Tuesday, April 6, 2010

using a Claude mirror for portraiture

Seeking for some mirror images of myself that might be more interesting to paint from than just a conventional stare into a conventional mirror, I thought I'd explore the once ubiquitous Claude Mirror as used by landscape artists some centuries ago. Indeed, John Glover, the great Tasmanian colonial painter, often carried a ‘Claude Glass’ to assist in his `aesthetic response’ when landscape painting in 'Tassie'. ( John Glover and the Colonial Picturesque , Tasmanian Museum & Art Gallery,  p. 11) .

You can see some nice images of Claude Glasses (Dark Mirrors)  here  that have been collected together by Thomas Greenslade, Jr. of Kenyon College from the Smithsonian.

Alex McKay and Suzanne Matheson have done some fascinating work with the Claude Mirror and you can see the fruits of their investigations here. Their project is not purely concerned with the mirror itself, but more broadly with with contemporary art in a way that engages with and critiques its historical predecessors, especially perception and representation of landscape in painting. I was particularly captivated by their description of the device:

"The Claude mirror, a landscape-viewing device, is a pre-photographic optical instrument that was widely used in the 18th and 19th centuries. Its popularity is closely linked to the rise of the Picturesque Movement. It was named after its ability to transform a landscape view into something reminiscent of a painting by 17th-century French artist Claude Lorraine. These small, black, convex mirrors, usually sized for the hand, were extensively used by artists and tourists to contemplate, reconfigure and record landscape. They were wielded on picturesque tours of Britain, the Continent and North America. In areas such as the Wye Valley or the Lake District, tourists would halt at proscribed Viewing Stations (maps and mirrors available at opticians, stationers, art suppliers and, later in the period, tourist stops), turn their backs to the scene, hold up a Claude mirror, and look at the framed and transformed view. The distorted perspective, altered colour saturation and compressed tonal values of the reflection resulted in a loss of detail (especially in the shadows), but an overall unification of form and line. The Claude mirror essentially edited a natural scene, making its scale and diversity manageable, throwing its picturesque qualities into relief and - crucially - making it much easier to draw and record.

The seeming absurdity of refracting and reflecting nature in this fashion is balanced by the beauty and seductiveness of the mirror’s optical effects. It is an 18th century ‘virtual reality ‘ device, having all of the charm and magic of the camera obscura, but none of the clumsiness. History has remembered the contradictions of the device, but lost the experience of its power and utility. The popularity of the Claude mirror over 200 years ago is acknowledged by historians, but the very characteristics that once made it so popular have been misrepresented or misunderstood." http://www.tinternabbeyhotel.co.uk/claude-mirror/

My revisiting of the device however is for portraiture, not landscape. Used close up to my face, would it's distortions loosen any perceptual shackles? I managed to find a convex mirror that would serve me as a Claude Glass. I’m hoping the looming gargoyles, combined with expressive mark-making, will produce energetic, strong images that yet have something truthful to say. The beauty of self-portraiture is that one can be as brutal as one likes. There was a reason John Singer Sargent once said, "Every time I paint a portrait I lose a friend."

Unfortunately I have yet not been able to get my hands on Arnaud Maillet's The Claude Glass: Use and Meaning of the Black Mirror in Western Art as yet.

Anyway, the first Claudified images are in ... and some food for thought:

"One of the key attractions at the oceanside boardwalk or the midway at the county fair used to be the fun house mirrors. An ordinary person could walk up to the mirror and see themselves reflected with an uncharacteristically wide middle, short or stretched legs, or a giraffe neck. The mirrors were always good for a laugh ...

Sometimes, though our self-image is just as distorted. We look in the bathroom mirror and see something different from the image the outside world sees. The old gender-based joke shows a man sucking in his paunch and envisioning his 18-year-old football player self and the woman stands beside him, scowling at the perceived elephantine size of her butt. It's internal, but the distortion in the mirror is no less real in the eye of the subject.

Here's the rub: we act in accordance with the view we see, not the actual view, but our own fun house version of it".  (Julie Poland).

The portraits i ended up painting using these photo images can be seen here.


  1. the text you quote about the Claude mirror, linked to the Tintern Abbey Hotel, is mine, as is the Claude mirror at the Hotel


    Alex McKay

  2. hi Alex, thanks for making yourself yourself known to me and thanks so much for the work you and Suzanne have done with the mirror. I was absolutely fascinated by it.

    I've never seen a period one in the flesh, let alone held one in my hands. Your claudemirror.com site looks great and i'll edit this posting to include it. Cheers.