18th Century, circa 1745-1750


Dimensions :

Without frame : Height : 10 13/16 in.; Width : 16 1/8 in.

With frame : Height : 16 1/8 in. ; Width : 21 11/16 in.


Provenance : Private Collection



The four cylindrical mirror anamorphoses presented here were executed in France in the 18th century, circa 1745-1750 and depict figures painted with gouache on a black background. The first figure represents a standing officer, leaning back against a wall with crossed legs and holding a hat in the left hand. The second one represents a flute player wearing a hat, seated on a chair. The third character evokes a seated pipe-smoker seat, one foot on the ground, the other on a footstool. Finally the last displays a man supporting his stomach in a wheelbarrow.     These four anamorphoses painted in a rough manner, with their energetic and also contrasting colors, are popular works typical of the 18th century.

Our set of anamorphoses is linked to another set executed by Elias Baeck (1679-1747), a German painter and engraver. This set represents the four personified continents of which those two on a black background are kept in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris. Moreover two other anamorphoses are also linked to ours by their subject and their treatment. The first, depicting a man supporting his stomach in a wheelbarrow, is kept in the collections of the Institut National de Recherches et Documentation Pédagogiques in Paris. This anamorphosis is later as it was executed circa 1860 however it is very similar to ours. It is reproduced in the exhibition catalogue about Anamorphoses : chasse à travers les collections du musée, Musée des Arts décoratifs, Paris, number 153, plate 64.


Anamorphosis is a distorted projection of forms requiring the viewer to look at them from a certain point in order to reconstitute the image. This game is born from an obvious observation that objects viewed from different angles change their appearance. From the rules of perspective pushed to their extremity, shapes are distended so as to be recognizable only from a single point of view located in the lateral extension. Anamorphoses plunge us into a fantastic world that replaces the search for the likelihood of the usual perspectives.

In the 16th century, the most famous anamorphosis is the « Ambassadors » of Holbein painted in 1533 (painting kept in the National Gallery, London) depicting a life-size portrait of two important personalities surrounded by various objects. At first glance, the picture is not surprising but the look is disturbed by the presence of an oblong shape erupting from the ground: it is a skull. The anamorphosis translates the time in the painting. It is not surprising that it belongs to Léonard de Vinci, obsessed by time and all the spheres of influence, that we owe the first anamorphosis known in West. Erotic scenes, holy images and secret portraits establish the main subjects of these compositions, which spread in Italy, in the Northern countries and in England.

In the 17th century, the mirror appears in the anamorphotic domain. They are called catoptric anamorphoses - a conical or cylindrical mirror is placed on the drawing or painting to transform a flat distorted image into an apparently undistorted picture that can be viewed from many angles. The angle of refection substituted for the visual angle restores « the « chaos » of the distended forms. The mirror is magic and intelligent: it doesn’t reproduce the image by sending it back but it explains it and translates it. Thanks to the mirror we can see the shape before its decomposition. Of more handy dimensions, they were easier to look at and are so much more striking.

According to Jurgis Baltrusaitis anamorphoses, which are to be looked in reflection in a cone or in a cylinder forming a mirror, would be of Chinese origin and would have been introduced in West by the French painter Simon Vouet at the beginning of the 17th century. A print formed from the one of his sketches (1624-1628) is the oldest anamorphosis of this type known in the West. But it is to France that we owe the revival of all these forms. Built by members of a religious order and by mathematicians, « perspectives depraved persons » join the high speculations of the spirit and spread under a Cartesian sign. In Italy, they are oddities in the German schools of the visionary cosmogonies. Holland excels at the magic of the perspectives of the cylinder and the cone.

Anamorphoses are disturbing curiosities for the spirit. They create an artificial illusion, which gets loose from some concrete material substance of objects. In the 17th and 18th centuries, they are simple optical entertainments and they are looked for as curiosities in the universe of the « Cabinets of curiosities ».


Bibliography :

Jurgis BALTRUSAITIS, Anamorphoses : les perspectives dépravées, Flammarion, Paris, 1984.

Anamorphoses : chasse à travers les collections du musée, exhibition catalogue, Musée des Arts décoratifs, Paris, 1975, number 153, plate 64.