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The Claude Glass

ART TIMES December, 2004

I’VE COME ACROSS an interesting little book, The Claude Glass: Use and Meaning of the Black Mirror in Western Art by Arnaud Maillet (see our New Art Book listing in this issue), which has been teasing my mind ever since I opened its covers. Until I read it, I had never heard of a “Claude Glass” or a “Black Mirror” — and, upon asking around, have discovered that I was not alone in my ignorance. Let’s define these mysterious objects. A “Claude Glass” was a hand-held device that contained a series of “smoked” or colored lenses through which one looked out upon the world. At one time called the “Claude Lorraine Glass” — an artist who, if he did not invent it, had at any rate popularized it amongst landscape artists and which eventually gave rise to its being known in its present form simply by his given name — it was di rigueur in the 18th century for not only landscape artists but all manner of “day-trippers” who enjoyed a stroll into the countryside for the purposes of enjoying the world’s natural beauty, to have one tucked away in one’s traveling pouch. The “Claude Glass”, held up to the eye, allowed the viewer to more clearly see tonal values by either looking through a single lens or a combination of them, the act thereby diminishing the bright natural light of the sun and preventing it from confusing the vision. If I (and those I recently spoke with) had never heard of a “Claude Glass”, the concept was not a foreign one to me. Susan Silverman Fink, an artist with whom I often painted en plein air, showed me how to use a tinted piece of clear plastic when I looked at a motif, the better to see not only tonal variations but masses as well. (I still carry this red-tinted piece of plastic in my traveling paint box.) By cutting back the light, the procedure also eliminates minute detail, a result that also aids the landscape artist in isolating those salient features of a motif that enables him/her to arrive at a more “painterly” composition. Many landscape painters, incidentally, accomplish the same end by looking at a scene through one or both squinted eyes. And the “Black Mirror”? This was another optical device that was much in favor with 18th century landscape artists (and sightseers) that allowed for an altered look at a given landscape. Also hand-held, the black mirror was convex in shape (although there also existed flat, black mirrors — of which, more later) that not only reduced light but, at the same time, reduced in scale the view one was contemplating as a suitable motif for painting. With one’s back to the view, the artist could adjust the mirror up or down, to left or right, until the desired composition “appeared” in the mirror. Again, masses and tonal values would come immediately to the fore, the landscape painter’s chore of choosing a motif, again, presumably simplified. With sketchbook at the ready, the artist need only make a quick drawing of the image for later transference to the canvas back at the studio. To facilitate the juggling of mirror, pencil, and sketchbook, many of these devices could be set in place by attaching it to a stand or came equipped with a ring to hang from a nearby branch. Although Arnaud Maillet carries his investigation into the uses (and misuses) of the “Black Mirror” much further than any interest a modern-day landscape painter may have, his book nevertheless offers up a wealth of information to the interested reader — including why the mirror has fallen out of favor. For my part, as pleased as I was to read about these devices, I was equally frustrated by not being able to locate either one in today’s artshops. For the record, I have directed the same question to my friend Heinrich Jarczyk in Cologne, Germany, who is going to try to locate them in that country. I did learn from the book that making a black mirror, however, presented no great difficulty. I simply took a piece of glass from a 5 x 7 picture frame and pasted a piece of black construction paper to one side — voila! I now had my very own black mirror! And, although I immediately stepped outside my studio to give it a try, it, of course, was not convex, so it was hardly different from my tinted piece of plastic — and it showed things in reverse. I’d be interested in hearing from any of my readers who are familiar with or have used either the Claude Glass or convex Black Mirror — and grateful to anyone who might direct me to where I may find or purchase either device so that I may experience them first-hand.

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