David Hockney has a theory. You all know who David Hockney is, right? L.A. painter, originally from England, more recently from all over the world--made a big splash in the early 1960s painting Southern California swimming pools. Made an even Bigger Splash painted in 1967, which has become something of a yuppie icon--pristine blue sky, two pristine palm trees, a pristine contemporary, Malibu home, swimming pool, director's chair, diving board, and of course a "Bigger Splash" from some unseen figure having just broken through the pristine aqua blue water. Yeah, that David Hockney. Anyway, David has a theory. It was something he discovered by accident in studying the drawings of Monsieur Ingres. You all know who Monsieur Ingres was, right...Jean-Auguste Ingres, early nineteenth century French portrait artist, famous for his lovely society ladies and even lovelier ability to paint their very lovely dresses? Yes, that Ingres. Anyway, Hockney's theory is that Ingres secretly used a camera lucida to obtain his amazingly lifelike portrait images (and no doubt his complex fabric renderings as well).
You all know what a camera lucida is, right? It's a small prism on the end of a horizontal rod through which an artist may peer at his subject and see the illusion of his image cast upon the paper below it. He can then draw that image in pencil. It's an old drawing gadget, dating back to 1807. What Hockney claims is that many of Ingres portrait studies have identical traits to those of Andy Warhol's still-life drawings from the 1960s using a slide projector. In other words, the use of a lens causes specific traits in art, eliminating a great degree of awkwardness in "eyeballed" drawing, but also injecting certain subtle, peculiar distortions not obvious to most people, but noticeable to the trained eye of an artist...especially one used to working with such things. But Ingres was only the beginning. Hot on the trail of something that could revolutionise the way we think about the last five hundred years of painting tradition, Hockney found similar traits in the work of Velázquez, Dürer, Vermeer, Chardin, Hals, Canaletto, even going back at least as far as Caravaggio.
Wait, the camera lucida wasn't invented until 1807. Right, but before that was the camera obscura, through which an artist could view a starkly lit image through a tiny hole as light projected onto a wall...or a canvas. Though balky and complex, art historians have long postulated that Vermeer and Canaletto used such devices. Dürer even did a woodcut depicting a similar contraption. Hockney's contention is that, through the use of lenses, first developed in Germany around 1500, all that was needed was a supporting device for the lens, a heavy curtain hung around it to divide the studio into two areas (one bright, one dark), and any artist could make use of the camera obscura principle with a minimum of fuss. Hockney finds convincing painterly evidence of just such practices in Hans Holbein's 1532 Portrait of Georg Gisze and Bellini's 1500 portrait of the Doge of Venice. "The effects are just too "photographically" perfect to be anything else," Hockney insists. A painting by Raphael of Pope Leo X dating from 1518 is an interesting exhibit in Hockney's favour. It depicts the pope holding a small magnifying glass (a lens). The most striking thing is that he holds in his left hand. No left-handed individual would ever have been elected pope in those days, it was considered the devil's hand. Yet, Raphael's use of a lens would have delivered just such an image--reversed.
Hockney calls it a deep, dark, artist's secret which spread quickly through all of Europe and prevailed for something over three hundred years during which time the "awkwardness" of eyeballed drawing virtually disappeared from European art, only to reappear in the latter part of the nineteenth century after the widespread acceptance of portrait photography when artists (those not painting from photographs), once more began seeing their subjects binocularly. Photography made such devices unnecessary and even disreputable. The Impressionists painted out-of-doors where such lenses were useless. Cézanne began looking at his still-lifes with both eyes, and painting the incongruities he saw. Both consciously rejected such devices. Within a generation, the secret techniques were largely forgotten and lost amongst painters. Then came Picasso, and Cubism (painting with multiple points of view), laying the foundation for much of twentieth century art. It's still a theory, but it has sent art historians scurrying, about half looking to help Hockney prove it, the rest hell-bent to disprove it.