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Claude Glass: The World is Definitely More Beautiful in Its Reflection


This contraption is perhaps the most beautiful manifestation that a mirror can produce.

I knew the mirror told the truth.

- Brothers Grimm

Optics is true magic. Optical illusions by magicians and artists that have been classified as tricks manipulate light and the way our eyes perceive objects in such surprising forms that are so real in many senses, like the most elaborate spell.

For centuries painters have used mirrors and lenses to achieve precision and realism in their works. Da Vinci recommended the use of a mirror to define a scene and evaluate a painting. Using calculations and measurements, David Hockney (one of Britain’s most celebrated living painters) and the scientist Charles Falco discovered that many of the realist portraits by, for example, Van Eyck and Hans Holbein, could have been produced in part with the help of the projections of lenses and concave mirrors. Durero has a drawing that shows a machine in perspective that works as a camera obscura such as those used by Vermeer to achieve the effects of light and perfection in the details of his works. Cameras obscuras projected objects upside down, but it was very easy to mark the contours and then invert the picture, or use mirrors to flip the image.

From the 17th century the use of convex mirrors became popular, often tinted black, and which later became known as Claude glass. The object reminds one of a crystal ball used by clairvoyants; the mysterious bottoms of wells of so many fantastical stories. And such could have been the mirror used by Snow White’s stepmother to discover truths. The curious thing about this mirror is that it was not famous for producing an identical reflection of reality, but it was famous for improving it.

A landscape seen in a Claude glass appears reflected in harmonious colors and soft tones. The images were similar to the paintings of Claude Lorraine, who gave his name to the mirrors even though he never used them. Tourists would carry a Claude glass in a case, as we would carry a digital camera today, with filters to see landscapes in miniature, made more beautiful in their reflection on a tinted surface. Painters, who often used them to make sketches and to note down dolor, had to turn their back on the landscape to see it reflected in the mirror, a metaphor perhaps for artifice, of the act of turning one’s back on reality in order to reflect it with faithfulness and beauty.

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