Changing Perspectives: The Science of Optics in the Visual Arts





Aravinthan D. T. Samuel (Department of Physics)   
Freshman Seminar 51X     4 credits (spring term)     Enrollment:  Limited to 8

Renaissance artists began to create stunningly realistic representations of their world. Paintings started to resemble photographs, suggesting that artists had solved technical problems that escaped their forebears. Our brains effortlessly deduce three-dimensional scenes from two-dimensional images. But faithfully transferring spatial information to a flat canvas -- a sense of depth, surface and shadow, geometrical accuracy -- is hard to do. Here, we will discuss how artists including van Eyck, da Vinci, Vermeer, and Ingres might have used science to make art. We will ask how devices like pinhole cameras, mirrors, and lenses might help artists see more deeply and create images more faithfully. We will use Home Lab Kits and experiment for ourselves with optical devices. We will try to use devices to create our own work using Home Art Kits. We will use online platforms to look closely at selected masterpieces to assess their optical qualities. We will use online learning to Zoom beyond Harvard to visit museums where selected masterpieces are located. We will Zoom to the homes of artists and scientists who think about art and optics from many different perspectives. Our seminar is a synthesis of art history, studio art, and optical science.


No prior training in art or optics. We will learn how to draw in our own workshop with provided tools. We will learn optics with practical exercises, not with math or physics.


This seminar is recommended for students with interests in science and art. There will be an exhibition of the works created by the students at the end of the term.
See also: Spring 2023