Hockney's viewpoint

We first give the text of a statement by David Hockney and then discuss the issues that it raises.


The finding of the "mirror-lens", or the knowledge that a concave mirror can "project" images, helps now to unite the "optical look" in European painting to the date that all accept that things changed. A new way of seeing the world arrived around 1420. It is seen in the Netherlands and Florence at this time in painted pictures. It includes Brunelleschi's "invention" of perspective, for his famous (but now non-existing) painting could have been made using an optical projection of the Baptistry with a concave mirror.

This was demonstrated in May 2000 in the Duomo. The mirror was 8 cm in diameter.

My main thesis is that the optical projection influenced depiction from this time until c.1860. How they influenced is a secondary issue. Tracing, measuring or copying, they were SEEN. It then moved into photography, film and television, to dominate the world.

What we call reality in pictures, seems to be the optical projection, a European way of looking at the world, that accepts a world seen from a single point. This has taken me some time to see. But when you see it, it won't go away, it becomes more and more obvious.

Why has it become visible now? I maintain that the main issue, "the optical look", is obvious. Once my suggestion is made, it won't go away. It becomes part of the technique of "realism and naturalism" and should be researched in more detail by scholars. It in no way reduces skills.

The main problem seems to be that there are no world experts on painting and optics. I have found this out in the past two years. My own experiments with a lens were done after the book had gone to press. They demonstrated that the "equipment" needed is a lens or a mirror and nothing more. Dark rooms were everywhere. They demonstrated that projections could be made easily and almost anywhere. (Walls are needed or a dark corner and strong sun.)

The projections look like paintings. Therefore the paintings look like projections. If this is so, the projections have to come first. They were SEEN.

I now realize that I have specialized knowledge not many people have. I have seen their beauty. To anyone who takes the trouble to make them, they become documents, fugitive documents that only last with the light, but one knows that they relate deeply to European painting. This is what has not been noted. You have to make the optical experiments to see it. Historians do not make experiments. It is alien to the discipline, but "Art History" cannot ignore this. Pictures influence pictures, and it's inconceivable that van Eyck was not utterly fascinated by the phenomenon of the projected image from a mirror. We have been so ever since.


In a flash of insight, Hockney recognizes that the "look" of paintings changed dramatically around AD 1420. Before that, people in paintings appear wooden, inanimate, impersonal, unrealistic. After that, people suddenly look like real people; and vivid, instantaneous expressions are captured, as if by a camera.

This transformation changed the face of art. What caused the change is a secondary issue. Whatever the cause, it happened... and art has been forever changed.

Hockney sees in the new face of art an "optical" look. Paintings look like optical projections, projections from a single point - a photograph captured in a camera, an image projected from a slide projector. If paintings look like optical projections, they must have formed from optical projections. Optical projections are made using optical devices, such as lenses and mirrors. How this is done is, again, a secondary issue which can be investigated. We do this with experiments using lenses and mirrors.

Giotto, 1300
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unknown artist, c. 1365
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Masolino da Panicale, c. 1425
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Robert Campin, c. 1430
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Did artists use optical devices? For Hockney that is not an issue. Art changed around AD 1420 and only the use of lenses and mirrors could have accomplished that.

Hockney has two main issues.

  • What projections were artists able to make?
  • And how did they do it?

These issues are listed on the summary page: Summarize the issues

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