Through a Glass, Darkly

Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae

by Athanasius Kircher
Rome, 1646; reprinted Amsterdam, 1671.

Iconismi e Mirabilia da Athanasius Kircher

edited by Eugenio Lo Sardo
Rome: Edizioni dell'Elefante, 280 pp. (out of print)

One day in 1999, as he admired a small pencil portrait by the exquisitely precise hand of Jean-Dominique Ingres, artist David Hockney was suddenly possessed by an idea: that the almost photographic clarity of Ingres’s draftsmanship might in fact have derived, like a photograph, from the projection of the sitter’s image through a lens. Perhaps, in other words, Ingres may have used a small tool called a camera lucida, basically what Hockney describes as “a prism on a stick,” to project the figure before him onto paper, allowing him to sketch out his composition’s basic lines with nearly photographic precision. Hockney soon found definite confirmation of his eyes’ intuition; Ingres, as it turned out, often did carry a camera lucida with him when he drew his little portraits as a useful supplement to his income.

This information in turn drove Hockney to ask another question: How long had artists been working with lenses as Ingres had done? Again he turned first to the evidence of his own eyes. He covered a wall of his studio with reproductions of European paintings displayed in chronological order and began to study them carefully. Tentatively he identified a perceptible change in European drawing and painting that spread in the early fifteenth century from the Low Countries south to Renaissance Italy, soon coming to dominate the aesthetics of European art. This change, as Hockney describes it in Secret Knowledge, had to do with what he calls “optical characteristics,” essentially involving the plausible representation of figures in space.

He singles out, for example, “confidence of drawn lines,” the representation of complex fabrics in three dimensions, “the lighting we associate with photography,” and “an advance in naturalism.” With increasing conviction, he began to think that this change in the manner of artistic representation came about when fifteenth-century artists began to experiment with projection through lenses, and, together with their public, fell in love with the crystalline precision and spatial depth of the results. This predilection lasted, so far as Hockney could see, until the later nineteenth century, precisely the era, he notes, when photography itself began to come into its own as a medium.

To bolster his own observations, Hockney also began to appeal to various kinds of professionals for expert opinions on the place of lenses in the European artist’s tool kit: to art historians, and to a writer, Lawrence Weschler, whose account of Hockney’s thesis in The New Yorker in January 2000 sparked a good deal of interest, including that of a scientist, Charles Falco, who visited Hockney’s studio in March of 2000 and emerged a fervent, and vocal, believer in Hockney’s thesis. Eventually Falco used mathematical techniques to specify the kinds of distortions that might identify lens-projected images in art, and has become, for all practical purposes, Hockney’s fellow traveler. Hockney, mean- while, had become all but obsessed with the subject of lenses in European art, a condition he attributes in part to his growing deafness. With continuing contributions from Falco, Weschler, and such…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.