Abraham Bosse and the mirrors in vista

This painting (or etching, to be precise) may remind you some of the works about Five Senses I just wrote about  (‘just’ should not be read literally here – I thought I would write this posting in the next day, and instead it happened to be in two months; well, it’s still the next posting, technically speaking).

But in any case, it will be a correct interpretation, since it is indeed the Five Senses (and specifically the Sight part), created by Abraham Bosse, the famous French engraver of the 17th century.  In all my metaphorical stories about the links, between different art traditions and schools, the links connecting and juxtaposing different art ‘mirrors’ etc, Bosse for me is not the weakest or the strongest link, but the liveliest one, the most jovial and vital. More even, it would not be more fair to call him a ‘nod’, rather than a ‘link’…. but more on that below:

Even if you know nothing about art history in general, and the history of French art in XVII century specifically, most likely you’ve seen this giant:

This work became embedded in cultural matrix of modern man (often literally, as a front-page of numerous textbooks on philosophy, economics, political sciences (and even urban planning); but the picture is used so widely used that it’s hardly possible to miss it even you don’t study any of these subjects.

Originally it was, in fact, indeed a front page, of the famous volume by Thomas Hobbes, called Leviathan, that was published in 1651 in Amsterdam. The book made quite a splash and quickly made Hobbes one of the most debated philosopher of the time (which in turn made the image very known too). Although the reverse interpretation is also valid: good infoviz never hurts.

By the fact, this Arcimboldinian puzzle is only an upper half of the front page (although its lower part is hardly remembered anyway, a hint to the masters of information visualization – you can look at the full version here, and just in case, I am also placing here both the portrait of Hobbs and the front page of the book).

The drawing is very complex and powerful, there are about 200 people, together composing the entire giant figure:

All that is very interesting, but serves only as a preface to my story today. The giant Leviathan, however mighty, doesn’t have any mirrors, and I am telling this story to only introduce a broader historical context, of the time and place. To add few more fact & figures, I need to mention some basic bio-data, like the birth & death of the master (1602 – 1676); which also reveals that the Leviathan is a relatively late work of Bosse. It’s wise, perhaps, to start from his earlier works first, and move to the mirrors later.

Abraham Bosse was born in France, but his parents moved there from Germany, and it explains his relatively unFrench name.  His father was a tailor, and that fact is often cited as an explanation of the abundance of beautiful, yet very accurately depicted dresses in the etchings and drawings of his son.

Abraham Bosse – A woman standing, dressed in black, pointing to the linen chest in which she is about to put a richly embroidered dress

Abraham Bosse – Valet de chambre

These etchings also show that Bosse was more an illustrator than a painter. He made an enormous amount of book illustrations, and even his ‘true’ art works often resemble what we would call today ‘information visualization’. But in any case, these are still examples of his late works.

He begun his studies in the workshop of French engraver Melchior Tavernier – who was quite famous in his time, but now known more as the “teacher of Abraham Bosse”.  Tavernier was known for his maps and plans; for example, it was him who created the very first bird-view maps of Paris, in 1630:

Those who have been to Paris can not resist a smile, seeing how tiny the ‘Capital of Europe’ was by then (today it’s a tiny fraction of an average tourist tour around the city.)

But I show this image also because it can help us to better understand the way Bosse was constructing the perspective of his own works later. The ‘bird-eye’ plans are not simply the views from a certain altitude (as the name suggests). To create a really interesting plan, the painter must slightly bend the space, somewhat similar to the way it was deformed in the recent movie Inception.

Not so mind-blowing, yet quite useful application of this projection was lately shown by the London-based design agency Berg that developed 3D maps of Manhattan called Here & There:


Tavernier’s (and later Bosse’s) panoramas are not that spectacular, but they follow the similar principles, of distorting the perspective to provide a more interesting and – surprisingly! – more realistic view on large panoramic landscapes.

As often happens, Bosse’s first works were copies, or versions of the existing maps and charts. Here, for examples, is the plan of the battle at the Pass de Suse (Combat du Pas de Suse, 1629), a copy of the maps by Tavernier himself:

But this very characteristic, bird-eye perspective will be appearing in his own works, too, for example, in various battle scenes, or depictions of the court life.

Abraham Bosse – Siege of La Rochelle, in September 1627 (1631)

Abraham Bosse – Siege of Saint Martin on the Ile de Ré July-November 1627 (1631)


Abraham Bosse – Princes and princesses look at the Dauphin (Luis XIII) on the lap of ‘France’ (1645)



Abraham Bosse –  Fortuna endows the French, while the Spaniards implore her aid (1640)

Interestingly, but these etching also have mirrors, small hand-held ones, attached to the belt of the ladies:


There is a feeling that Bosse’s ‘point of observation’ is somewhat near the ceiling, and the perspective is not exactly linear, but follows a more complex topology:

I am also using this image to show that Bosse was producing not only black and white etchings, but the colorful plates too. My guess that they were colored manually, but I wouldn’t bet on it, they were very inventive and could have developed a way to produce colored copies by a press.

Now, back to the starting point, the the Five Senses series. Here are few sheets, produced circa 1645, each representing a certain ‘sense’:


and Touch (1645):

These works also show another very typical feature of the Bosse’s works, they are always filled with all sort of small details, of clothes, furniture, interiors, and what not, all that we now call ‘material culture’. A collection of his engravings is a priceless source of information about life and activities of people in his time, a treasure for any cultural anthropologist. And these are not only the live of rich nobility, the elite of the society, later in his carrier Bosse began presenting the life of the commons, too.

Here is a sheet on Sight, a color version of the one I’ve shown earlier:

Unfortunately, I have only a reproduction of a poor quality of this work, that doesn’t show the second mirror, on a wall (you can see this mirror much better on the black & white version). But it’s there on a color version as well, as shown by simple solarization of the picture:

I think that in case of Bosse the Five Senses motif was yet another way to indulge in what he was best at – depiction of very nuanced scenes of everyday life of the Parisians.  He created – literally! – thousands of such sheets during his life, a true visual ethnographer.

For me his work is also a treasure, since they show the way mirrors were used in everyday life at that time, where they’ve been placed in the houses, and to some extent what were the beliefs about the mirrors in the society.

I found a few examples of the Bosse’s works where he depict mirrors. The majority of them are ‘just’ mirrors, interior details of household not loaded with any symbolic meaning (although I also found a few that may have more complex meaning).

For examples, here is the scene of a soon-to-be-mother visited by her companions:

The bride lying in a canopy bed, talking with women while two children are playing on the floor; room with tapestries on the walls and carved fireplace” – this is an official title of the etching, today we would say that it sounds like the fieldnotes of an ethnographic expedition. I am not sure this was the title given by Bosse himself; he often used much shorter titles, understandable to his contemporary viewers without lengthy explanations.

However, what’s interesting to note is that many of his sheets also have long verses, not so much explaining but rather moralistically commenting on the depicted scenes.  I don’t know French well enough to full understand them, but my first quick reading didn’t reveal that any of these verses ever comment on the mirrors.

Here is the fragment showing this wall mirror:


Below is another sheet, showing already a real mom; the French title of the work is La Visite à l’accouchée, and one of the meaning of ‘l’accouchée’ is exactly ‘a young mother’. One of the maids (?) or friends(??) holds a baby:

There is also a mirror here, and in this (rare for Bosse) case we do see a reflection. But it’s only purpose seems to be making sure that we understand that this is a mirror (and not a painting, for example):

I am curious about a few things about this mirror:

– The dots along the frame.

They seem to be located on the mirror surface, but I don’t know how they are made. Are they just dots of paints? or special engravings (?) on glass? Was their purpose merely decorative, or they have a special meaning?

– The ribbon knot on the top of the frame.

Again, was it there to merely add an element of decoration (and/or hide the knob)? Or was it the trace of an earlier tradition to hide mirrors with curtain(s) of some sort?

– Finally, the very function of this mirror:

We don’t see any table (toilette) nearby the mirror (it’s particularly clear on the first etching), so it’s not the mirror for making make-up. One can assume that this is the mirror to simply look at yourself in the morning, or may be to check if everything is right with the dress. But the presence of the mirror near the bed is also strikingly similar to the placement of many ‘Arnolfini-like non-mirrors’, that, as I often argue, served to spiritual purposes, rather than the utilitarian ones.

There is also a very interesting (not to say, quite macabre) tapestry on the wall, depicting the scene of delivery by a certain goddess (?) or nymph; from how the process goes, we can conclude that it’s the Caesarean section. I was surprised to see it depicted so early, to my knowledge, the operations of this sort began much later, in the end of the 19th century (as the name suggest, the procedure was known from the ancient times, though the mother inevitably died after such section.)

Few more etchings with the mirrors:

The scene of a family meal (1630):

And here is the same scenes, but flipped horizontally (the way of printing the etchings easily allowed for such inversions):

Here again  we could see this mirror merely as the object of interior, however, it may also have some correlation with the topic (Virility, and subsequent multiple offsprings).



Here we, perhaps, see the moment of making this meal – the title, L’Hyver (Winter), suggests that it could be one of the special seasonal dishes (e.g., special pancakes).

Notice that the mirror here is actually used, the lady does look at it:


But I would also like to say that the mirrors are not automatically in very picture, we see many etchings where they are not, like in this one (Caring for a baby):


Some sheets show not only inner life of the families, but their interaction with other agents, like in this case, a visit of shoemakers to the house:

May be the second guy is a tailor but he could well be an assistant, who is to measure the foot size; in any case, we see here the table mirror, surrounded by some artifact that all indicate that this mirror is used for a make-up:

Bosse has a few etchings showing various medical procedures – here, for examples, a doctor conducts bloodletting:

and here prepares enema (or clyster):

In both cases we see the mirrors on the wall near the bed, similar to what we saw in the previous works, although the frame in the second case is more complex, octagonal.


I also found a couple of etchings with more allegorical meaning, and with references to the Bible. Here, for instance, the so called Foolish Virgins, the sinful part from the Parable of Ten Virgins.  One of these foolish virgins is looking at the mirror – which indicates that mirrors still sustained their negative connotations at this time.

Moreover, the mirror here borders with a very explicit painting depicting, perhaps, Danaë who is being lit (fertilized?) – not by rain, but by sunbeams, in this case.

There is another etching on Biblical motif, the so called Parable of Rich man and Lazarus.

The very visibly Rich Man is surrounded by his companions,  and they all have a meal, in the room with a mirror in a wall. This may simply indicate that mirrors were still an expensive item, but can also hint to their somewhat sinful meaning (a symbol of Vanity, perhaps).


I also found few more sheets where the mirrors are placed in a very unusual context, that I never encountered earlier. Here we see the school for girls, supervised by its mistress (La Maîstresse d’Ecole). What is interesting here, is that this space is public, not private, and yet we see the mirror here too.

I found a version of this work, flipped and slightly reduced, but still with the mirror.

The mirror is very simple, and it doesn’t reflect anything; it’s meaning in this scene is not clear, either.  It’s obviously not for making make-up or smartening up, more likely it has some surveillance/supervision (and it’s placed not far from a very indicative scene of the Crucifixion):


Later Bosse made another etching, reusing the earlier ‘Girls’ School’; in this case it’s Reformed School, and my understanding that it’s mixed school, both for boys and girls (Bosse was the Huguenot, though he managed to live relatively conflict-less live in predominately Catholic France, and even made few comission with explicitly Catholic content, e.g., the Masses.)

In this case we actually see two mirrors on one etching, one on the boys’ side, and one on the girls’ one:


The next work can be seen as simply as A Woman at the Mirror, but could be also interpreted as the Sight, thus belonging to yet another series of the Five Senses.

In any case, what is interesting is the presence of two mirrors, a larger table one, and a smaller hand-held mirror:

The following etching is clearly defined as La Veve, the Sight (currently ‘la vue’ in French):

Here we see three (!) mirrors in one work, with one having the woman’s head reflected in it:


What we see in all these examples is a very diverse panorama, of both the mirrors themselves, and their use: in the worlds of Bosse mirrors are small and big, they carried, hang on the wall, and stand on tables, and their meaning could also vary widely, depending on the context.

Interesting, but all these mirrors are flat ones, we already don’t see any convex mirrors.  The production of mirrors is still a cumbersome process, and they are expensive, but it’s an established business by now. In fact, thanks to Bosse’s interest to all and every aspect of life, we also see a few works showing the process – if not mirror-, than at least glass-making:


To conclude, a few sheets about the profession that Bosse was intimately familiar with, the work of engravers, and then of printers:


Thanks to Bosse’s attention to details, we can reconstruct many intricate peculiarities with which the printers of that time produced their works:



Finally, the work of a copyist (does he use a sheet of glass?):

and of the painter, who is also using a grid, as an aid to produce more accurate copy, quicker.


Bosse was an interesting figure, not only a painter and engraver, but a theoretician of art and an active teacher. He was invited by Cardinal Mazarin as the founding member of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in Paris (Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture), though he was forced to leave it after the death of the Cardinal in 1661, because of the disagreement with this views on art, and on the way to construct a perspective specifically.

Ironically enough, we don’t have his own portrait, neither by him nor by other artist. Most likely they existed, but didn’t survived time.


I started to write about the Five Senses in the previous posting, and finished it with the works of the 17th century (around the time of Bosse, that is).  The theme itself didn’t stop, of course, and I would like to show a few more examples of the later works.

This etching by Pierre-Jean Mariette called La Veiie (Sight) continues the tradition of depicting this sense with mirrors. However, in this case it is unlikely the real mirror in use of the time (beginning of the 18th century), but rather a symbolic reference to ‘a mirror’.

Pierre-Jean Mariette – La Veüe (1710)

Dutch painter Gerard de Lairesse also choses to depict a very archaic convex mirror in this version of the Five Senses:

Gerard de Lairesse – Allegory of the Five Senses (1668)

From the 18th century on the theme lost it popularity, and I find only occasional examples. Here is the group portrait by Philippe Mercier, depicting few optical devices, including the mirror (flat one).

Philippe Mercier – The Sense of Sight (1744)

Much later, but the end of the 19th century Hans Makart, an Austrian painter, will create his impressive Fünf Sinne, returning to the older tradition to depict the senses as human person (we saw this approach earlier, in the works of Hendrik Goltzius and others.)  The Sight/Vision of Makart holds a mirror, but also very old, almost archaic for the time when the series was created.

Hans Makart  – Die Die fünf Sinne (The Five Senses)  (1876)

Today the subject of Five Senses is very rare; our understanding of human sensorial capacities makes the Five Big Ones a gross simplification. This theme appears more like a remake of some old works, like in the case of Kevin Best who specialized in this genre:

Kevin Best – Allegory of Five Senses (2009)


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