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The eyes have it: Science defends great realistic art of the past and present

Computer vision analysts at the recent Conference on Pattern Recognition (ICPR) in Cambridge, UK, have come to the defense of both living representational artists and the great masters of art history. Disputing David Hockney's theory of camera obscura use by artists as far back as the early Renaissance - and the implication that perfect realism can't be achieved by hand and eye alone - scientists such as Dr. Antonio Criminisi of Microsoft Research, working with art historian Dr. David Stork at Stanford and British realist painter Nicholas Williams, presented computer-analyzed artwork and images that "clearly disprove Hockney's theories that the old masters apparently 'cheated'."

Which is just what the Art Renewal Center has been saying all along. ( The complete Sunday Herald article is online at http://www.sundayherald.com/44246. )

  1. Hockney Completely Refuted, by Fred Ross.
  2. Review of David Hockney's Secret Knowledge, by Ann James Massey.
  3. Why David Hockney Should Not Be Taken Seriously, by Brian K. Yoder.
  4. New Book on Old Masters Methods is a Leap of Logic Without Substance, by Kirk Richards.
  5. ARChives: Hockney Completely Refuted (informed discussion by ARC correspondents)

ARC was nearly ready to publish other articles explaining just how preposterous Hockney's theory is, when we received a letter from Thomas Hauge, an irate visitor who clearly had been influenced by reading Hockney's book. His letter and the response by ARC's Chairman are highly important in demonstrating the dangers in teaching as history and reality total fabrications like those of David Hockney's, which have been then picked up by an art establishment with an agenda other than the fair and honest recounting of art history.

Statement by the ARC Chairman

People with an agenda, usually economic at base, have increasingly passed off junk science and phony evidence as the proof of historical claims that back up their theories. Hockney has attacked the very fabric of human culture and the self respect that we have as a society for what we and our ancestors have achieved. His own attempts at drawing and painting are so incredibly inept, lame - talent less and skill-less - that the root cause of his theory must be a seething jealousy for those who can do, with the naked eye, what he can't do even with his optical aids. So he pouts and spouts to the world this harebrained theory that the old masters cheated (and then, I suppose, conspiratorially hid the evidence, even from their own families, students and biographers).

The modernist establishment, which has gone to incredible lengths to devalue realism in painting and sculpture, has gleefully jumped on this claim, using all of their considerable influence to trumpet it in the press and force feed it to their college bound students who year after year pay more and more to be taught less and less in the incredibly shrinking school year.

The time has come to pull back the curtain on this ridiculous and pathetic charade. The time is long overdue to expose this "wizard" who is manipulating the press and who ran away with the Emperor's New Clothes.

Hockney Completely Refuted, by Fred Ross

Rembrandt Drawing at a Window
Rembrandt Drawing
at a Window


Chant d'Amour
Edward Burne-Jones
Chant d'Amour
Collection of
Fred and Sherry Ross
It's a very sad day indeed, when the national news media allows itself to be manipulated by special interests that are so narrow, that the lies being repeated are obvious to practically any child.

David Hockney was permitted on CBS 60 minutes (and we can see why its reputation has been in freefall in recent years).

To repeat his preposterous self justifying allegations that the masters of the past, like Leonardo. Rembrandt, Vermeer and Bouguereau, used an optical device to reproduce the underlying objects in their paintings. And - get this - because nobody could possibly draw that well. This is ludicrous in the extreme and defamatory not only of the greats of the past, but of the living masters who quite capably can draw without the help of any such apparatus.

To see the evidence of this, please direct your attention to the accompanying drawings by contemporary realist Tony Ryder, one of the leading artists in ARC's gallery of Living Masters(tm).

And folks: if ARC's Living Masters(tm) can draw free hand, can there be any doubt that Dürer, Rembrandt, Bouguereau, and Alma-Tadema could too?

Please read the articles here by Brian Yoder, Kirk Richards, and Ann James Massey, and the letters posted below, and we are confident that the evidence displayed will more than completely put to rest the absurdity of Hockney's claims. It would be very easy to amass ten times the evidence shown below to completely rebut Hockney's recent book. But folks, how much evidence would be necessary to demonstrate that the stars are not hanging by little strings in the sky, that the earth is not flat, that ice is not as strong as steel, that there were no electric lights in the Roman Empire, or that Genghis Kahn did not win his battles with attack helicopters? It is just that ridiculous to claim that the advances in realism during the Renaissance came about because of the use of optical devices.

But Genghis Kahn had in his personal effects well-structured fans in the shape of helicopter wings, and it can be shown that if you tie together four such fans it would be possible to engineer a mechanism that could stay aloft. Therefore Genghis Kahn used attack helicopters to win all of his battles.

Hockney's next book I suppose we'll hear will speak about Mozart having access to a rare jade Chinese abacus, that when carefully used to calculate the population increase of silk worms, produces numbers in a rhythm that can be transposed onto the treble and base clefs of sheet music. These apparently were found to be the true underpinnings of Mozart sonatas, symphonies and concertos.

Further research has shown now that such a device was auctioned off in the estate sales of Beethoven, Chopin and Tchaikovsky and was even listed among the personal effects of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Give me a break.

We urge everyone who agrees with us that this is a travesty, to write a letter of complaint to CBS and 60 minutes at 60II@cbsnews.com.

Please read these articles and essays and I'm confident that our millions of visitors will agree that there is no possibility that Hockney's theory is correct at all, and the combined force of these arguments amounts to a complete and total refutation of his concepts about optical devices having anything to do with the advances in art history from the early Renaissance to the present day.

Here are some examples of drawings by Old and Living Masters(tm) featured in the ARC Museum. These works give lie to Hockney's assertions that the human eye and hand are incapable of achieving high levels of verisimilitude without the assistance of optical devices, such as the camera lucida.

Tony Ryder
1998, 25 x 19 inches

Pete Jackson Capoerista
Tony Ryder
Pete Jackson Capoerista
1998, 25 x 19 inches

Comtesse Charles d'Agoult
Comtesse Charles d'Agoult
1849, 47 x 39.3 cm

Thomas Hauge, 31 Aug 2003 03:41

Being a great fan of your site and your project, I must confess I think far less of ARC after reading Hockney the Hackneyed. ARC has always expressed strong opinions, sometimes crossing the line into sectarianism. The article about David Hockney (hereafter called DH), however, crosses a fateful line : its arguments are unfair, its facts are incorrect, and it persuasiveness relies on the same effect the ARC otherwise pretends to be fighting against, namely the conspiracy among self-appointed savants and self-important followers. This is, in my humble opinion, uncalled-for and damaging to the ARCs credibility as a force in revitalizing realist art.

Even before mentioning Hockney's name, you cry "manipulated", "special interests", "narrow", and "lies". After this opening, reading the rest of the piece is almost superfluous. I did so, however, in the faint (and vain) hope that some attempt at argument or proof would follow. Frankly, the whole treatment makes me wonder if you've actually bothered to read DH's book. Had you done so, you would have found that

  • he makes no actual "accusations" of using mirrors and lenses - he simply points out that it is the most likely explanation of the abrupt shift to near-photograpic realism that happens within a single decade in the 1430's;
  • he backs up the theory that this was achieved with the aid of mirrors and lenses with a very large number of examples of precisly such effects as you'd expect from use of mirrors and lenses : lots of left-handers, distorted perspectives, skewed proportions, and photocopier-exact copies and enlargements;
  • he also backs up the theory that lenses were used by many major and minor masters by pointing out the astonishing difference in quality between sketches and finished works, the complete absence of any sketches by some masters, and the scarcity or absence of any underdrawing in, say, Hals' superb paintings;
  • he points to the very suggestive fact that mirror and lens makers were in the same guilds with artists - and quotes a number of works describing the use of mirror/lens aided drawing and painting;
  • he explicitly states that he does not know which masters did or did not use the mirror/lens technology, but that the hyperrealism that became possible would have influenced even those who used no mirrors/lenses because that's what the customers would want (his example of an artist who DH believes could most likely draw and paint "photographically" WITHOUT technological aids is Leonardo);
  • he repeatedly and emphatically states that it is only those who know nothing about drawing and painting that would think less of an artist because he used lenses, mirrors or cameras, whether obscuras or lucidas. Mark-making to "render" the picture takes a skilled artist any day, and going beyond mere "rendering" to breathe life and soul into the rendering takes a great artist (DHs example here is Rembrandt);
In the final pages of his book, DH relates an episode where he listened to the despair of an aspiring artist who considered the achievements of the masters utterly beyond him. Part of the reason for this despair is the fact that open and honest examination and teaching of the technique of art is largely suppressed by the attitude that the masters were masters because of some God-given ability that mere mortals (such as aspiring artists) can only revere, not understand, or - God forbid! - emulate.

Given the fact that ARC is working so hard precisely to enable aspiring artists to learn the craft of art, the ARC seems to me to express extreme double standards in this debate : on the one hand, you are struggling to open the public mind to an open and honest appraisal of modern art (or the lack of it), on the other, you retreat into sectarianism when this honesty and openness is applied to your own sacred ground.

As the ARC openly - and courageously - describes the use of lucidas and cameras in several articles elsewhere, I simply don't understand why DH should be dragged to the stake like this. The ARC wants to educate the public to realize and admire the skill and art in realistic painting - DH is in total agreement with you on this.

DH does not, however, share the ARC's reverence for Bougereau, or your preference for realistic art. A serious art movement (which I hope the ARC considers itself), should be above ridiculing unpopular tastes and opinions, and stick to sound knowledge and argument instead. Otherwise, the only difference between the ARC and the modernists will be their taste in pictures, nothing else. This contradicts your own mission statement "to maintain honesty and frankness in our interaction with everyone, regardless of predisposition."

My admiration for the achievements of the ARC in bringing knowledge, respect and galleries of the skill and art of painting to us all remains undiminished, but I fear that pieces like Hockney... is destroying your credibility to the very "outsiders" or "as-yet-nonbelievers" that you would want to educate.


Thomas Hauge

Panagis Alexatos
James Childs
Panagis Alexatos
Pencil on paper, 1998
18 x 13.5 inche

Female Nude
Andrew Ameral
Female Nude

Andrew Ameral won first prize in ARC's spring Scholarship Competition with this student drawing.

Executed free hand and from life, it proves that even contemporary art students can naturally draw at a level Hockney believes the Old Masters could only attain through the aid of mechanical contrivances.

Fred Ross, 31 Aug 2003 16:21

Dear Thomas,

This is an extremely sincere letter, and it is not falling on deaf ears you can be sure. I will examine your comments briefly below. Your thoughts prove absolutely why it is necessary to fully and fairly demonstrate point by point why Hockney's book and theory about the use of optical devices is absolutely wrong, without a shred of truth, and based on the flimsiest of evidence. We have nearly ready two more articles on this subject which should be available shortly.

This is not the work of someone who has researched the time period and then, using the evidence, deduced that certain things occurred. To the contrary, he decided in advance what he wanted to have happened, and then went back and found only items that he could somehow force into his twisted hypothesis.

Let me briefly point out, that there is no question but that the overwhelming majority of great painting (99%+) were done without the use of such mechanical and visual tools, and anyone who has actively pursued the study of classical realism and traditional drawing knows that this statement is true. The purpose of Hockney's work is to attempt to denigrate realism, while throwing in equivocating gratuitous comments like you mentioned so that he can deny that's what he's doing.

The Cosimo Andrea Lazzerini Family
Pierre-Paul Prud'hon
Female Nude
Charcoal on paper

Hockney's own painting would be laughable were it not taken seriously by the art establishment. And his own inability to draw on the level of a first year student in any of ARC's 52 Approved Ateliers, makes him totally unqualified to explore the subject he attempts to. Did he ever try to ask any of the best classical artists that are alive today to comment on his thoughts and then deal with their objections?

Did he permit any contrary evidence which is monumental, in to then analyze and mesh into his theory?

He has been challenged by many of our artists to test his theory by permitting a media event in which a dozen living masters, who don't currently enjoy society's recognition like he does, are able to draw free-hand the human form with great precision using no such devices. Only the development of such skills "frees" an artist to bring to fruition his/her artistic inspirations. Most of these artists have been trained in the still vibrant classical traditions that have been handed down by generations of instructors and apprentices. The use of the camera in creating compositions, indeed did play some extremely minor rôle, starting in the late 19th century, and the article on ARC by Gabe Weisberg, analyzing the work of Dagnan-Bouveret, is an honest and even-handed attempt to tell the truth about that use.

To respond to your comments:

It is absolutely not the most likely explanation or even any explanation of the abrupt shift to "near-photograpic realism that happens within a single decade in the 1430's". In fact, only a public shielded from the advanced levels of realism could possibly consider anything from that time period "near photographic". Show me a single work that meets that description? You can't, because it didn't happen that way.

The development of greatly improved realism starting in the 13th century especially seen in the works of Cimabue, Giotto and Van Der Weyden, was the product of improved methods of theory and discipline in how to see and how to train artists. The breakthroughs of one and two point perspective by Dürer accelerated this in the High Renaissance. If you look at multi-figure compositions of Rubens, Tiepolo, Raphael, Michelangelo, and Gericault it is laughable to think that any such device could have possibly helped even one tiny bit.

The idea of the "photo-copying" and precise enlargements being done this way is also incorrect. A very precise method of using a grid to "point up" a drawing to a larger size has been in use for centuries.

The Risen ChristFamily
The Risen Christ
Black chalk, 1533
36.7 x 22 cm
Royal Collection,
Windsor Castle
The "astonishing" improvement in the finished works compared to sketches is not astonishing in the slightest. Most artist use sketches only as road maps for their ideas, and take far greater care and time with the finished work. It has nothing whatsoever to do with "devices" as he claims. And the lack of underdrawing in Hals and others is due to the great skills developed by these artists which enabled them to "draw with the brush" as they paint. In fact that is a well known idea and method which is taught to first year students in every atelier: that it is essential to learn how to do so as not to be restricted by the need of the under drawing. Hockney shows you a bad drawing by Honthorst and then a great painting by him and says that proves his painting was not based on his drawings. Do you actually believe that from this example or any of the others? I could show you awful early sketches by Bouguereau and then show you a great finished painting. But if I didn't show you all of the intermediary drawings and those that he decided to fully "flesh out" I would have purposely obstructed your ability to see the truth by omitting most of the relevant evidence. It would be like saying that Shakespeare used an advanced computer to write his plays because his outlines for each of them was awful compared to the final product. What kind of illogical self-serving reasoning that would be if I was an awful playwright who could not put two words together with poetry or grace?

He suggests that "hyper-realism" became possible due to such equipment .... which is also not true. Nobody who knows and understands the 500 year history of the development and implementation of traditional realism would characterize early Renaissance painting as hyper-realism. He needs to make it seem that the biggest changes occurred at that time in order to support his theory, but in fact there is a continuous, by-attrition, development of methods, techniques and accomplishments over a 500 year span, in which the finest works from the early 1400's don't compare "realistically" to the average work of thousands of artists by the late 19th century, all of whom had the advantages of learning from hundreds of little and large discoveries over that entire time span. Hockney repeatedly says that advances could not be explained due to improved skills in drawing, but in fact every single time he says that he is totally wrong and in fact every single advance he shows has been in fact achieved through advances is such skills.

Anyone who has actually been involved at composing and painting realistically on an advanced level knows that Hockney's theory is idiotic and absurd, and the fact that highly intelligent people like yourself can be so readily duped by this book perhaps explains why it's essential to clarify in a fully scholarly, point by point fashion why he is truly so very wrong.

Also, why, ask yourself, was Hockney of all people, motivated to write this book attempting to advance this concept? The answer is self-evident.

We have other articles almost ready to go about Hockney, but the shortage in staff has prevented our getting them on line yet. But I expect they'll be available before October.

Again, thank you for your letter. I hope I have clarified somewhat better the truth that is missing from Hockney's book, mostly by omission of most of the facts needed to make an informed judgment and then the jumping to preordained conclusions that help him in his quest for self-justification.

Fred Ross,
Art Renewal Center

Female Nude
Rebecca Alzofon
Female Nude
Charcoal on paper

Male Figure
Jacob Collins
Male Figure
Charcoal and body colour

Ted Seth Jacobs
Seated Youth

Seated Young Woman with Raised Arm
Ted Seth Jacobs
Seated Young Woman with Raised Arm
Black and white chalk

Anthony J. Ryder
Pencil and pastel on gray paper, 1997
25 x 19 inches

Sir Thomas Elyot
Hans Holbein
Sir Thomas Elyot
Chalk, pen and brush on paper, 1532-3
28.6 x 20.6 cm
Royal Collection,
Windsor Castle
Thomas Hauge, closing remarks

Hi, Fred,

Thanks for the links - and no need to spend time on expounding further. I arrived at ARC when searching the web for Bougereau (after reading Boris Vallejo citing Bougereau as an influence) - but I continued to hit the site regularly because those articles were the first I read.

Then, as now, I may not quite agree with the strong language, but I certainly agree with your position. I am still not quite sure that Hockney wants his theory to be used to denigrate the Old Masters (he repeatedly says so), but it is probably inevitable that it will be (mis)used for that purpose. The discussion group mail you so kindly forwarded gives a very precise analysis of the reasons for this denigration.

Ultimately, of course, only Hockney himself knows what his intentions are. I am not blind to the fact that modern art, lacking any tradition or means of objective quality assessment, makes being a sensation very important. As to his theory in itself, I am now far less convinced that I was. And despite my fascination with the theory, this is a welcome change. Apart from describing "lens-based" art in his book, Hockney draws from it some disturbing conclusions about the role of realist art in society, claiming that since it has been used in authoritarian propaganda, it is tied to, perhaps even leads to, fascism.

To me, it is the other way around. Modernist art depends on ordinary people letting themselves be told by a self-appointed elite to distrust their own judgment, and consider the elite's preferences a better, truer art - even if it is frankly impossible for ordinary people to see why. Substitute ideology for art and you have the recipe for fascism. The importance of the ARC extends beyond art - it encourages everyone to trust his or her own judgment.

Not that I think of the ARC as a political animal, though. My reason for going to the ARC is, and will remain, that it is a place where one can enjoy refreshing views and great art - LOTS of great art!

Thanks for giving me so much of your time. I'll fade into the background again - you've given many new thoughts and ideas to reflect on. ;o)



The Cosimo Andrea Lazzerini Family
Pierre-Paul Prud'hon
Male Nude
Charcoal on paper

Jonathan Grimm, 01 Sep 2003 03:58

Mr. Thomas Hauge wrote:

Mr. Hauge,

The current absence of extant prepatory sketches in the works of many Old Masters has to do with the LACK of material value such pieces held for many centuries. In fact, these "prepatory sketches" or Cartoons, if you will, were often scored with graph lines in preparation for transfer to board, wall, or in later years, canvas. This was known as Il Metodo Grata. Often these sketches were quickly discarded afterwards.

The Crocker Art Gallery in Sacramento has such a large collection of Old Master drawings simply because many art dealers gave them away to good customers.

It was only in later years, the last century really, that effort has been made to preserve these sketches.

Leonardo's cartoons have survived, not because he was the ONLY one who could "draw" realistically but because, unfortunately he did not always complete commissions and the patrons were sometimes left only with the sketches themselves - which they of course kept.

It is also important to note that artists worked out PROBLEMS in their prepatory sketches, in the same way film makers will make quick thumbnails of desired scenes, so that in the final product, or as it was once called the "master piece" the bugs were worked out. This accounts for the difference in quality between studies and the finished paintings.

Franz Hals, and other "alla prima" painters are the GREATEST argument AGAINST the use of mechanical devices as the corrections they made in proportions and shapes are visible to x-rays and in numerous old paintings ghosts of previous over painted shapes are visible - this is called pentimente. Also, they blocked in shapes and values, something only a competent draftsman can do. Why would they "correct" a traced shape?

There are serious experts on Old Master techniques who will argue that many painters experimented with optical devices however it is a truism that those who cannot draw well cannot paint well and anyone familiar with the apprentice system of the Renaissance to the end of the nineteenth century knows that students were not allowed to touch colours before mastering accurate drawing. Furthermore, a major use of mechanical devices such as the wire grid illustrated in the Durer woodcut was to study rules of perspective.

My problem with Hockney's authority on this is that he is not an expert on the type of painting he critiques and, by his own admission, he spent only five years of part time research on the subject before writing his book. There are experts who have spent a LIFETIME studying the subject - and these are the authorities I consult and respect.

- Jonathan Grimm

Drawing of an Old Woman
Richard Lack
Drawing of an Old Woman
Pencil, 1954
13 x 9 inches
Lack Family Collection

Juric Bedic
Drawing, 2001

Malkhos, 11 Aug 2003 23:28

I just read this e-mail as it was posted at ARC and sent the following message into CBS:

I see that the subject has been discussed here at length and I will look over the posts on Hockney as time permits, could someone knowledgable on the subject please say briefly what role devices such as the camera obscura and wire grids to regulate perspective actually played in the developement of Renaissance art, and where and how far Hockney veers from the truth? I will add that I saw that CBS got Hockney's views endorsed by a physicist -- as a classicist I know how misleading that is. Physical scientists are always misinterpreting ancient evidence because they don't know its context and supply a new new context from some tiny fragment of evidence out of their own knowledge and thereby coming up with bizarre theories about the Delphic Oracle, the Mysteries of Mithras, etc.



Fred Ross is currently Executive Administrator of the Committee to write the Catalog Raisonné on William Bouguereau. He is Chairman of the Art Renewal Center®, and has been published or interviewed in the American Arts Quarterly, the California Art Club, Forbes Magazine, Artnews, New Jersey Monthly, the Victorian Society in America, and the Classical Realist Journal. He has been a featured speaker at Sotheby's, the Dahesh Museum, the Wadsworth Atheneum, and University of Memphis. He holds a Master's in Art Education from Columbia University, and along with his wife Sherry owns one of the foremost collections of 19th Century European paintings.
Table of Contents for the ARC Philosophy

  • What is Fine Art and Why Realism? Keynote Address delivered at 2015 Realist Art Conference
  • ARC Chairman Fred Ross' Oil Painters of America Keynote Address
  • Chapter I. Why Realism? [Chinese version]
  • Chapter II. The Great 20th Century Art Scam
  • Chapter III. Good Art / Bad Art - Pulling Back the Curtain
  • Chapter IV. Bouguereau and the "Real" 19th Century
  • Chapter V. ARC Chairman speaks at the Angel Academy of Art
  • Chapter VI. ARC Chairman Speaks at duCret School of Art
  • Chapter VII. Abstract Art is Not Abstract and Definitely Not Art [Chinese version]
  • Chapter VIII. Oppressors Accuse their Victims of Oppression
  • Chapter IX. 2011 NTDTV Award Speech
  • Special Feature. Hockney's 'Secret Knowledge': Refuted

  • General Louis-Etienne Dulong de Rosnay
    J.A.D. Ingres
    General Louis-Etienne Dulong de Rosnay
    Pencil on paper