What Is Claude Glass?

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Claude glass is an intriguing device used by painters and nature enthusiasts alike. In this lesson, we'll explore the use of the Claude glass and see how it impacted 18th-century England.

Through the Claude Glass

Have you ever gone to a restaurant and watched people taking pictures of their food, then running those pictures through a series of filters before sharing them? Why do we do this? Because we have developed social ideas about an ideal image, and we're using technology to make reality look a little more...ideal. Believe it or not, this slightly annoying habit did not first appear with the invention of smart phones. In the 18th century, people in England used a tinted, convex mirror called a Claude glass to alter the way they saw the world around them. So, the next time you take a picture of a landscape and run in through a filter to bring out the qualities you like, just remember, the English were already doing that nearly 400 years ago.

Claude Lorrain

Before we can talk about the use of the Claude Glass, we have to answer an obvious question: who names their mirror Claude? This device was actually named after 17th-century French painter Claude Lorrain (1600-1682). Lorrain, who worked mostly in Italy, was an accomplished landscape painter, one of the first masters of the genre, in fact. One of his hallmark styles was the use of subtle gradations of tones, simplifying the colors and tones of an entire scene into a beautiful, consistent aesthetic.

The painterly gradation of color can be seen in this painting of Claude Lorrain

The English and the Landscape

In the 18th century, Claude Lorrain's paintings became very popular in England. People loved his use of color and light in his landscape paintings. Basically, his landscapes were clearly representational, but had a slightly abstract, painterly quality that the English really responded to. So, they started carrying Claude glass with them on trips to the country to paint or experience the same qualities for themselves. A person would find a scene they liked, then turn their back to it and hold up the Claude glass to observe the scene in the reflection of the mirror. The convex shape and tinting of the mirror created a gradation of sepia tones that emulated the painterly quality of Lorrain's landscapes. Imagine taking a picture of a sunset and running it through a filter to make it look like a cool painting you once saw. It's literally the exact same idea.

18th-century sketch of a man using a Claude glass
Claude Glass

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