Mirror, Mirror On The Wall

This week, I had the opportunity to attend an event sponsored by the Silicon Valley Chapter of IEEE Photonics Society.  The event entitled, Computer Vision In The Study Of Art: New Rigorous Approaches To The Study of Paintings and Drawingspresented by Dr. David G. Stork, Rambus Fellow.

The two-hour presentation by Dr. Stork basically examined the recent controversies in the study of art, especially David Hockney’s assertion that 15th-century painters achieved a new level of realism with the help of lenses and mirrors.  Works by Caravaggio, Vincent van Gogh and Mondrian were discussed,  but the focus of this post concerns Jan van Eyck’s, Giovanni Arnolfini and His Wife.

An excerpt from an article written by Sarah Boxer  for the New York Times, December 1, 2001mentions,

David Stork, an associate professor of computer science at Stanford University, considered the little convex mirror in van Eyck’s Arnolfini wedding picture, the mirror that, Mr. Hockney suggests, van Eyck could have flipped over and used as an optical device. First off, Mr. Stork said, a mirror of that size would never have worked. To get a lens that would ”hold Arnolfini, his wife and dog,” he would have needed a huge mirror, sliced from a sphere seven feet in diameter.

Arnolfini Wedding
Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and His Wife, Jan Van Eyck, 1434,  copyright, The National Gallery, London
Image downloaded from Wikipedia

And that is just the beginning of the trouble. If van Eyck had used the lens in a camera obscura, he would have had to paint upside-down, Mr. Stork said. Then there is the lighting problem: the projected image in a camera obscura would have been too dim. ”To mimic the conditions indoors on a gray day in Bruges,” he said, would require hundreds of candles, and then, even if the artist were to survive the fire hazard, ”the color looks wrong.” 

I am in awe of the technological talent needed to develop computer methods which reveal a different side of a painting or drawing.  The art historian and viewer can begin to see below the surface of a painting/drawing.  Given the current analysis, Jan van Eyck did not use optical devices. Stork further explains, “A constellation of reasons lead to the increase of realism in Renaissance painting round 1425 – some technical, some cultural and there may even be an optical reason.”