Most art historians believe the majority of European painters since the Italian Renaissance deployed elaborate systems of mathematical perspective to achieve their effects. Over the past several years, however, Hockney and Falco have been arguing that, on the contrary, most artists in the High Tradition, going all the way back to Bruges in the 1420s, were deploying a variety of optical devices (ranging from concave mirrors through lenses and cameras obscura and lucida). In effect they suggest that painters (from Van Eyck through Caravaggio, Lotto, Velazquez, Vermeer, Chardin, Ingres, etc.) were using precursors of photographic cameras for centuries before the invention of chemical fixatives in 1839; and that it was only with the spread of such chemical fixatives that European painters, suddenly disenchanted with the “optical look,” began to undertake the critique of photography implicit in impressionism, expressionism and cubism and the rest of the modernist tradition.
Sixty Minutes had a segment on this tonight. Interesting idea.
According to the site, Hockney first had the idea in 1999. Interesting thing is, he worked with photo-collage in the mid-eighties (if not before and since), building large scenes out of overlapping photograps of smaller peices of the scene. An interesting parallel to the way he hypothesizes the painters worked with mirrors and lenses, refocusing them repeatedly for each part of the scene. This would explain some of the geometric irregularities in a variety of paintings.