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The Science of Art: Optical Themes in Western Art from Brunelleschi to Seurat Hardcover – February 7, 1990


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press; First Edition edition (February 7, 1990)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300043376
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300043372
  • Product Dimensions: 11.8 x 10.2 x 1.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #276,288 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In a volume filled with some 570 illustrations, Kemp discusses European painters' imitation of nature through the sciences of perspective and color.

Copyright 1992 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to the Paperback edition.

From Library Journal

This work, one of the most lucidly written art history books in recent memory, addresses a topic of inherent complexity and great recent interest. Kemp (Univ. of St. Andrews), who has written on Leonardo, discusses perspective and optic theories as they related to the central problem of European painting for half a millennium, the verisimilar depiction of nature. The first part of the book discusses perspective theory and practice and the use of devices that led toward photography. In the second part, Kemp explores optic theories derived from Aristotle and from Newton and their theoretical and practical impacts on painting. The only minor cavil is the unclear order of the select bibliography; otherwise, this is a superb and thoughtful book, with a level of writing to which few can aspire. Highly recommended for general as well as special collections.
- Jack Perry Brown, Ryerson & Burnham Libs . , Art Inst. of Chicago
Copyright 1990 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Customer Reviews

4.6 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

29 of 31 people found the following review helpful By drollere on January 1, 2003
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
i had the experience of being flooded with light and clarity when i first opened and browsed this book. my enthusiasm is in part because of kemp's extraordinary scholarship and detailed command of paintings and art publications across the entire span of western art. but it's also because the story of artistic imaging over the past six centuries is woven around the european romance with linear perspective, which has become so discredited and disliked by artists that it qualifies as a repressed memory. (like any buried memory, perspective surfaces in the dreamlike digital animations of intergalactic science fiction and first person computer games, which take perspective effects to the ultimate level of technical accuracy and artistic triviality.) kemp unearths those repressed perspective memories and shows how vital they were to the development of art and the connections between art and the wider culture of the times.

it is jaw droppingly fun to see how intensive, sophisticated and singleminded was the artistic interest in optical and perceptual issues of seeing. everyone will find special surprises here, but mine include kemp's spatial analysis of velazquez's "las meninas," and the extraordinary drawings and engravings produced c.1800, which force us to realize that we are already looking at "photo graphs," light drawings created by hand, at a time when film photography was not yet practical. there is a large section on various optical devices utilized in visual arts, including the camera obscura and camera lucida, and an excellent section on the evolving understanding and use of color, from the renaissance to seurat.
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38 of 42 people found the following review helpful By jmors@monumental.com on April 5, 2000
Format: Paperback
It's amazing what happens when a scientist studies art history. This is a historical perspective on color theory, camera obscura and perspective. It relates the work of indvidual artists to the advances in science.
The refreshing thing is that Kemp realizes that artists who used perspective were not slaves of science, and an artist such as Turner actually realized that the main item of interest in a scene perceptually appears larger than mathematics would dictate.
My favorite story is how it was considered obvious that there were 5 primary colors because Christ had 5 stigmata, but when Newton proved there were 3 primaries, that was obvious because of the Trinity.
This book is certainly not an easy, but the knowledge gained should forever change the way you look at art.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By E. White on March 17, 2014
Format: Paperback
In "The Science of Art", Martin Kemp (an emeritus professor of history of art at University of Oxford who is considered one of the world's leading experts on the art of Leonardo da Vinci and visualization in art and science) details the use of geometrical science of perspective and physical science of color in painting within the time period 1400-1800. In this time, the central goal of artists and theorists was the imitation of nature based on scientific principles. This book is academic and dry as well as beautiful and complex.

I was already quite familiar with perspective, as I finished The Painter's Secret Geometry recently, so I skimmed until section two on mechanical devises. Christopher Wren's perspective machine, the Claude glass, and Pierre Edouard Frer's Zograscope fascinated me. Although it felt a bit out of place, section three is interesting for its examination of color before and after Newton.

This is an important book that will endure because its makes us aware in a new way of the continuity, complexity, and ultimately the beauty of the European ideals that have linked art and science since the Renaissance and given Western culture its unique place in history. Next up for me is: The Painter's Secret Geometry: A Study of Composition in Art - two people in my art class recommended it!
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11 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Michael Gunther on February 11, 2010
Format: Paperback
Martin Kemp's book is actually two unrelated volumes in one. The first 2/3 of the book is a history of perspective technique, and the last 1/3 is a history of color technique, from the Renaissance to the Early Modern period of Western painting. The book is very technical (in the art-historical, not in the scientific, sense) and dry. This is a narrative history, and does not approach color theory or geometric perspective from any scientific reference point. My neutral rating of it (three stars) is a compromise between a two-star rating for the general reader and a possible four stars for the specialist reader.

General readers/practicing artists: "The Science of Art," as mentioned above, develops these specialized areas of art history in a narrowly technical way. This book will not help you to use or analyse perspective and color effects, whether in your own work or in other works that you might see in museums.

Art-history professionals: Kemp's book does provide a lot of information for those who are engaged with these subdivisions of art history on a professional basis. The author's approach is narrative/historical throughout, with very little theory or analysis. These factors make it most suitable for larger reference libraries.
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