David Hockney claims many famous paintings were traced using camera-like devices.


NEW YORK—From the moment David Hockney began to suspect that the Old Masters had created many of their paintings with the help of lenses—in effect tracing their subjects— he insisted he was not saying they cheated.

"Optical devices certainly don't paint pictures," Hockney said. "Let me say now that the use of them diminishes no great artist."

Yet as he studied prints of five centuries' worth of paintings on a "Great Wall" in his Los Angeles studio, there was an unmistakable gotcha to his mission. He knew that many art historians would be horrified at what he was suggesting.

Did Vermeer use a lens to help him capture the intricate patterns in the folds of a tablecloth? Or Caravaggio, to re-create a curving, foreshortened lute? Even Rembrandt fell under Hockney's gaze. He could not have been looking through a lens while creating his haunting self-portraits. "But," Hockney said, "he might have for the helmets and armor."

Before long, Hockney was wearing a T-shirt blaring, "I Know I'm Right."

This weekend gave him a chance to see if others agreed. Two dozen artists, museum curators and scientists were invited to the Greenwich Village campus of New York University to debate Hockney's theory about the Old Masters.

Weekend Conference in-N.Y. Gets Heated

The subject may seem obscure, but it drew overflow crowds for two days as essayist Susan Sontag, painter Chuck Close and others got to tell the 63 year-old British artist whether his account—detailed in a newly published book, "Secret Knowledge"—was nuts or, in the words of one art Web site, his "latest stroke of genius."

Sontag mocked Hockney's protestations that his theory doesn't diminish the Old Masters. "If David Hockney's thesis is correct, it would be a bit like finding out that all the great lovers of history have been using Viagra," she said.

In what was not the only barb over an often-contentious two days, she added: "What David Hockney does is start from the position of a practicing artist. 'I couldn't draw like that.' Therefore the presumtion is they couldn't do it."

But to Close, who paints from photographs of faces, it was self-evident that any artist would use every tool possible to make the job easier—even if art historians don't want to believe it. "What did we learn?" Close would ask by the end of the weekend. "That some people are amazed that their artist heroes have cheated."

It wasn't all talk, either. The experts and hundreds of New Yorkers also got to see, and try out, the same sort of lenses and black-draped booths that Hockney contends were used, centuries ago, by Van Eyck, Velazquez and many others.

Hockney's near-obsession with optics goes back three years, boosted by several "eureka experiences." The first came when he visited the Ingres exhibit at the National Gallery in London in January 1999 and was struck by the French artist's small but "uncannily accurate" drawings of visitors to Rome during the 1820s. Ingres' works were completed quickly, and Hockney couldn't help but wonder, "How had he done them?" Then he realized the lines reminded him of the tracings Andy Warhol did to create his silk-screened portraits, lines "made without hesitation, bold and strong."

The key in Ingres' case, he theorized, was a camera lucida. A small prism atop a stick, it enabled an artist to look straight ahead at a bowl of fruit and also look down through the ~prism and see its image superimposed atop his sketch pad.

It took six months of practice with the camera lucida, Hockney said, but he was then able to lay down in two minutes the key lines and points on a face. Then he had to sketch for only two more hours, "eyeballing" the subject, to complete portraits that had an Old Master flavor.

When experts wanted independent evidence that Ingres, or others, worked this way, Hockney would respond, "the pictures are the evidence." It did not surprise him that Ingres left no record of the technique. "People hide things," he said, especially artists "Trade secrets."

He then looked further back in time, to use of the camera obscura—a large box with a pinhole in it or a darkened room with only a lens looking out. Brightly lit objects or landscapes on the outside project their images inside—upside down—on the back wall. Some scholars had already theorized on Vermeer's use of one, but Hockney did not limit his search to the 17th century Dutch artist.

In early 2000, Hockney found a new booster for his theory—and a reason to expand it—when he began corresponding with University of Arizona physicist Charles Falco, an expert in optics In what became 1,000 pages of faxed notes between the pair, Falco mentioned that artists might not have needed actual lenses to project images—concave mirrors could do it too.

So Hockney tried that with his shaving mirror, placing it inside a darkened room to catch the image coming through the peephole. When-it worked—projecting the folds on his assistant's shirt on the wall—Hockney called that a "Eureka Eureka!!" experience. It meant artists could have used such techniques before the 1600s, when lenses were introduced.

But Hockney knew not to expect a chorus of "eurekas" when he arrived Saturday morning for the start of the NYU conference, which was arranged by the New York Institute for the Humanities.

Anticipating his critics, he downplayed the gotcha, saying the lenses were "only a tool." He seemed more interested in developing his broader theory about the impact of the modern camera. With the old lensed devices, the artists hand was needed to record the image. But once chemical processes made photographs possible, the lens became "a problem," producing the counter-reaction of artists such as Cezanne and Van Gogh, whose impressionistic works no lens could duplicate.

Hockney left it to Falco to lay out their proof that lenses were used in "portions" of many paintings, such as a 15th century work whose changing perspective lines suggested that a mirror apparatus had been moved and refocused. "Vanishing point, vanishing point, vanishing point!" he said. "The guy's guilty!"

Question of Lighting Debated

Then the skeptics had their turn. Keith Christiansen, a curator of Italian paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, said he'd bought a concave mirror at the drugstore and tried Hockney's experiment, projecting the view from his seventh-floor apartment onto drawing paper. "A bummer," he called it. "It's upside-down and sort of fuzzy. Tracing would have been something of a guessing game."

He showed a slide of a Caravaggio painting, of Bacchus holding a goblet in his left hand—one of several Hockney claimed were right-handed subjects inverted by a mirror. Christiansen pointed instead to the ripples on the surface of the wine "to suggest the movement of God's hand.... This isn't an effect Caravaggio can have traced from a projected image because the ripples don't stop moving and the bubbles pop," he said. "No lens here."

On Saturday afternoon, an intellectual food fight broke out when a Stanford optical expert, David Stork, ridiculed the theory by speculating on the conditions necessary to re-create one of Rembrandt's paintings with a camera obscura. Stork asked the audience to look at a sample device set up in another room, which had movie type lights illuminating a still life. Rembrandt's studio would have needed "a lot of candles," he said, drawing laughter by showing a graphic with hundreds of them.

A fuming Falco had to wait for a comment period to reply that the lights in their display were, in fact, "about one-quarter the brightness of outdoors." Hockney called out from his seat, "What kind of light was it, if it wasn't the sum?"

On the same panel, a Boston psychologist, Ellen Winner, showed the remarkable drawings of autistic "savant" children, including one of a rearing horse done by a 5-year old retarded girl. "If they can do it . . . why can't the Renaissance artists?" she asked.

"I need a smoke," Hockney said after that panel, and out he went.

He gained more supporters, though, in the day's final session. While it included one skeptic about Vermeer's use of the devices, another speaker, British professor Philip Steadman, countered with the findings in his own recently published book, "Vermeer's Camera." And another Met curator said that small marks found on some Ingres drawings indicated he "most probably" did use a lens at times.

On Sunday, Close sought some common ground by arguing that art was "hard enough to make," and that Ingres' portraits were "wonderful things no matter how they happened."

When it was Hockney's turn to sum up, he did not claim any conclusive outcome. "The paintings I agree are absolutely magical," he said. "We will never actually know how they were done."

He seemed ready to let others figure that out. All the research had cost him not only money, but month after month away from his painting. "I now want to allocate my time back in the studio," he said.

Though his curiosity about the past was hardly dimmed—he mentioned the "drawing machines" some artists once used—he wanted to get back to his home of the last two decades in Los Angeles' Nichols Canyon.

"I want to paint my garden," he said.