings, which in turn result in odd visual discrepancies -- multiple vanishing points, strange elongations, bizarre anatomical distortions -- all, for Hockney, sure indicators of "the optical." Consider these three images. In Caravaggio's Supper at Ammaus, the disciple's backstretched hand is bigger than either the one in the foreground or Jesus' own outstretched hand. Were van Dyke's Genovese matron to stand up, she'd likely prove at least 12 feet tall! Chardin's scullery maid returning from the market is superbly rendered, but where's her elbow? (She has one as seen from the hand up, an altogether different one as seen from the shoulder down -- corresponding to the painting's two different vanishing points.)
According to Hockney and Falco, the optical devices and their resultant look held sway over European art from 1430 through roughly 1850, with the coming of chemical fixatives and standard photography. For a moment, it might have seemed painting would no longer be required for the rendering of "reality." Instead, however, painting now fell away from "the optical" into an extended critique of the pretensions of photography, capturing all the things a mere photograph couldn't -- time, multiple vantages, emotion, lived reality -- in movements from Impressionism through cubism. Awkwardness returned to European painting for the first time in over 400 years. Consider these two images. The pre-optical (a Byzantine Christ Pantocrator, circa 1150) and the post-optical (van Gogh's portrait of Tubac, 1889).