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Girl With the Pearl Earring
and the Camera Obscura

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Almost everyone is familiar with the image of Johannes Vermeer’s The Girl With The Pearl Earring (Het meisje met de parel), even if they know nothing about the artist, or the painting itself.
[…..and even if the closest you get to art is the logo on a pizza box, I’d bet depending on your gender, that Scarlet Johansson or Colin Firth familiarized you with the painting in the 2003 movie of the same name].


It has been speculated quite controversially that the Dutch artist used a camera obscura to create his 17th-century masterpiece.
So what exactly is camera obscura? To put it very simply, this magical-sounding object was the predecessor of the photographic camera, being very similar, but lacking the light-sensitive film or plate.
Philip Steadman in his BBC History ‘Vermeer and the Camera Obscura’  describes the mysterious optical device: “The term ‘camera obscura’ means ‘dark chamber’, because the instrument up until the 16th century typically took the form of a closed room, the windows shuttered, with a small hole in a blind or door. Light entering the room through the hole then cast an image onto a screen or onto the wall opposite the door.”

 

This controversial theory that the great artist’s were using such a device, is known as the Hockney–Falco thesis, was brought forward by artist David Hockney, who in 1999 conceived of the idea whilst at the National Gallery, London. He elaborated on his initial theory with physicist Charles M. Falco, and suggests that “advances in realism and accuracy in the history of Western art since the Renaissance were primarily the result of optical aids such as the camera obscura, camera lucida, and curved mirrors, rather than solely due the development of artistic technique and skill.” [ source: Wikipedia: Hockney & Falco thesis ]

 

Art Optics/The Hockney-Falco ThesisCharles Falco explains the theory on his art optics website: “Our thesis is that certain elements in certain paintings made as early as c1430 were produced as a result of the artist using either concave mirrors or refractive lenses to project the images of objects illuminated by sunlight onto his board/canvas. The artist then traced some portions of the projected images, made sufficient marks to capture only the optical perspective of other portions, and altered or completely ignored yet other portions where the projections did not suit his artistic vision. As a result, these paintings are composites containing elements that are “eyeballed” along with ones that are “optics-based.” Further, starting at the same time, the unique look of the projected image began to exert a strong influence on the appearance of other works even where optical projections had not been directly used as an aid.”

Hockney and Falco have produced many publications on the positive evidence for their theory, and the historical plausibility of the methods they suggest. In his book, Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, David Hockney analyses the work of many ‘old masters’ of the art world, and argues that the level of accuracy in their paintings would be impossible to create just by having a good hard look at the subject or object they were painting.

A condensed matter physicist and expert in optics, Charles Falco asserts Hockney’s findings, suggesting that while the use of optical aids would generally enhance accuracy, there are certain types of distortion that would result from using such optical devices, such as those found in the paintings of Vermeer, and van Eyck.

 Above:  Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, with a convex mirror in the background.

 There is much evidence against the controversial theory, as shown in Steadman’s ‘Vermeer and the Camera Obscura’, and indeed wikipedia supplies its entry on the Hockney-Falco Thesis with many criticisms regarding the evidence given.

No camera obscura was ever found amongst Vermeer’s possessions when he died (fans of Tracy Chevalier’s novel account of The Girl With the Pearl Earring, will note that in this fictional work, Vermeer was merely borrowing such a device), but it is an interesting thought.
Who knows what Vermeer would think of such theories/accusations regarding his skill and technique?
Or, more light-heartedly, of this 2012 tribute which makes reference to his famous painting, which some clever cookie has uploaded to online image sharer imgur:

 

So, What do you all think of the Hockney-Falco Thesis?
And of the above 2012 adaptation of Vermeer’s Girl With A Pearl Earring (and please, if you know who created this beautiful modern image, please leave a comment below – the whole internet is dying to know who this mysterious post-modernist is!)?

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Comments

  1. Artist Mitchell Grafton created the modern version of the Girl With the Pearl Earring.

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