Did Rembrandt cheat?

July 18 2016

Image of Did Rembrandt cheat?

Picture: NYT

The suggestion that Rembrandt used a series of lenses in order to paint his self-portraits, and thus effectively 'trace' the drawing of his face, has gained a lot of coverage in the news. The theory, put forward by artist Francis O'Neill in the Journal of Optics, echoes that of David Hockney some years ago with his book 'Secret Knowledge', in which he claimed that artists from Van Eyck to Ingres used a camera obscura, or a camera lucida, to help compose their compositions.

O'Neill's theory is set out here in the New York Times:

At age 18, Francis O’Neill, an aspiring young painter, went on a train trip around Europe and was struck by the Rembrandt masterpieces he saw in galleries. Like many before him, he was astounded by Rembrandt’s technical accuracy.

“I thought, ‘What sort of magic has this guy imbued in himself?’ ” said Mr. O’Neill, who today produces art and teaches from his studio in Oxford, England.

Now, Mr. O’Neill thinks he’s found an answer to that question — and he says it has more to do with optics than magic.

In a paper published Wednesday in the Journal of Optics, Mr. O’Neill lays out a theory that Rembrandt set up flat and concave mirrors to project his subjects — including himself — onto surfaces before painting or etching them.

Personally, I don't believe it. And I think it's interesting that those who today suggest that artists like Rembrandt relied on elaborate optical constructions to do basic things like drawing - based on no contemporary evidence at all - tend to be artists themselves. For these artists, who may be very good artists like Hockney, tend not to be great painters, in the way that Rembrandt was. And because they cannot themselves do what Rembrandt did effortlessly, the temptation is to conclude that somehow these great Old Masters cheated. 

Update - by the way, it's Rembrandt's birthday.

Update II - a reader writes:

I read Hockney's book and even he doesn't see much benefit from the use of optics for Rembrandt's aesthetic goals. Rembrandt was a businessman. Had optics been useful to studio production, I think he would have employed them without hesitation but, In his case, they may have slowed production.

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