The Nineteenth Century:
Painting, Photography and Vision Science
A painter’s eye will often be arrested where ordinary people see
nothing remarkable. A casual gleam of sunshine, or a shadow
thrown across his path, a time-withered oak, or a moss-covered
stone may awaken a train of thoughts and feeling and picturesque
William Henry Fox Talbot, The Pencil of Nature
In the nineteenth century, as noted in the first chapter, William Whewell proposed the term “scientist” as an analogue to “artist.” To reiterate, as the eighteenth century turned to the nineteenth century, scientific empiricism was establishing itself in a way that suggested a need to distinguish the data-driven methodologies from the larger purview of natural philosophy. Within this context, Whewell proposed that just as musicians, painters and poets are termed “artists,” the culture could term mathematicians, physicists and naturalists “scientists.” Yet, even within this parallelism we can continue to ferret out much experimental convergence. As new inventions emerge, artists continue to work with scientists in refining ideas about vision, representation and visuality.
Photography illustrates trends and fashions. Easily seen in terms of nature, representation and mimesis, dominant ideas in interpretations of art, vision and images that have defined much of Western thought since the time of Plato, we often lose sight of it as a nineteenth century innovation, one that contributed to the debates of that time. The systemic interface fostered innovative, collaborative work in vision research, allowing artists and scientists to forge new collaborations that led to (among others things) the development of vision science, improvements in painting technologies, the invention of photography, the formulation of non-Euclidean mathematics and the discovery of the X-ray at the end of the century.