The Science of Optics: The History of Art

Charles Falco, University of Arizona

Friday, January 30, 2009

Spanos Auditorium

This seminar is part of the Jones Seminars on Science, Technology, and Society series

Recently, renowned artist David Hockney observed that certain drawings and paintings from as early as the Renaissance seemed almost "photographic" in detail. Following an extensive visual investigation of western art of the past 1000 years, he made the revolutionary claim that artists even of the prominence of van Eyck and Bellini must have used optical aids. However, many art historians insisted there was no supporting evidence for such a remarkable assertion. In this talk I show a wealth of optical evidence for his claim that Hockney and I subsequently discovered during an unusual, and remarkably productive, collaboration between an artist and a scientist. I also discuss the imaging properties of the "mirror lens" (concave mirror), and some of the implications this work has for the history of science as well as the history of art (and the modern fields of machine vision and computerized image analysis). These discoveries convincingly demonstrate optical instruments were in use—by artists, not scientists—nearly 200 years earlier than commonly thought possible, and account for the remarkable transformation in the reality of portraits that occurred early in the 15th century.

Acknowledgments: This work was done in collaboration with David Hockney. We gratefully acknowledge David Graves (London), Ultan Guilfoyle (Guggenheim), Martin Kemp (Oxford U.), Masud Mansuripur (U. Arizona), José Sasián (U. Arizona), Richard Schmidt (Los Angeles), and Lawrence Weschler (The New Yorker) for a variety of valuable contributions to our efforts.

About the Speaker

Charles Falco is a Professor of Optical Sciences at the University of Arizona where he holds the UA Chair of Condensed Matter Physics. He is a Fellow of the American Physical Society, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and the Optical Society of America, has published more than 250 scientific manuscripts, co-edited two books, has seven U.S. patents, and given over 300 invited talks at conferences and research institutions in 24 countries. However, in addition to his scientific research, he was co-curator of the Solomon R. Guggenheim museum's "The Art of the Motorcycle" which, with over 2 million visitors in New York, Chicago, Bilbao, and the Guggenheim Las Vegas, was by far the most successful exhibition of industrial design ever assembled. More recently, a collaboration with the world-renowned artist David Hockney found artists of such repute as van Eyck, Bellini and Caravaggio used optical projections in creating portions of their work. These discoveries received widespread coverage in the popular media, including an hour-long BBC special, and resulted in over 100 invited talks and public lectures on this topic in thirteen countries.