David Stork Uses Science to See a World of Art Through Old Masters' Eyes

David Stork describes his process for recreating Diego Velazquez's "Las Meninas" as a 3-D experience. Video by Yasuo Furuichi (Kanagawa, Japan) and David Stork (Ricoh Innovations and Stanford University)

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By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 26, 2009

You love Vermeer's "Girl With a Pearl Earring." But what do you really know about it? What is it -- who is it -- that you're really seeing there, beyond the surface of the paint?

David Stork knows. He's been through Vermeer's looking glass and seen the other side. He's floated beside the painting's beauty and he's ridden its light, Tinker Bell-style, as it flashes on her pearl, then bounces from cheek to nose to liquid eyes.

Stork is a physicist, and he's used modernoptical science and a good bit of computing power to make a virtual, 3-D copy of the world that Vermeer gave us in two dimensions in about 1665. Stork gives the painter's "girl" a kind of Second Life avatar, which he has used to solve some of the painting's puzzles, such as whether Vermeer could have painted his subject from life, and how he might have lighted her if he did. "When people look and say, 'Look how impressive his lighting is?' they don't know how impressive," says Stork. His techniques do for art historians, he says, "just what a microscope does for biologists. We can now reveal things in art that we didn't see before."

Or at least that's what he'll be trying to prove in a lecture he gives Friday at the National Gallery of Art.

Stork will be talking about how his knowledge of vision, optics and computers -- an entire 30-page CV's worth of scientific achievements -- has let him look into Vermeer's light, and discover just how closely it matches reality.

Stork's science has let him step into Caravaggio's great "Calling of Saint Matthew" from 1600, and find out that the daylight that seems to shine into its tavern isn't natural at all: It could only have come from some kind of artificial source in Caravaggio's studio.

Most recently, the scientist has taken on "Las Meninas" by Velázquez, possibly the greatest picture ever made, and one of the most befuddling. By translating Velázquez's 1657 painting into a virtual world, Stork's been able to untangle some of its knots: He's figured out what kind of space the picture shows and exactly who is doing what in it.

* * *

Stork, who grew up in Chevy Chase, Maryland,turns 55 tomorrow. He is tall, handsome and fit (he's an advanced scuba diver). In a lecture hall, his energy is endearing and infectious, and he knows how to dumb down his subject when it's called for. His PhD in physics is from the University of Maryland, he has 37 patents (know what an "N-bit neural network encoder" is?)and a Silicon Valley job directing research on digital imaging for Ricoh Innovations, as well as a teaching position at Stanford. The day before his talk at the gallery, Stork will be at DARPA, the Defense Department research group in Arlington, briefing the military's eggheads on "securely outsourcing audio and video analytics."

None of which has helped him break into the world of art history.

Over a Sunday lunch a few months ago at the Phillips Collection -- a favorite spot -- Stork was frustrated that only a handful of art historians seemed to care or even know about his work on pictures.

That work started when Stork encountered a radical claim by celebrity painter David Hockney that had received huge media attention. In his 2001 book "Secret Knowledge," Hockney asserted that the great masters of Renaissance art had set up their subjects in front of curved mirrors, which then projected images that the artists traced their pictures from. That, Hockney claimed, is what accounts for the huge increase in realism that hits Western art in the years after 1400.

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