Reverse Glass Painting

“For over a year I have scarcely done anything else than paint on glass. The drawing has to be applied to the back of the mirror; the pencil or coloured lines remain imprinted on the silvering only in the places to be painted and the rest is left as a mirror. This type of painting is all the more beautiful because, when seen from a short distance, it seems as if the figures, animals, landscape or any other design is not painted on the mirror but reflected; one’s face can be seen in the gaps left by the painting, which makes for very attractive variety”.

Brother Attiret, Jesuit painter at court of emperor Qianlong
Letter to Marquis de Broissia, 17411

The above words are the remarks of a Jesuit painter on the technique of Reverse Glass Painting. The above words refer to ‘dawn of reverse glass painting in China’. It should be noted here that in the production of glass, the prime quality that Westerners were seeking in glass was ‘transparency’, whether that glass was to be used as a container, for stained glass windows or as mirrors. This glass was then silvered to create a mirror. It was on this glass that paintings were executed in Germany and Holland as well in the 17th century and it was this quality of glass that was exported to Canton, China and used by the artists there for reverse glass painting. The painting was done in places where the silvering had worn off/lost in transit from Europe.

It is believed that the technique of reverse glass painting originated in Italy. As with so many artistic and educational pursuits, this too spread to the rest of Europe around the 15th century2. Considered a folk art primarily, the mass production of folkloristic reverse glass paintings in the 19th century, led to an “undervalued image” of this technique in art history3. This image persisted due to the technique being associated with common rather than elite taste. We believe this is not entirely true as reflected in the outstanding reverse glass paintings that emerged from places as widespread as Europe, China, Senegal or India. While some researchers such as Thierry Audric believe it developed independently in China, with proof being a letter from a Jesuit painter, Brother Attiret, which clearly indicates that he had been working on such a painting himself in mid-18th century at the court of emperor Qianlong (China) and the letter also indicates he didn’t have any prior knowledge of this technique from his days in France or Italy4; some other authors believe that this art migrated from Europe to China and then again was exported back to the West, when Chinese Reverse Glass Painting was seen as something exceptional5. As per some other accounts, its origin is seen as distant and obscure, with earliest surviving ones from the Roman Empire and with others surviving from Medieval and Renaissance period in Europe6. But the early Reverse Glass Paintings were more like decorative objects or as add-ons for other crafts. Truly as framed pictures, they began to flourish 16th century onwards.

We see this art flourishing and several artists producing similar works simultaneously on glass, canvas, paper, as coloured woodcut or as oil paintings on cardboard. Clearly there seemed to be an intention to experiment to see which textures threw up the best effects for a said theme and equally intriguing may have been the challenge of producing paintings on unique surfaces such as glass. For example, ‘Rudern’, the reverse glass painting of the famous artist, Wassily Kandinsky, uses metal foils in the painting and a corrugated glass surface, which can be interpreted as light reflections on the water7.

Reverse glass painting’s gradual decline as a medium of artistic expression can be associated with its undervalued image (stated earlier); the reproduction of color copies of published prints8 and introduction of wood engravings in countries like India9 (late 19th century) which further reduced its popularity and value.

Religious themes were highly common in Europe and it was the favoured medium for votive pictures. Saints, holy places and miracles were often depicted themes in these paintings in Europe from 1700 AD10. In Chinese Reverse Glass paintings, one would see myriads of themes including: birds and flowers; single flower with foliage; outdoor scenes; tales and legends; portraits of Chinese dignitaries; landscapes; ceremonies and feasts and rural and mythological scenes to name a few.

What is Reverse Glass Painting?

Reverse painting on glass involves paint application on the reverse side of the glass, so that the image can be viewed through the glass. So, the viewer sees an image which reverses what the artist has painted – an enantiomorphic or mirror-like effect11. Glass provides two functions in this technique: 1) provides a substrate for paint and 2) becomes a protective layer for the paint; acts as a varnish and lends luminosity to the work. This type of painting is intended to be viewed in reflected light. In Europe, traditionally, the technique used for reverse glass painting was to first brush the glass with a transparent coating of linseed oil, allow it to dry and then paint on it12. Other primers used include: spike oil, glair, gelatin and other natural resin varnishes. A large variety of binding agents could be used, including drying oils, natural resins, gums, animal glues, egg and casein13.

The technique is highly demanding as the artist has to lay down the pigments in the reverse order of what is normally done. The fine details and foreground imagery is applied first and only at the end are the broad strokes of the background filled14. The artist normally placed the glass over his drawing and then drew the fine lines and details. Additional materials such as foils, sequins or coloured paper were added at this stage. Such material was also used to fill in bare areas. Finally, the larger areas of opaque colour were added15. This technique allows minimum room for error and glass being a fragile material, the possibility of breakage is high.

Traditional 19th century reverse glass paintings include features such as ‘two-dimensional areas of unbroken colour, simplification of the forms, reduction of the colouration and dominance of the line’16. Famous artists such as Wassily Kandinsky and his colleagues (Blaue Reiter collective), focused on folkloristic art of rural areas to capture simplicity and originality17. Speaking of the technique itself, Kandinsky used thick and defined lines at the commencement of a reverse glass painting. His paintings show a multi-layered paint application along with stippling of colour and swiftly colouring large areas18. His paintings had a black cardboard as a background to accentuate the colours painted on the glass. Since these paintings were viewed using reflected light, this was considered necessary. Kandinsky experimented with different types of glass as well, using structured glass panels like cathedral glass or ornamental glass and even corrugated glass. Usage of materials other than paint, such as metal foils, was also seen in his works.

Reverse Glass Painting was quite popular in India as well, with glass paintings being commissioned by rulers such as Tipu Sultan and the ruling houses of Satara and Kutch19. It is believed that the trade relations between the East India Company and China, brought this art to India from China, especially touching the coastal state of Gujarat. In the 18th and 19th century one saw mainly portraits of royalty. The zamindars and merchants preferred religious themes and paintings of deities. While the former was executed by foreign artists, the latter were done by Indians. Characteristic features of Indian reverse glass painting include: use of vibrant colours; ornamentation through use of semi-precious stones, glitters and shining materials and depiction of figures of mythology, Indian epics and Puranas, Hindu Gods and Goddesses and folk themes pertaining to the specific region where the art was being produced. Many of the portraits were set in the western style settings pandering to the tastes of the elite Indian population who had exposure to the western world.

This unique art presented several advantages, both to the artists and patrons. As soon as a painting was completed, it could be given to the patron, with just a wooden backing to support the glass, even without the paint drying. This was seen as profitable for the artist (due to a quick turnaround) and we see several amateur artists adopting this technique, probably for this reason. For the patron, the glass itself served as a protective shield, which only needed to be wiped for careful preservation. An exacting technique for the artist, (as rightly pointed by Brother Attiret in his letter – ‘it is difficult and very painstaking and the eyes suffer from it’) many artists chose to keep the depictions simple through bright and bold coloration, hastily executed brush strokes and portraying a scene to its bare minimum details20. Although the demand for these paintings declined gradually; we see a renewed interest in acquiring them in recent times with several such works available with art connoisseurs and collectors.

1T. Audric, Chinese Reverse Glass Painting 1720-1820, 2020
2P.Granoff, Reverse Glass Paintings from Gujarat in a Private Canadian Collection: Documents of British India, 1978
3S.Steger et al, Kandinsky’s fragile art: a multidisciplinary investigation of four early reverse glass paintings (1911 – 1914) by Wassily Kandinsky, 2019
4 T. Audric, Chinese Reverse Glass Painting 1720-1820, 2020
5 Ibid Footnote 2
6 J.L.Patterson, Chinese Glass Paintings in Bangkok Monasteries, 2016
7 S.Steger et al, Kandinsky’s fragile art: a multidisciplinary investigation of four early reverse glass paintings (1911 – 1914) by Wassily Kandinsky, 2019
8 J.L.Patterson, Chinese Glass Paintings in Bangkok Monasteries, 2016
9 A.L.Dallapiccola,
10 P.Granoff, Reverse Glass Paintings from Gujarat in a Private Canadian Collection: Documents of British India, 1978
11 A.F.Roberts and M.N.Roberts, Paintings like Prayers: The Hidden Side of Senegalese Reverse-Glass “Image/Texts”, 2000
12 D.Lizun, The Conservation of a Reverse Painting on Glass Depicting Charles Stewart Parnell, 2010
13 ibid
14 J.L.Patterson, Chinese Glass Paintings in Bangkok Monasteries, 2016
15 Ibid Footnote 9
16 S.Steger et al, Kandinsky’s fragile art: a multidisciplinary investigation of four early reverse glass paintings (1911 – 1914) by Wassily Kandinsky, 2019
17 Ibid footnote 16
18 Ibid footnote 16
19 A.L.Dallapiccola,
20 P.Granoff, Reverse Glass Paintings from Gujarat in a Private Canadian Collection: Documents of British India, 1978

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