Traces of Genius

Is art sullied by technology?


Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) has long been regarded as the outstanding American painter of the 19th century; his dramatically lit portraits have even given him a reputation as the American Rembrandt. So in the 1990s, when researchers started surmising that Eakins had sometimes made use of photographic images, there was a sense of foreboding among art historians. Two years ago, when ever-closer examination of Eakins' paintings made it undeniable that he actually "traced" photographic images projected onto his canvases, there was disbelief. One Eakins scholar, on hearing the evidence, literally put his hands over his ears. Our Rembrandt…a tracer?

But wait: Rembrandt—the Dutch one—may have done some tracing himself. The true link between technology and art, regarded in modern times as something shameful, is becoming increasingly apparent, and the evidence suggests that artists' dependence on machines has been not only extensive but long-lived, going back centuries.

A major Eakins show—the first in two decades—is spending the summer at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art (it moved there from Philadelphia), and scores of the recently discovered photographs that Eakins used in creating his paintings are on display with the canvases. Eakins would not have liked this; he was reticent about his use of photography, and his wife was downright misleading when she spoke of her husband's attitude toward photos. In the end, however, what Eakins did with the photos was a laborious version of what many digital artists are doing today. Eakins didn't merely create painted versions of photographs. Using a "magic lantern" to project a series of disparate images on a single canvas, he made composites. The final painterly conception is entirely his own, and is apparently what drove his creation of the photos in the first place.

For example, Eakins' 1880 work, The Fairman Rogers Four-in-Hand (view here), was famous for its accurate portrayal of horses in motion, based on Eakins' photo studies; now it turns out that the coach's passengers are based on a photo, too.

Until the Eakins story broke, most of the controversy over the use of technology in painting centered around the 17th-century Dutch artist Jan Vermeer. There has long been speculation that Vermeer made use of a camera obscura, an enclosed device that allowed a detailed image of the world to be projected through a lens onto an inner wall.

Vermeer is today a blockbuster artist, inspiring not merely big shows but even popular novels (e.g., Girl With a Pearl Earring). Yet for long after his death he remained obscure. In fact, his "rediscovery" coincides with the rise of photography. As the British art academic Philip Steadman argues in last year's elegant study Vermeer's Camera, that was no accident. Steadman demonstrates beyond a reasonable doubt that Vermeer's world is not one we see with our eyes but one we see through a lens. Indeed, a major Vermeer show last year in New York devoted a room to the optical devices to which Vermeer and other 17th-century painters had recourse.

When might painters have started using optical devices to aid them in their work? Leonardo Da Vinci was familiar with the camera obscura; in the 15th century, the architect Filipo Brunelleschi pioneered vanishing-point perspective, while Jan van Eyck clearly understood mirrors and lenses and almost certainly used them.

The contemporary British painter David Hockney thinks that optics began to influence painterly representation as early as 1350. The most common tool, he argues, was long the camera lucida, a small device that threw an image from life directly onto a canvas. Painters were secretive about such aids, he argues, because they were trade secrets. Hockney's heavily illustrated recent book, Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, lays out the evidence he has accumulated thus far: lens-based lighting effects; a revolution in dimensionality and foreshortening; nearly impossible detail; and, most suggestive of all, errors that can have resulted only from the limitations of the devices he thinks were employed. He's gotten to the point where he divides paintings into "Lens" or "No-lens." (It's Hockney who thinks that Rembrandt might have used an aid.)

Hockney's project is extremely controversial. In fact, the researchers who deduced Eakins' use of photos chose not to tell Hockney because they didn't want their discovery to become mired in the argument over Hockney's assertions.

The problem is that Hockney seems to be challenging an entire art worldview devoted to celebrating "genius," long sold as a spiritual quality unsullied by the material world. For some, the use of optical aids compromises genius, and art with it.

But Hockney isn't undermining art. He is demonstrating the necessarily material dimension of culture. Art exploded in Europe's most commercial Italian and Dutch cities from the 15th to the 17th centuries because trade and wealth expanded not only patronage but science. Genius, it turns out, is a human quality, drawing on the world and expanding with it. The evidence is on every gallery wall, and it becomes more visible each year.