Through the Looking Glass

David Hockney explains how a question about some Ingres drawings led to a whole new theory of Western Art

Early in 1999, I went to an exhibition of portraits by Ingres at London’s National Gallery, and was captivated by his very beautiful portrait drawings. I was struck by how small his drawings were, yet so uncannily accurate. What made Ingres’s achievement 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 drawn with great speed, most having been completed in a single day. Over the years I have drawn a great many portraits and I know how much time it takes to draw the way Ingres did. I was awestruck. ‘How had he done them?’ I asked myself.

What followed led me on a path towards a new thesis: that from the early fifteenth century, many Western artists used optics – by which I mean mirrors and lenses (or a combination of the two) – to create living projections. Some artists used these projected images directly to produce drawings and paintings, and before long this new way of depicting the world – this new way of seeing – had become widespread.

Many art historians have argued that certain painters used the camera obscura in their work – Canaletto and Vermeer, in particular, are often cited – but, to my knowledge, no one has suggested that optics were used as widely or as early as I am arguing.

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