The Vault of Perception: Are Straight Lines Seen as Curved?

in Art & Perception
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There is a widespread belief in art praxis that linear perspective is only a geometric approximation to the ‘true’ properties of perspective as experienced in the perception of the world, which are thought to involve some form of curvilinear perspective. The origins of that belief are examined from Roman times to the present, with a focus on the generation of perspective curvature by the active viewer as a means of elucidating the underlying perceptual principles involved. It is concluded that the only valid form of perspective for the flat canvas is linear perspective, and that it is valid only for a viewing location at the geometric center of projection for which the picture was constructed. Viewing from any other location (particularly in the case of wide-field images viewed from greater than the required distance) generates perceived distortions that have often been misinterpreted to imply that linear perspective geometry is inadequate and that some form of curvilinear perspective would be more representative. However, as long as it is viewed with one eye from the center of projection, the perceptual experience of accurate linear perspective is of a full, explorable 3D space, in contrast to any other form of perspective convention.

The Vault of Perception: Are Straight Lines Seen as Curved?

in Art & Perception



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  • View in gallery

    Illustration from Traité des Pratiques Géometrales et Perspectives by Abraham Bosse (1665). The French epigram can be translated: “To prove that one can neither define nor paint as the eye sees.”

  • View in gallery

    (A) ‘Pinhole camera view of the roof of S. Ignazio, Rome’ by Maurice Pirenne (1955). (B) ‘Courtyard’ by Jan Vredeman de Vries (1605). Both images have strong marginal distortions away from the center of the picture that are apparent under the usual viewing conditions. However, the perspective in both cases is geometrically correct for a viewing distance of about half the picture width. To view them comfortably under these conditions, each picture needs to be expanded to about 1 m in width, when the marginal distortions will be perceived to disappear and the pictures will be perceived in vivid ‘stereoscopic’ depth.

  • View in gallery

    (A) Illustration of the curve generated by an integrated view of a series of straight line projections. (B) Illustration of the curvilinear perspective of a 180° view of the canonical cube by John White (1957). This figure is published in color in the online version.

  • View in gallery

    ‘My Blue Lake’ by Kiki Smith (1995). This figure is published in color in the online version.

  • View in gallery

    ‘Arnolfini Double Portrait’ by Jan van Eyck (1434), with details of the spherical mirror surrounded by the stations of the cross below the artist’s signature, and of the distorted reflection in the mirror. This figure is published in color in the online version.

  • View in gallery

    (A) ‘Arrival of Emperor Charles IV at the Basilica St Denis in 1378’ by Jean Fouquet (c. 1460). (B) ‘The Crucifixion’ by Andrea Mantegna (c. 1460). This figure is published in color in the online version.

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