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The precursor of the modern camera, the camera obscura is a darkened enclosure into which light is admitted through a lens in a small hole. The image of the illuminated area outside the enclosure is thrown upside down as if by magic onto a surface in the darkened enclosure. This technique was known as long ago as the fifth century B.C., in China. Aristotle also experimented with it in the fourth century B.C., and Leonardo da Vinci described it in his notebooks in 1490. In 1558 Giovanni Battista Della Porta wrote in his twenty-volume work Magia naturalis (meaning "natural magic") instructions for adding a convex lens to improve the quality of the image thrown against a canvas or panel in the darkened area where its outlines could be traced. Later, portable camera obscuras were developed, with interior mirrors and drawing tables on which the artist could trace the image. For the artist, this technique allows forms and linear perspective to be drawn precisely as they would be seen from a single viewpoint. Mirrors were also used to reverse the projected images to their original positions.
Did some of the great masters of painting, then, trace their images using a camera obscura? Some art historians are now looking for clues of artists' use of such devices. One of the artists whose paintings are being analyzed from this point of view is the great Dutch master, Jan Vermeer, who lived from 1632 to 1675 during the flowering of art and science in the Netherlands, including the science of optics. Vermeer produced only about 30 known paintings, including his famous The Art of Painting. The room shown in it closely resembles the room in other Vermeer paintings, with lighting coming from a window on the left, the same roof beams, and similar floor tiles, suggesting that the room was fitted with a camera obscura on the side in the foreground. The map hung on the opposite wall was a real map in Vermeer's possession, reproduced in such faithful detail that some kind of tracery is suspected. When one of Vermeer's paintings was X-rayed, it did not have any preliminary sketches on the canvas beneath the paint, but rather the complete image drawn in black and white without any trial sketches. Vermeer did not have any students, did not keep any records, and did not encourage anyone to visit his studio, facts that can be interpreted as protecting his secret use of a camera obscura.
In recent times the British artist David Hockney has published his investigations into the secret use of the camera obscura, claiming that for up to 400 years, many of Western art's great masters probably used the device to produce almost photographically realistic details in their paintings. He includes in this group Caravaggio, Hans Holbein, Leonardo da Vinci, Diego Velázquez, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Agnolo Bronzino, and Jan van Eyck. From an artist's point of view, Hockney observed that a camera obscura compresses the complicated forms of a three-dimensional scene into two-dimensional shapes that can easily be traced and also increases the contrast between light and dark, leading to the chiaroscuroartistic term for a contrast between light and dark effect seen in many of these paintings. In Jan van Eyck's The Marriage of Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami, the complicated foreshortening (a technique for representing an image in art that makes it appear to recede in space) in the chandelier and the intricate detail in the bride's garments are among the clues that Hockney thinks point to the use of the camera obscura.
So what are we to conclude? If these artists did use a camera obscura, does that diminish their stature? Hockney argues that the camera obscura does not replace artistic skill in drawing and painting. In experimenting with it, he found that it is actually quite difficult to use for drawing, and he speculates that the artists probably combined their observations from life with tracing of shapes.