New Book on Old Masters Methods is a Leap of Logic by Kirk Richards

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New Book on Old Masters Methods is a Leap of Logic

by Kirk Richards

In an article in the January 2000 issue of the New Yorker, and in a recent book, Secret Knowledge, artist David Hockney has proposed a theory that casts aspersions upon the abilities and methods of painters long regarded by history as masters. He contends that the superior draftsmanship of many past masters was due to their tracing over reflected images projected by devices like the camera lucida.

In his New Yorker article "The Looking Glass," Hockney begins by describing how he found, in a drawing by Ingres, a line that reminded him very much of a line he had seen in a drawing by Andy Warhol. Knowing that Warhol's line exhibited the boldness, confidence, and spontaneity achieved by drawing over a projected image, Hockney began to wonder if the boldness, confidence and spontaneity of Ingres' line had been achieved in the same way. His curiosity led him to the camera lucida, an optical device which can crudely project a reflected image through a lens onto a two dimensional surface. Hockney jumped from this seemingly innocuous observation to a fairly vigorous theory which postulates that masters from the 15th century forward drew and rendered realistically only through the use of optical devices similar to the camera lucida.

Artists, historians, collectors, and others have expressed legitimate concern that the accomplishments of the old masters, their methods, and even their honest reputations will be seriously diminished if Hockney's theory goes unchallenged. Most have ignored Hockney because of the lack of evidence, and the seemingly obvious silliness of the notion. Others advocate no response, arguing that in responding we put him where he wants to be, at the center of controversy. In a different artistic and cultural climate, ignoring Hockney might be the best path to follow. However, on the same day that I read the suggestion to ignore Hockney, I read the following review in a periodical called Art Talk.

Book Unveils Masters Secret Techniques

London — Secret Knowledge, a new book by David Hockney, unveils the secret techniques of the masters of European art in a publication that only an artist could have conceived. The book was inspired by a drawing by Ingres that made the United Kingdom native suspicious that something strange was going on in the artist's technique. Each page builds on what reads like a detective novel, and the illustrations help support Hockney's theories. The author discovers that the amazing realism of the Flemish masters such as Vermeer, Rembrandt, Van Eyck, Holbein and Hals was achieved by the use of mirrors and lenses to copy with an almost photographic precision the images reflected. This discovery has taken scholars in the art world by surprise because it offers a new perspective into the history of art. 1

Note how the premise of the book is accepted as true without a word of caution or dissent. Words like alleged, theory, supposition, etc. are not included. Instead, we find words like secret techniques, unveil, discovers, was achieved, and so on. This distortion of the accomplishments of past artists and the rigorous means by which their accomplishments were achieved was a harmful, yet common occurrence during the 20th century. It apparently lingers into this century as well.

The sight-size method. A method of painting from life handed down from the Old Masters, as practised at Atelier Lack (c.1974).

I discussed Hockney's New Yorker article with fellow artist Stephen Gjertson . We agreed that we should never dismiss allegations simply because we disagree, or would prefer not to deal with them, and that we would treat and analyze Hockney's thesis as a serious subject. However, it seemed to us that his entire thesis rested on his amazement that Ingres could draw masterfully and with a sure hand, in a manner that Hockney could not approximate by his own hand.

Unfortunately for Hockney, John Walsh, director of the Getty Museum, and "long time admirer of Hockney", stated the obvious in the article itself. Walsh said, "I fear David may well find himself sailing against the wind. For before the seventeenth century, where's the evidence? Where's the testimony of sitters or other contemporaries, or the treatises of the artists themselves? We have vast inventories, often compiled for inheritance purposes at the time of artists deaths, every single brush accounted for- and where are all the lenses and other devices you'd expect to find listed, if David were right? Its pretty dicey."2

There is no historical evidence from sitters, contemporaries, or from the artists themselves to support Hockney's theory. Ingres himself spoke simply and unequivocally of his regard for drawing: "Drawing is the probity [integrity] of art."3 For Ingres, drawing constituted the very heart of great artistic expression. Those who have studied him know that he often wept at the end of the day because in his own opinion he was unable to successfully combine beautiful, naturalistic and accurate drawing with the ideal beauty of Raphael .

Ingres did many pencil portraits of the sort discussed in Hockney's article. One was of his student Jean Hippolyte Flandrin . Why did Flandrin never refer to Ingres' use of lenses, or incorporate their use into his own writing and teaching?2 Why didn't any of Ingres' students, who unanimously considered him a master of drawing, relate that he was only deft of touch because he used optical devices? The witness of history is silent, and Ingres' reputation belies the ludicrous claim that he was unable to draw as he did without optical aids. He drew remarkably well by his own uniquely disposed gifts, and by the constant study of nature and the older masters, study that began in the studio of David and continued until the end of his long life.5

Hockney also alludes in the article to the probability that Chardin used optical aids. Of several artists, including Chardin, he says, "Suddenly they all seem to be able to render the image, just like that, onto the canvas itself." 6 Suddenly? Just Like that? Chardin speaks forcefully to this claim:

They put a crayon in our hands when we are seven or eight years old. We begin to draw from models of eyes, mouths, noses, ears, then of feet and hands. For a long period our backs are bent over our portfolios in front of the Hercules or the torso, and you have not seen the tears brought on by this Satyr, this Gladiator, the Venus de Medici, this Antaeus ... After we have spent days and worked nights by lamplight before stationary and inanimate forms they confront us with life and suddenly, the labor of all the preceding years seems to count for nothing .... One must teach the eye to see nature, and how many have not seen it and never will! It is the torment of our lives. We are kept working five or six years from the living model before they turn us over to our own genius, if we have any ... He who has not realized the difficulties of this art does in it nothing worthwhile.7

Are you listening Mr. Hockney?

In 1985 I attended an exhibition in San Antonio, Texas entitled, "The Grand Prix de Rome; Paintings from the École des Beaux-Arts 1797-1863." While it was not the purpose of the exhibition and the accompanying catalog to argue for the evidence of artists working from life rather than depending on optical devices, it does serve that purpose in this context. It explains the procedure and experience required for applicants, and plainly reveals the folly of Hockney's claims as they pertain to the standard, universally accepted methods of painting pictures during Ingres' lifetime.

Mr. Hockney provides the side-by-side comparisons of his use of the camera lucida to that of drawings by Ingres.

Requirements to compete for and win the prestigious Prix de Rome were rigorous. The applicants had to be accomplished students under 30 years old, and were accepted into a one year term of study, which was divided into two semesters: a summer session from April 1 to October 1, and a winter session from October 1 to April 1. During the summer session, students worked in natural light, and during the winter under lamplight. They drew from models and statuary, the models posing for four sessions a week for 2 weeks. Special contests were designed to test and exhibit the students' creativity and powers of rendering. These included perspective, facial expression, history composition, landscape and anatomy. In 1874, the Academy added the problem of painting the half figure to the special contests. All projects involving human subjects were done from life.

After the applicants were accepted and chosen to compete, the contest began. The contest followed this pattern:


Academy officials decided upon a subject.


Each student did a compositional sketch from imagination in no more than 12 hours. During this 12-hour period, the student could neither leave his cubicle nor communicate with anyone else. It was critical that the sketch be sound; rules dictated that the finished painting could not vary greatly from it.


Rules allowed students to bring male models into their cubicles to pose, but they could not use mannequins or female models. If their painting required female figures, they had to execute drawings and studies from life beforehand and bring those studies to use during the contest.


Students were isolated and housed in this way for 72 days, working every day except Sundays and holidays.


All figures were to be executed from the live nude models, under the supervision of Academy officials.

Academy officials chose the winners. Several times no first place prize was awarded, because the standards were extremely high and unyielding. The challenge the contestants faced is reflected in Sir Joshua Reynolds' admonition to aspiring painters: "Art students are terrified at the prospect before them, of the toil required to attain exactness ... They wish to find some shorter path to excellence, and hope to obtain the reward of eminence by other means than those which the indispensable rules of art have prescribed. They must therefore be told again and again that labor is the only price of solid fame, and that whatever their force of genius may be, there is no easy method of becoming a good painter."8 This competition demanded a very high level of skill and understanding on the part of students, and demanded an ability to draw extremely well without optical aids, as the requirements to work from life demonstrate. Winners over the years included William Bouguereau , Gustave Boulanger , Alexandre Cabanel , Jules Elie Delaunay , Jean Hippolyte Flandrin , Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres , Jules Joseph Lefebvre , and Isidore Pils, among many others. Each of these prizewinners successfully developed the ability to draw beautifully and accurately from life, without optical aids, before he was even accepted into the competition. The very existence of the Prix de Rome, with its rules and requirements, belies any claim that artists of stature during that lengthy period (1797-1863) were unable to draw and render beautifully without optical aids. The excellence that apparently so astounds and discourages Hockney was common to artists and required of students during the entire span of the Prix de Rome.

In Secret Knowledge, Hockney often offers his own particular experience up as universal truth. For example, on page 21 he writes, "What made Ingres' achievement in these drawings all the more astounding was that the sitters were all strangers (it is much easier to catch the likeness of someone you know well), and that the drawings were done with great speed, most having been completed in a single day. Over the years I have drawn many portraits and I know how much time it takes to draw the way Ingres did. "How had he done them," I asked myself?"9 It is not necessarily more difficult to draw strangers; in fact, many artists would say drawing a friend or family member adds difficulty because of the artists' familiarity with personality, appearance under various circumstances, and the real desire to capture the essence of a friend. A stranger can be seen more objectively. Apparently, it is more difficult for Hockney to draw strangers, but that is not a universal truth. Ingres could draw with great speed and facility because he was a master of this form, an artist of rare talent with sensibilities refined by superb training.

Above is a drawing, Panagis Alexatos, by James Childs . Mr. Childs used the sight-size method, drawing directly from life, in comparison to Mr. Hockney's use of the camera lucida below.
A drawing by Mr. Hockney which he uses as a demonstration of his theory.

Hockney doesn't have the training or skill necessary to grasp Ingres' facility. That is apparent when Hockney claims to know how much time it takes to draw like Ingres, and yet must ask, "How had he done them?" He doesn't understand the tradition from which Ingres came. On page 23 Hockney writes, "But the swiftness of Ingres' line does not look groped for. The form is so precise and accurate. I think he did the head first by looking at the lady through a camera lucida and making a few notations on the paper ... then he finished drawing her face from observation ... the delicacy of the portrait suggests he spent an hour or two doing this. Later, perhaps after lunch, he did the clothes, but for this he would probably have had to move his camera lucida slightly."10 This is all pure speculation, and is presented as such ("... I think ... the delicacy of the portrait suggests ... he would probably have had to ...") Again, the weight of Hockney's argument seems to be grounded in his inability to understand how Ingres drew, and his willingness to insert the use of optical devices as the only viable solution. On page 53, concerning the beautiful fabric painted by Ingres in his portrait Madame Leblanc, Hockney states, "Look how precisely realistic the patterned fabric appears ... If you reject the use of some kind of optics, then you have to say yes, that it, too, was eyeballed. But I find this hard to believe ... It would take observational and painting skills of the highest order to do this 'freehand'. It would also have taken a vast amount of time, precious time for an artist who was in as much demand as Ingres. Surely, if he had known of a way of speeding up the process he would have used it. He was, after all, in the business of making images."11First, it seems obvious Ingres did indeed have "observational and painting skills of the highest order." Second, Ingres said this about his method of working: "My nature is such that it is impossible for me to do my work in any other than the most conscientious fashion. To do it quickly in order to earn money, that is quite impossible for me."12

Hockney is correct in stating that optical devices existed. However, the presence of the camera lucida or the camera obscura does not begin to account for the accomplishments achieved by gifted artists through years of study, and by the accumulation of skill over generations. Hockney makes an argument on page 47 of his book that attempts to do just that. He compares a Masaccio with a van Honthorst from two hundred years later. "These two paintings may show the beginning of the use of optics in art (the Masaccio), and its height (the van Honthorst). Masaccio's angel has a superbly foreshortened lute, which may have come from a knowledge of optics. But now compare his musician with the merry one painted by van Honthorst two hundred years later. In black and white, the Dutch painting looks like a photograph, with the lighting we associate with photography. How could this change, this 'advance' in naturalism have happened? Better drawing skills cannot be the answer ..." [Italics added]13 For Hockney, two hundred years of development and study cannot account for the increasingly natural appearance in the work of artists.

No one can deny that optical devices existed, or that artists experimented with them over many generations. Mark Walker, in his essay Bouguereau at Work wrote, "Although Bouguereau actively collected photographs and tempered his observations of nature with a keen awareness of the qualities of light inherent in the photographic image, he almost never worked from photographs. The rare exceptions are a few portraits, usually of posthumous subjects, which are readily identifiable as photographic derivatives as they exhibit an uncharacteristic flatness and pose."14 Later, Walker states, "Some of Bouguereau's drawings were rendered with the aid of an optical device known as the chamber claire ... the chamber claire permitted the artist to readily and quickly reproduce certain details of nature which could be used later in the studio as details in a painting."15 However, to leap as Hockney does from historical truth about the existence of lenses to speculative assumptions about their use and importance is to woefully misunderstand the essence, education and abilities of the artists in question. It is also poor reasoning.

Stephen Gjertson Rebecca H. Swanson Pencil, 1998 15.75 x 9.875 inches Private collection
Stephen Gjertson Dave A. Anderson Pencil, 1993 9 x 7 inches Private collection

In Secret Knowledge, Hockney has produced a beautiful book. It includes images and details of a higher quality than is normally seen, and this will be very interesting to painters and non-painters.

The purpose of this article is not to refute every example in Hockney's book. Perhaps the most compelling evidence refuting Hockney is the very existence of such fine contemporary artists as Stephen Gjertson , Richard Lack , James Childs and others, who are able to draw sensitive and even masterful portraits without the aid of lenses, photos, or other optical aids.

Following Hockney's method, let me speculate that this seems to be Hockney's attempt to diminish the abilities of universally accepted masters in order to raise himself to their level — or lower them to his. In art, we cannot separate the process from the product, for mastery of the process is necessary for mastery of the product. Ideas such as Hockney's are appealing to us in the face our own inadequacies. However, the accomplishments of the great masters should stand as testaments to the remarkable skill and vision that they worked so diligently to achieve.


Our thanks go to Kirk Richards for permission to reprint this article. Those wishing to see, and read, more of Mr. Richards' work are encouraged to visit his website:


Art Talk, December 2001, Dandick, p. 11.


The New Yorker Magazine, 01/31/00, p.67.


Artists on Art, Pantheon Books, New York, NY, p.216. 1945 Edited and compiled by Robert Goldwater and Marco Treves.


Quite the contrary. Flandrin stated that the use of aids such as photography had destroyed great drawing "... photography has inflicted a mortal blow on art. Many people, with its aid and industry, can perform things otherwise left undone, but where shall we find that vigorous drawing, that living spirit which we admire in great masters, and which can only be the result of constant observation and study of nature" H. L. Sidney Lear, A Christian Painter of the Nineteenth Century


When asked why, as an old and well-respected artist, he was copying a drawing by Holbein, Ingres replied, "To learn!."


David Hockney, "The Looking Glass,"" The New Yorker Magazine, 01/31/00, p.67.


Quoted in R. H. Ives Gammell, Twilight of Painting, G. P. Putnam�s Sons, New York, 1945, p. 96.


Sir Joshua Reynolds, Fifteen Discourses on Art, edited by Ernest Rhys, J. W. Dent and Co., pp.80, 81.


David Hockney, Secret Knowledge, Viking Studio, 2001, p.21.


Ibid. p. 23.


Ibid. p. 53.


Artists on Art, Pantheon Books, New York, NY, p.215. 1945 Edited and compiled by Robert Goldwater and Marco Treves.


David Hockney, Secret Knowledge, Viking Studio, 2001, p.21.


Mark Walker, Bouguereau at Work, William Bouguereau, The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, The City of Paris, and The Wadsworth Atheneum of Hartford, Connecticut, 1984, p. 71.


Ibid. p. 74.

Kirk Richards studied with prominent American painter and teacher Richard Lack in Minneapolis from 1976-1980 after earning his BFA and MA degrees in art from West Texas State University.