Culture lunettes

Glasses in art: a whistle-stop tour through history

Did you know that Napoleon was short sighted and wore glasses? You probably did not and that’s because he’s not wearing them in any paintings. To understand the place of glasses in art is to understand the relationship that our forebears had with this accessory, one that has become more than a simple necessity: a real piece of fashion used to show off one’s style.

Glasses: hard to make out in the history of art

Our ancestors had no less trouble with sight than we do today but very few paintings show them wearing glasses. A solution to this puzzle was suggested by Michael Pasco in his book L’histoire des lunettes vue par les peintres (The history of glasses as seen by painters). In Europe, wearing glasses was seen almost as embarrassing, so much so that Napoleon I always took great care not to be seen wearing them in public and Louis VVI, despite being completely short sighted, refused to wear them point blank. His scatter-brained, clumsy character that made him such a laughing stock amongst his detractors was in part due to this short-sightedness, isolating him from the rest of the world somewhat. Michael Pasco explains that in the 18th Century, there was even a French saying ‘hello glasses, goodbye girls’, showing exactly what our ancestors thought of glasses. So it’s unsurprising that these men didn’t want to be painted wearing them. In Spain, however, it was the complete opposite. Right from the 16th Century, glasses were a sign of nobility or fortune, due to the sheer price of the accessory.


© JL G, pixabay

A clearer look at the history

The first glasses in history,  called besicles, appeared around 1280 in Northern Italy, made without arms with two lenses attached by a central axis. The first paintings showing people wearing glasses date to 1352, as Michael Pasco explains in his book, a time when painters sought to perfectly imitate nature. The only paintings that date between the 14th and 16th Centuries that depict glasses are a precious source of information to help understand the evolution of this accessory as their depiction is meticulous. Thanks to these painters’ precision, it is possible to know the shape of the these first glasses and to know exactly how they were used.


© Rosa Palma, pixabay

Glasses as a symbol of intelligence

If the cliché of glasses being a sign of intelligence is still all too present in pop culture, it can be explained by the accessory’s history. The price tag of this new invention, besicles, meant that only the richest could afford them. Those who wore them every day were often those who were thought of as intellectuals (scientists, writers, clergymen and philosophers), and were able to read and write to a late age. Throughout several centuries, glasses were linked with intellect as they were seen only on those with knowledge. For painters, glasses therefore became a way to show intellect in their subject. It’s why some painters even painted their famous subjects as wearing glasses when they couldn’t possibly have because glasses did not exist at the time they lived.

* Michael Pasco, L’histoire des lunettes vue par les peintres, Paris, Boubée, 1995, 123p.

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    © Tomaso da Modena, Hugues De Provence (1352)

    1. Tomaso da Modena, Hugues De Provence (1352)

    This is the very first painting in history showing glasses. The artist, Tomaso da Modena, painted the portrait of cardinal Hugues de Provence with besicles when in reality he could never have worn them as they had not yet been invented at the time of his life.

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    © Jan van Eyck, La Madone et le chanoine Georges Van Der Paele (1436)

    2. Jan van Eyck, Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele (1436)

    The canon here is represented with clouants, the first type of glasses ever invented: two convex glass lenses held by circles and linked by a nail.

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    © Friedrich Herlin, Saint Pierre (1466)

    3. Friedrich Herlin, Saint Peter (1466)

    This work represents Saint Peter wearing clouants. Unable to stay on the face alone, this model had to be held by hand.

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    © El Greco, Portrait du Cardinal Don Fernando Nino De Guevara (1596)

    4. El Greco, Portrait of Cardinal Don Fernando Nino De Guevara (1596)

    According to Michael Pasco, the cardinal in this work is wearing a model of glasses that was very popular in 16th Century Spain. They are held in place with a ribbon that is hooked over the ears, allowing them to be held in place better than the armless besicles that were around at the time.

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    © Rembrandt, Le Changeur (1627)

    5. Rembrandt, The Parable of the Rich Fool (1627)

    The glasses in this work by the famous painter are visibly more fine than those from previous centuries. The materials have evolved by now with wire and brass which were used to make the glasses lighter.

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    © Bartolome Esteban Murillo, Quatre personnages sur une marche d’escalier (1655-1660)

    6. Bartolome Esteban Murillo, Four Figures on a Step (1655-1660)

    In this work, the oldest women is wearing quite an imposing pair of glasses. In 17th Century Spain, glasses were a sign of fortune and the size of the lenses was a way to emphasize that. The bigger the glasses, the richer the wearer.

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    © Jean Baptiste Siméon Chardin, Autoportrait aux bésicles (1771)

    7. Jean Baptiste Siméon Chardin, Self-portrait in glasses (1771)

    The painter, suffering with an eye affliction,  (undoubtedly cataracts) was forced to wear glasses towards the end of his life. In this work, we can see a pair of armless besicles, a popular design at the time. This model clung to the nose, preventing them from needing to be held by hand, while at the same time preventing the wearer from breathing through the nose.

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    © Jean Baptiste Siméon Chardin, Autoportrait à l'abat-jour et aux lunettes (1775)

    8. Jean Baptiste Siméon Chardin, Self-portrait with eyehsade (1775)

    A few years later, the painter is back, this time with new glasses that hold on to the face with arms rather than clinging to the nose. This design was no less inconvenient: they squeezed the temples and caused headaches, explaining why in a later self-portrait, we can see that the artist has returned to the first pair.

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    © Giorgio De Chirico, Portrait (prémonitoire) de Guillaume Apollinaire (© Centre Pompidou)

    9. Giorgio De Chirico, Portrait (premonitary) of Guillaume Apollinaire

    (Photo credit: Centre Pompidou)

    Finally, some sunglasses. This work by De Chirico has a multitude of elements whose meanings clamber over each other in a whirling puzzle. The sunglasses worn by the statue symbolize blindness, a disability that was associated with wisdom in Ancient Greek mythology. The painter also wanted to pay tribute to his friend, the poet Apollinaire.

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    © Grant Wood, American Gothic (1930)

    10. Grant Wood, American Gothic (1930)

    A key work in the history of American art, this 1930s piece by Grant Wood has inspired countless remixes in pop culture. But the detail that interests us here is the glasses and their fine frames painted in meticulous detail by the artist.

You can find some of these models at the glasses museum in Morez