The obscure science in the art

This article describes Camera obscura and it’s use in art. One possibility to see the paintings created with help of Camera obscura or to witness the birth of perspective in art is to attend a guided tour through Berlinische Gemäldegalerie. The permanent exhibition of this gallery hosts more than 3500 paintings from 13th to 18th century.


A guided tour through permanent exhibition: A dialogue between art and science

How much?

10€ entrance + 10€ tour fee







Berliner Gemäldegalerie accommodates more than 3500 paintings from 13th till 18th century, which are part of collection from Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz. It is located at Kulturforum in Berlin, near the Potsdamer Platz. However, part of the collection is integrated into the sculpture exhibition at Bode museum.

Gemäldegalerie usually hosts the permanent exhibition as well as several temporary exhibitions. The permanent exhibition offers some astonishing pieces, which are ordered on a time axis. Moving anticlockwise it is possible to see the changes in the art, changes in the topics and subjects of the painting, the birth of the perspective as well as development of the craftsmanship.

It is possible to gain additional insight into the abilities and background of the artists, historical development of the painting and the single pieces by attending the guided tours offered by the gallery. In addition to the more common excursions also tours with more specific or unusual topics can be attended. One of the topics is dialogue between art and science, where the ability of the angels to fly, the light and perspective, the difference of the temperature between hell and heaven as well as the the timing of the birth of Jesus and the nature of the star, which three kings followed, are discussed.

Among many other things a visitor at Kulturforum is able to witness the birth of perspective in art. The first image shown to the group during the tour was the Madonna of Klodzko (Glatzer Madonna or Kladska madona). It shows the enthroned Maria with baby Jesus on her lap. The throne is embedded into a building – a church and Madonna is surrounded by angels. This altar piece from Augustinian monastery in Klodzko does not have lot of scientific features on it. It was commissioned by the Archbishop Arnost of Pardubice around 1350, who is depicted in the image on left bottom as a much smaller figure. On the painting just a rudimentary perspective is to be found and the size of the figure symbolizes its importance.

Unknown author. Enthroned Madonna of Kłodzko (de: Glatzer Madonna), 1350. Gemäldegalerie, Berlin.

In the last station of the tour, four Canaletto paintings are hung – “The Grand Canal from Campo Santa Sofia to the Rialto Bridge”, “Der Campo di Riatto”, “La Vigilia di S. Pietro” and “La Vigilia di S. Marta”. It is wonderfully seen in the “Der Campo di Riatto” how the perspective is drawn. It is possible to trace each line to one point opposite of the position of the artist. All the human figures in the image are of the right size – the painting looks highly realistic. However, the angle of view chosen by the artist’s genius makes the square look larger than it actually is.

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In other painting – “The Grand Canal from Campo Santa Sofia to the Rialto Bridge”, the position of the artist is non-existent. In reality, there is no bridge and the point of view is elevated, so it is also unprobable that the artist was on a boat. Most probably the position was changed in the painting and a trick was used to make the Rialto Bridge visible, as in reality it is hidden behind the curve of the channel. However, the reason for this deviation was not the bridge itself, but the customer. The painting was ordered by the German merchant Sigismund Streit and the trick allows the viewer to see the Palace of German merchants left from Rialto Bridge.

Now the difference between the first and the last stations of the tour is striking. Not only did the perspective evolve from non-existent to perfect, but it also got unnaturally perfect – beyond what the naked eye could perceive. The reason is that Canaletto as many other artists, such as Vermeer, Crespi, Vernet, Loutherbourg, used many different technical objects and tricks to paint realistically, such as e.g. Camera obscura, which will be discussed below.

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The comparison of sizes of the figures – especially the proportions of the heads – in “Officer and Laughing Girl”  and the almost impenetrably dark background in “Girl with a Pearl Earring” hint towards use of Camera obscura by J. Vermeer


A Camera obscura means a dark room in translation from Latin. It is a simplest image producing device. In its simplest version it just requires a pinhole, where the light goes through and produces an upside down left-right mirrored image of whatever is in front of the pinhole. However, the image is usually dim and not very sharp. Because of the light requirements an image of the sun itself is easiest to produce.

In camera obscura you get flipped image projection. @Wikipedia

Experiment: darken your room and leave only a small hole in the dimout. If the scenery is sufficiently bright and your room sufficiently (really) dark, you will see an image on the other side of the room.

In order to produce an image of sufficient quality, the scenery should be brightly lit, the room, where the image is produced, must be dark and the pinhole sufficiently small. For a camera with a size of a room a hole as large as a keyhole is usually satisfactory. To achieve best resolution Lord Rayleigh proposed a formula already in 1891 (Nature, 1891):


The light is visible to a human eye, if it has a wavelength from 380 nm (violett) to 780 nm (red). Therefore, if we use 550 nm as wavelength and place the paper 1 m away from a pinhole the diameter of the pinhole has to be 1.48 mm. However, Lord Rayleigh was slightly off, if we use a more sophisticated approximation – a combination of geometrical optics and Fraunhofer optics, it will occur that the formula


delivers better resolution (Applied Optics, 1971).

A principle of a Camera obscura was already described by Aristoteles, who wrote about watching of a sun eclipse using this principle (Brill, 2015). Till 17th century that was the main use of a Camera obscura – astronomers and enthusiasts were watching sun eclipses without damaging their eyes. Also Chinese philosophers were speculating on the nature of the creation of the peculiar images by a pinhole. Arabic scientist Alhazen was writing about the subject in the 10th century and based on his work such minds as R. Bacon, J. Pecham, Witelo and Kopernikus studied the phenomena of Camera obscura (Max-Planck-Institute for the History of Science, 2006). Already around 1400 Filippo Brunelleschi was one of the painters, who painted one point perspective images. Leonardo Da Vinci made a first recorded drawing of a design of an camera obscura and described its operation in 1490 (Cengage Learning, 2015). Beginning with the 17th century painter start to use the “new” device to paint the landscapes. The use of camera obscura is well documented starting with 19th century.

It is said that this method reduced the painting to merely retracing the image, but this is not exact. Because of the dimness mostly the most pronounced features were sketched. Also, most Camera obscuras used by painters were portable and therefore a paper sized sketch could be produced only, which later had to be transferred to a larger canvas in a workshop. However, use of the device allowed artists the use of the perspective and additionally a solid landscape could be sketched during the day, so the additional features could be inserted later, like it most probably happened in both night paintings from Canaletto mentioned in the Introduction. The fact of use of the camera obscura for painting landscapes was established by comparison of the perspective and proportions of the figures in the hand painted drawings and images produced with camera obscura. As the perception of the naked eye and through camera obscura differs it can be differentiated if the method was used or not (The Art Bulletin, 1971).

Camera Obscura Tent, Edmund Atkinson, 1875

Four types of the Camera obscura were used. The first one was already described above. The second one adds a plane in front of the pinhole. The artist is placed behind the plane. With this improvement the left-right mirroring of the painted landscape is corrected. The third design uses a 45 degree mirror and corrects the upside down position of the image. The combination of the second and the third designs leads to the fourth one, which shows the image as the painter would see it with his eye (Max-Planck-Institute for the History of Science, 2006).

Camera Obscura – type 4, Adolphe Ganot, 1864

Camera obscura led to a significant development of the art, as it introduced the perspective and made the paintings more realistic. But it also gave birth to the optical devices of the next generations, such as Camera lucida and first photo cameras, and ultimately to the emergence of the photography, which again lead to the progress and development of the new forms of art.


In this article a guided tour through Berlinische Gemäldegalerie. This particular tour was about science in the art – about light, flight, temperature gradients and about perspective. At the end of the tour a perfect perspective, achieved by old masters like Canaletto, was discussed along with the technology, which they used for it. As one of technological achievements of high importance Camera obscura was introduced, described and discussed. This apparatus was a prototype, which lead to the birth of photography, cameras and new forms of art, which will be discussed in later articles.


  1. R. Mayhew, The Aristotelian Problemata Physica Philosophical and Scientifijic Investigations. Brill (2015)
  2. E. Fiorentini. Camera Obscura vs. Camera Lucida – Distinguishing Early Nineteenth Century Modes of Seeing. Max-Planck-Institute for the History of Science (2006)
  3. C. James, The Book of Alternative Photographic Processes. Cengage Learning, Inc (2015)
  4. D. A. Fink, Vermeer’s Use of the Camera Obscura — A Comparative Study. The Art Bulletin. 53(4):493-505 (1971)
  5. M. Young, Pinhole Optics. Applied Optics, 10(12):2763-2767 (1971)

Cover image: “Camera Obscura: Manhattan View looking South in Large Room”, 1996 @Abelardo Morell

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