About 20 years ago, David Hockney made in his book "Secret Knowledge" a powerful case for the hypothesis that a revolution was set off in Western painting by the use of camera obscura and other optical instruments from the 15th century onwards.

According to his very convincing thesis, the breathtaking realism of (especially portrait) paintings by Van Eyck, Vermeer, Velazquez etc. could never have been achieved by simply "eyeballing" the subject. By the beginning of the 19th century, the technique was so widespread and refined, that many "paintings" were de facto "photographs" before the advent of photography itself.

Of course, this crucial introduction and generalization of "photographic" painting, without which the evolution of Western art over the past 500 years would be impossible to understand, could be seen as "cheating". Is the controversy caused by "Secret Knowledge" justified? Have art historians given Hockney's thesis the attention it deserves?

Examples of old masters' works which "couldn't be just a painting": Van Eyck's "Man in an Turban, 1433 Holbein's "Thomas More", 1527

Wikipedia on contemporary photorealism: "Photorealist painting cannot exist without the photograph. In Photorealism, change and movement must be frozen in time which must then be accurately represented by the artist. Photorealists gather their imagery and information with the camera and photograph. Once the photograph is developed (usually onto a photographic slide) the artist will systematically transfer the image from the photographic slide onto canvases. Usually this is done either by projecting the slide onto the canvas or by using traditional grid techniques. The resulting images are often direct copies of the original photograph but are usually larger than the original photograph or slide. This results in the photorealist style being tight and precise, often with an emphasis on imagery that requires a high level of technical prowess and virtuosity to simulate, such as reflections in specular surfaces and the geometric rigor of man-made environs."

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    Also, is there any evidence that the thesis is correct? In particular, don't modern-day artists produce photorealistic art without such optical aids?
    – jamesqf
    Mar 5, 2020 at 17:23
  • Apart from the odd anecdotal mention of "Vermeer's Camera" (by Gombrich e.g.), I have not come accross a single book, essay or exhibition catalogue where the issue of optical technology as a ( or "the") driving force in the history of Western Painting is raised. But your comment is very pertinent, and I have edited my question accordingly. Thank you! Mar 5, 2020 at 17:30
  • Does any contemporary artist produce photorealistic art without optical aid??? Mar 5, 2020 at 17:34
  • @MarcosGonzalez, how should we determine how much attention the thesis "deserves" compares to what it got? Mar 5, 2020 at 17:43
  • @Aaron Brick The way I see it, every child at school should learn that without optical help practically no old master painting from Jan van Eyck up to JMW Turner would have been possible. Mar 5, 2020 at 17:46

3 Answers 3


Hockney's claims have drawn at least some serious scholarly attention and experimentation.

The Art & Optics website hosted by Brandeis University reviews the theory, experiments, and arguments for and against the use of optics by old masters -- noting that evidence that some painters may have used some devices in some paintings doesn't mean they used them in other paintings.

One note is that the mechanical drawing underlying a painting is only one aspect of the painting's production and impact, neglecting choice of subject matter, composition, use of materials, application of stroke and color, glazing, and more. The documentary Tim's Vermeer drew mockery for lauding Tim Jenison's dab-by-dab work replicating the surface of Vermeer's The Music Lesson as anything comparable to the process of producing the original work.

The evolution of Western art that you note involves far more than the technical precision of using optics for drawing, and of course there have been many phases of Western art that valued less-precise, even impressionistic interpretations of scenery, still lives, and society.

  • Thanks a lot for your reply (+). Please note that not only the "drawing" is concerned. According to DH, by way of example, none of Caravaggio's paintings had an underlying drawing. He just painted (with camera and lenses) straight away. Check eg. Supper at Emaus for optical oddities. Moreover, the greatest selling point of practically any painter before the advent of photography was arguably the "photographic quality" of its work. Impressionism is a good example of how photography made painters go beyond this "photographic quality". Mar 5, 2020 at 18:36
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    I'm using "drawing" broadly here. Some painters make an actual detailed underdrawing, seal it, then paint on top; others draw directly with a brush; others block in the larger shapes first and then add details on top. Of course the main failure of the case for widespread use of optics is the lack of documentation that anyone used them or saw them being used. It's also possible that seeing the results of some optics-aided work pushed others to improve their work. Mar 5, 2020 at 19:38
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    @Marcos Gonzalez: But many painters produce photorealistic paintings today. Even if they're not considered "art", if you look at for instance SF and Fantasy paintings (including book covers), they are often photorealistic images of things that don't actually exist, so the painters can't be using camera obscura or anything of the sort.
    – jamesqf
    Mar 6, 2020 at 4:54
  • @jamesqf Please name an example of a contemporary photorealistic image painted or drawn without optical (or digital) help. I‘m not challenging you! I’m genuinely interested🙂 Mar 6, 2020 at 7:24
  • @Marcos Gonzalez: I am not an artist, so I know very little of the techniques involved, but go to a bookstore and look at the covers in the F&SF section. You will find lots of "photorealistic" pictures of dragons, aliens, and the like. So my challenge in return: how are such pictures created, when no originals exist to use optical equipment on? You might also inquire of the artists how they produce their work.
    – jamesqf
    Mar 6, 2020 at 18:57

The Hockney-Falco thesis is NOT a taboo subject in art history.

This is not going to be regarded as a good answer because I can't cite any written sources, I've asked former art students who were aware of the theory and had been taught it at college. Also, there has been plenty of discussion of the idea over the last twenty years. When it was introduced it was very controversial and there was much discussion and research.

Over time, its importance has faded; the good parts have been retained, the bad are ignored. I'm happy to discuss the good and the bad elsewhere, this is an attempt to provide a direct answer to the question


Have you actually looked at any paintings from before the renaissance? There's plenty that look accurate. Besides, David Hockney, whilst he was at art school made a point of not going to art history lessons, so I'd take his ideas here with a large dose of salt.

Have art historians given Hockneys ideas the attention it deserves?

Why should they? He disrespected them all the way through art college!

  • Thank you. Can you name a pre-quattrocento painting with "photographic quality"? Mar 5, 2020 at 17:49
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    Well, if there are "plenty of paintings before the Renaissance that look accurate", it would be interesting to see one. Mar 5, 2020 at 17:52
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    @Marcos Gonzalez: Do a search on "Pompeii paintings".
    – jamesqf
    Mar 6, 2020 at 4:46
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    @jamesqf Good point, but none of them compares in terms of „photographic quality“ to e.g. Van Eycks Man in a Turban. Mar 6, 2020 at 7:20

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