The Faculty of Useless Mirrors

<An attempt of self acquittal> I may consider deleting it later on, but currently I feel that I have to add it to the text, even if for phenomenological reasons, to ‘situate’ it in my here&now state.  I didn’t write here for ages, due to all sort of reasons – laziness, yes, mostly, but also various troubles, of personal, professional, and other type of nature.

I still want to continue writing this blog, but I have to find more lightweight a way of to do so. At the moment, I have about 30 postings hidden in private mode, but I don’t release them into the ‘open’ because I keep thinking that I need to polish them further. Why so serious?  I should ask myself, perhaps, more often. I have to remind to myself more often that this is not a peer-2-peer academic journal but just yet another wordpress blog.  </An attempt of self acquittal>

Now to the story.

I found this painting by chance, while looking for something else via-via-via Google Image Search. I didn’t recognize the author and even when I learned the name, it didn’t tell me much at first. By just looking at the work I couldn’t even locate it, neither time-wise and no space-wise alike (and plot-wise too).

Could it be painted, in the end of 1930s? In, say, Soviet Alma-Ata (just happens to be the city I was born in)? There was something in this painting that reminded me The Faculty of Useless Knowledge, a novel by Yury Dombrovsky, the Russian writer, where he depicted exactly this combination of time and place.

Alma-Ata, a former capital of Kazakhstan, is situated near the mountain range (look at wikipedia article) and the depicted scene is very plausible: a young girl is looking from a window at  – a street scene? her husband/boyfriend leaving for work? just at the nice morning panorama of the mountains?

There is a lot of other leads that could point to this epoch (at least for me): curtain-less windows, or rather a green drapery instead of curtain; basic wooden floor; curved furniture that loops elaborate, but in reality could be just cheap imitation.  A simple white dress of the girl, too.

There are few things that start clashing with this initial attribution: for example, the bed with a massive green baldachin would be the main mismatch. I can’t remember any of such thing in Alma-Ata of my childhood, and can’t imagine such things there in the 1930s. For me the bed of this kind somewhat resembles more the Netherlands in the 1690s.

But that, in turns, clashes with the girl’s dress – which I soon realize is not a ‘dress’, but a nightie, or may be an underdress. Her real dress, the red one, lays on the chair at the bed. Which means that the girl is depicted ‘underdressed’, not a very common motif in 17th, and even in the 18th centuries; we have to think of the 19th century earliest.

It is the 19th century indeed. The title of the painting is Morgenstunde (or Early Morning Hour in German), and it’s painted by the Austrian/German painter Moritz von Schwind in 1858.

As I said, the name didn’t say much to me in the beginning; the wikipedia page provided some basic facts, but its English version is written pretty bizarrely – I guess it was created semi-automatically from the Encyclopedia Catholica. The German version is much more detailed and not as hyper-lyric as the English one (usually an opposite is the case).

None of the things that I read about this painter has helped me too much in deciphering the painting’s meaning. I may guess the place of its production (Munich, most likely), but I still have no idea what exactly is painted here, and why. I mean, I can describe the scene in the wysiwyg way, as I did before, but the intended plot would be still a miracle.

I did some about the painter, research but before I will go into details about my findings, I’d like to say a couple of words about the mirror here.

Interestingly, it seemingly don’t have any particular role. It doesn’t reflect anything; there is no ‘mirror work’ here (at least, as far as I can judge from the reproduction I have available). I played with a few filters trying to see if there are any ‘hidden’ reflections in the mirror, but alas, there aren’t.

Because I still know nothing about the ‘plot’, the story depicted here, I can guess that the mirror is merely an interior detail. An informative detail, of course (e.g., we can see that it was not used for a make-up, for example, there are no combs and brushes near etc), but sill the mirror on a wall is not a core component of the story.

I was somewhat intrigued by this work, or rather by my inability to interpret it in any meaningful way, so I start looking for more information about both the painter and his works. Meanwhile, I found a few different version of the same painting on the web:


I hyperlinked that last picture with a large image that allows to see the details (e.g., there is apparently a wooden toy (Punch?) standing at the bed, which may allude that the girl is quite young. But despite some differences in style, these copies are not that different from the first version I had.

What was interesting is that this painting was strikingly different from the majority of other works by Moritz von Schwind. He was mostly known as an illustrator and decorator (his works included many frescos and pannos).  While searching for his works one would find the paintings of the type shown below (there is a link to a large work again):

or that type:

or that one:

These are lovely works, decorative and sentimental, as the illustrations of German poetry should be. But they provide no particular help in understanding the ‘mirror’ painting of Morgenstunde.

There are few paintings by von Schwind that are somewhat closer to the work in question. Look, for example, at his work called In the artist’s house. Painted circa 1860, it’s close to the date when Morgenstunde was painted.

There is another, more famous painting by Moritz von Schwind called Honeymoon. It’s painted in 1867, but allegedly depicts a much earlier moment of his life, a marriage with Louise Sach and a subsequent marriage trip through a few German towns. 


A detail of this painting was even used for an Austrian postal stamp:

But the stamp cut the mountains that we see on the painting itself.

Are these the same mountains depicted in the Morgenstunde? Can we then assume that the lady on the painting is von Schwind’s wife, Louise Sach?

For me that would be a bit too dare a version (especially having in mind his otherwise very puritan nature of his works). But again, who knows?  At the moment I don’t know where the painting is located – whether it’s a museum or a private collection, and how much information is available in his biographies, for example; didn’t have a chance to explore it deeper, as yet.

Knowing that von Schwind was usually making very refined and elaborated works, the above version of Morgenstunde could be in fact seen as a sketch, a study of some sort. There are a few sketches by von Schwind, made as preparation for lager canvases:

And indeed, I later found the following, much more detailed version of Morgenstunde:

Not only it’s a much more refined work, it also depicts a lot of additional details not seen in the previous copies:

– the girl is not so young, and stands in a more ‘romantic’ pose here;

– there are curtains on the window too, and we see a small chair next to it;

– ‘Punch’ becomes a spinning distaff  (or a wheel, perhaps, though we don’t see it clearly);

– large round box (for a hat?) lays on the top of the bed;

– there is a cage with a bird, hanging on a wall near the second window, and a small round painting underneath;

– and then of course a silhouette of a man (?) behind the curtain!

This may change an entire story depicted, and it does! A lover? A murdered? Now the painting now may easily become one of the images in the Thematic Apperception Test!

And our mirror? Well, it gets a much richer frame, and a bow on its hanging ribbon, but it still does not reflect anything.

This frame, and many other details of the interior, now seen much better, may provide a lot of valuable information. For example, the curved drawer or a clock can point to the specific maker, and the chair’s back may hint to a village or a town of production (perhaps, a certain master even?)  But this is all for an educated eye, which I don’t have, alas.

This is not a blockbuster masterpiece, and not by the most known artist of the time, but the painting provided an interesting puzzle, and lead to a small investigation for me (although it’s not completed, and the puzzle is not fully resolved.)

Moritz von Schwind had all the chances to remain in the category ‘one mirror painters’, until the moment I discovered his other work with the mirror, an illustration for Das Märchen vom Aschenbrödel (The Tale of Cinderella) made a bit earlier, in 1854.

This is a very different (and very clear) story. And a very different mirror – in a oval frame, rotating on two stands, and ‘used’ by one of the sisters (yet still not reflecting anything). So, apparently Moritz von Schwind had some affinity to ‘the mirrors in art’, thought its exact nature is still a question to explore further.


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