Protomodern Observers and the Camera Lucida

Protomodern Observers and the Camera Lucida 1806–50

Erna Fiorentini

Cooperation Partners: 

Freie Universität Berlin, Art History Department

calvert.jpg

Reverend Calvert Jones (?) sketching with a Wollaston camera lucida (probably a self-portrait done in a mirror), ca. 1830 (The National Library of Wales)

This project was part of the Research Unit TP A2 of the Collaborative Research Center—Sonderforschungsbereich SFB 626 "Aesthetic Experience and the Dissolution of Artistic Limits" of the Freie Universität Berlin.

The project aims at defining a way of seeing assumed to be peculiar to the first three decades of the nineteenth century, as a major phenomenon of vision's turn to modernity. The observers incarnating this protomodern way of seeing knew that the function of their eyes could not be drawn on the cartesian model anymore. They recognized the complexity of physiological features and did not consider the eye any longer as a neutral and passive screen on which outside reality is projected, capable to faithfully represent the world as it is. Conceding that the eye still has epistemic capacities, protomodern observers deemed it a “ visual box of resonance” of the outside world, capable of conveying "true" informations only if the observers are able to control their visual experience.
This particular way of understanding vision, oscillating between the need for objective representation and the recognition of individual responses to visual stimulation, affected many ideas and practices related to the visual representation of the observed and let instrumental strategies of observation and imaging flourish.  Indicatively, though, these practices were not based on processes of mechanical self-representation, but tried to sharpen human vision in order to facilitate the depiction of visual experience. Indeed, observation and depiction carried out by means of such instruments, most notably the Camera Lucida, are simultaneously an act of objective cognition and of subjective judgement, selection, and creation.
Drawing with optical instruments like the Camera Lucida grew into a popular phenomenon in art and science of the early nineteenth century. Their optical principle and their use are thus ideal keys to the meaning of vision and to the problems related to the depiction of visual experience in different domains of interest of this time, in epistemological terms as well as in terms of aesthetic experience.
As an astonishing common denominator of art and science, these optical drawing devices enables us to investigate a possible conceptual dialogue of positive knowledge and artistic autonomy, and to ask for the meaning of the "real" in artistic and scientific experience and representation.

 

Funding Institutions

German Research Foundation / Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft - DFG