Did the great masters "cheat" using optics?
Computer image analysis of Renaissance masterpieces sheds light on a bold theory

David G. Stork

Ricoh Innovations and Stanford University

(December 6, 2007)

Ricoh Innovations


In 2001, artist David Hockney and scientist Charles Falco stunned the art world with a controversial theory that, if correct, would profoundly alter our view of the development of image making. They claimed that as early as 1420, Renaissance artists employed optical devices such as concave mirrors to project images onto their canvases, which they then traced or painted over. In this way, the theory attempts to explain the newfound heightened naturalism or "opticality" of painters such as Jan van Eyck, Robert Campin, Hans Holbein the Younger, and many others.

This talk will describe the application of rigorous computer image analysis to masterpieces adduced as evidence for this theory. It covers basic geometrical optics of image projection, the analysis of perspective, curved surface reflections, shadows, lighting and color. While there remain some loose ends, such analysis of the paintings, infra-red reflectograms, modern reenactments, internal consistency of the theory, and alternate explanations allows us to judge with high confidence the plausibility of this bold theory. You may never see Renaissance paintings the same way again.

Joint work with Antonio Criminisi, Marco Duarte, M. Kimo Johnson, Dirk Robinson and Christopher W. Tyler.

David G. Stork is Chief Scientist of Ricoh Innovations and Consulting Professor at Stanford University, where he has taught "Light, Color and Visual Phenomena," "Pattern Classification," "Optics, perspective and Renaissance painting," and other courses. He studied art history at Wellesley College and was Artist-in-Residence through the New York State Council of the Arts. He holds 33 patents and his five books include Seeing the Light: Optics in Nature, Photography, Color, Vision and Holography with D. Falk and D. Brill and Pattern Classification (2nd ed.) with R. Duda and P. Hart. He was one of four scientists invited to analyze Mr. Hockney's theory at a major symposium at the New York Institute for the Humanities in December 2001.