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BOIS-CLAIR’S TURNING PICTURES

AN AD FROM M.S. RAU, Fine Art—Antiques—Jewels, in  The New York Times, March 7, 2021, reads “Seeing Double: Dual Royal Portrait.” The ad describes a royal portrait, but unlike any I’ve seen before. Here are tidbits prompted by the “Seeing Double” concept and gleaned from my usual Internet sleuthing. I wouldn’t have expected to encounter William Shakespeare discoursing, more or less, on why the eyes in some portraits follow you around the room.

Dual Royal Portrait of King Frederick IV and Queen Louise of Mecklenburg-Güstow of Denmark, by Gaspar Antoine de Bois-Clair, c. 1699. Image from M.S. Rau.

The Artist. Robert Simon Fine Art says that 17th-century Frenchman Gaspard Antoine Bois-Clair, c. 1654–1704, “styled himself ‘Pastor Pictor Poeta,’ reflecting his careers as clergyman, artist, and author. He was born a Catholic in Lyon and became first a Jesuit and then a Reformist priest while pursuing avocations as both writer and painter…. Despite his active career in religious circles, Bois-Clair is best known today as a painter.” 

And quite the extraordinary painter he was. Three of his works are of the “turning picture” genre, art that presents different images depending upon the viewing angle.

Shakespeare and Turning Pictures. Artist Luz Perez Ojeda says that “turning pictures were probably known since the late 16th century.” Confirming this, Robert Simon cites Allan Shickman’s article ” ‘Turning Pictures’ in Shakespeare’s England,” in The Art Bulletin, March 1977: “William Shakespeare, who only occasionally speaks of the fine art of painting, alludes in Richard II (1595-96) to an unusual genre little known today, but evidently a popular novelty in Renaissance England.” This genre is now known as anamorphic perspective, art which depends upon the beholder’s angle of viewing. 

The Queen: “… howev’er it be, I cannot but be sad…” Richard II, Act II Scene 2. Drawing by Henry Singleton (1766–1839). Image from The Annotated Shakespeare.

In Richard II, Act II Scene 2, Shakespeare has the King’s servant Bushy reply to the Queen: “… For sorrow’s eye, glazed with blinding tears,/Divides one thing entire to many objects./Like perspectives, which rightly gazed upon/Show nothing but confusion—eyed awry,/Distinguish form.”

“In such a work,” Shickman continued, “pleasure and surprise result when a confused, perplexing image—or so it appears when ‘rightly gazed upon’—suddenly assumes a proper form before one’s eyes as one discovers the correct angle from which to view it.”

Shickman noted that the “corrugated or pleated panel” type of anamorphic perspective would have been familiar to Shakespeare. “The corrugated type combined two different pictures on a pleated surface, so that one image would be visible when observed from the left and another from the right. Looked upon directly, neither subject would be clear.”

Art on Corrugations. Simon writes of the Dual Royal Portrait: “To achieve such effect the artist painted on a series of triangularly cut strips of wood. One facet remains against the backing of the painting, while each of the other two equilateral sides are oriented at 60° to it.”

“When the viewer passes in front of the painting,” Simon continues, “he sees successively one image from the right side and then the other from the left.”

An Additional Subtlety. Simon notes that the Dual Royal Portrait “is a somewhat more complicated image than a simple two-way picture. The proper ‘rational’ image of either male or female figure does not appear when the viewer is looking at the painting from the right or left hand side at the level of the painting. For the images to be perceived properly, the viewer must look at the painting from a position below the level of the picture. From the two ideal vantage points—below and to the right for the Queen and below and to the left for the King—the portraits ‘work.’ ”

Image from M.S. Rau. The catalogue notes its Dual Portrait offering at $148,500.

It’s rather more subtle than those spooky eyes that follow you around the room. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2021.

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