On Reflection


In this beautiful book, Jonathan Miller describes our perceptual capacity to recognize real-life mirrors as well as those in pictures, a complex psychological process of which we are usually unaware. He does so by investigating the pictorial representation of sheen, shine, glimmer, and gleam through a wonderfully varied selection of paintings and photographs drawn from the National Gallery, London, and other international collections. With excitement and innovation, Miller provides a guide to reflecting on ...
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1998 Hardcover New 0300077130. Flawless copy, brand new, pristine, never opened--224 pp. With 365 ills. (287 col. ). 29 x 24 cm. Description: "An in-depth study of the ... representaton of reflective surfaces in art, this catalogue presents reproductions of some 200 paintings and other works dating from the 15th century to the 1980s, including portraits, still lifes and landscapes by such major artists as Van Eyck, Durer, Titian, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Velazquez, Reynolds, Burne-Jones, Degas, Bonnard, Picasso and Magritte. An extensive multi-part text discusses the optical properties of reflected images and explores metaphorical, psychological and aesthetic aspects of their depiction in art."; 0.85 x 11.3 x 9 Inches. Read more Show Less

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Seattle, Washington, U.S.A. 1998 Hardcover New 0300077130. BRAND NEW, FLAWLESS COPY, NEVER OPENED--224 pages. "In this lavishly illustrated book, Jonathan Miler investigates the ... efforts of painters to represent the effects of light on various reflective surfaces. Discussing a selection of works from artists as diverse as Rembrandt and Rockwell, he shows that the depiction of reflections has challenged painters for centuries." Read more Show Less

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In this beautiful book, Jonathan Miller describes our perceptual capacity to recognize real-life mirrors as well as those in pictures, a complex psychological process of which we are usually unaware. He does so by investigating the pictorial representation of sheen, shine, glimmer, and gleam through a wonderfully varied selection of paintings and photographs drawn from the National Gallery, London, and other international collections. With excitement and innovation, Miller provides a guide to reflecting on reflections, enhancing the reader's enjoyment both of everyday life and of visual art.
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Editorial Reviews

Alexi Worth
...[A] breezy, lively tour through art history, optics and cognitive psychology. -- The New York Times Book Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300077131
  • Publisher: National Gallery London
  • Publication date: 9/10/1998
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 9.15 (w) x 11.26 (h) x 0.87 (d)

Meet the Author

Jonathan Miller
Since the third grade, Jonathan Miler has aspired to become an author. He has written plays in elementary school. He has written poetry for his college newspaper. Now, he is currently in the process of writing a science fiction novel.

Jonathan resides in Pasadena, California where he was born and raised.
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Table of Contents

Sponsor's preface 8
Foreword 9
Introduction 10
Light and lustre 18
Highlights 22
Reflective glass 34
Shading and shining 49
Virtual surfaces 59
Looking at and looking through 78
Seeing backwards 99
Invisible mirrors 114
Self-recognition 134
Self-regard 156
Self-representation 176
The camera as mirror 183
Self-assertion 186
Someone else 198
Works in the exhibition 210
Select bibliography 214
Picture list 216
Index 222
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First Chapter

Chapter One

Light and lustre

Between the two extremes of matt and mirror there is a continuous series of intermediate forms, to which various familiar terms are applied -- gleam, shine, flare, glimmer and of course lustre -- and the appearance of any one surface depends on the extent to which it scatters the incident light, as opposed to reflecting it in a strictly rectilinear fashion. In surfaces with a relatively coarse microscopic texture, the proportion of scattered reflection is comparatively large, so that the light which is reflected in a more regular order is barely detectable as an indistinct gleam or highlight whose colour is similar to that of the source. If the surface is illuminated by relatively colourless daylight, the flare will effectively bleach the local colour of the surface. If the illumination is strongly tinted, the highlight will be dyed with the same colour. In contrast to scattered light, which rebounds in many different directions and is therefore visible from any viewpoint, the rays which are reflected in a more orderly fashion rebound in one direction only, and unless the observer happens to view the surface along the principal axis of this reflection, the highlight disappears. Leonardo da Vinci was one of the first artists to recognise the way in which the visibility of lustre varies according to the observer's viewpoint. He distinguished two forms of reflected light: so-called lume by which he meant randomly scattered light, and lustro which was responsible for the gleam which is to be seen `on the polished surface of opaque bodies'. According to Leonardo the lustre `will appear in as many different places on the surface as different positions are taken by the eye'.

    The optical instability of lustre varies according to other factors, one of which is the size of the luminous source. When a surface is illuminated from a relatively small source -- say a distant window -- the visibility of the reflected highlight is critically dependent on the viewpoint, whereas if the scene is more broadly illuminated -- say from the sky -- the reflected lustre is relatively widespread and the visibility is comparatively resistant to changes of viewpoint. Even so, the fact that a highlight is preferentially reflected at one angle rather than another means that the lustre unmistakably fluctuates when viewed from different positions. This is not observable, however, in pictorial representations, since the highlight is depicted on a two-dimensional surface and cannot vary as spectators change their position. The same applies to the legendary eyeline of a portrait which is said to follow the spectator around the room. It does no such thing, of course. The gaze, like the lustre, is represented on a flat surface and it cannot change its appearance with alterations in the observer's position.

    Another factor which influences the visibility of lustre or sheen is the curvature of the surface from which it is reflected. Highlights which are thrown off from sharply angled surfaces come and go with captivating abruptness, should either the object or the observer shift. This is why diamonds glitter or scintillate when twiddled in the incident light.

    Another characteristic of lustre is the fact that it seems to hover somewhere below the surface in which it appears. In contrast to the local texture anti colour of the object, which are coextensive with the plane of its surface, the sheen or gleam appears to be in the depths. Once again, this is less apparent in a flat picture than it is in three-dimensional reality.


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    Mirrors, those reflective surfaces which produce an image of objects placed in front of them, recur as a pictorial motif in the history of Western art. Painters seem to have been intrigued by the relationship between the virtual reality which spontaneously appears in a mirror, and the one which they artificially create by marking an unreflective surface of plaster, paper or canvas. In both cases the observer sees something which is not where it seems to be, but in contrast to a painted image, which presupposes that the marked surface is visible, the vista which appears in a mirror requires that the reflective surface be invisible. When mirrors are represented in paintings, the situation becomes intriguingly complicated, because the virtual reality of the picture includes a second order of virtual reality in the form of a painted reflection.

    The mirror, and reflections more generally, are the subject of this book and of this exhibition at the National Gallery, which houses perhaps the earliest and certainly one of the most striking examples of a painted reflection: the mirror in the optical centre of The Arnolfini Portrait by the fifteenth-century Netherlandish master Jan van Eyck. Yet it was not this famous picture which first aroused my own interest in reflections, but the behaviour of a familiar cat whom I watched some years ago from the front porch of my house.

    An hour or so earlier, an unexpected downpour had left deep puddles of rainwater in the gutter. Normally the cat would have hurried across the street without pausing to examine the ground underfoot, but now it sat hesitantly at the kerbside, reluctant to go any further. From time to time it cautiously dabbled the surface with its paw and fastidiously shook off the droplets of water. After a while it crept along the pavement to a point where the gutter was dry. Here it scuttled across the road just as I had seen it do before. Evidently pawing the puddle had confirmed its suspicion that it would be risky to entrust its full weight to such a treacherously yielding surface. But why had the cat hesitated in the first place, and what prompted it to `test' the puddle so cautiously? Something about the appearance of the puddle must have enabled the creature to distinguish it from the safely supportive surface of the gutter. What could it have been? One answer might be that, in contrast to the dry ground, the surface of the puddle was disconcertingly reflective. But what exactly does that mean? What does a reflective surface look like and how could a cat or anyone else distinguish it from a non-reflective one?

    It was no good invoking physical optics, because that's how we explain the difference, not how we experience it. Cats know nothing about the physics of reflection, and neither do most human beings. So it must have been a question of appearances, which is another way of saying that reflective surfaces just look different, in what way though? When you ask people to characterise a reflective surface, they usually insist that it looks shiny. But not in the way the sun shines: it's the surface which gives off the shine. But the more reflective the surface -- a mirror being the ideal example -- the harder it is to see it, and the more difficult to claim that it looks shiny. How can something invisible be said to have a look, shiny or otherwise? Yes, but ... it would be absurd to claim that the cat, looking at the puddle, had seen nothing. Something it had seen must have caused it to hesitate and what it had seen turned out to have a surface, as the cat soon discovered by dabbling its paw in it.

    All right then, although the surface of a puddle, like that of a flawless mirror, is invisible, the area it occupies is not. Pools of water, like mirrors, afford the observer a `view', though as we shall see, in contrast to the `actual' view to be seen through a window or a door reflected views are `virtual' or apparent: they are not where they seem to be. Looking at the puddle from the opposite side of the street I could see what I knew to be the reflected image of the cloudy sky above. I doubt if the cat saw it in those terms, and that it was disconcerted by seeing clouds and foliage where they had no business to be. Still, in all probability it must have experienced the puddle as a perplexing discontinuity in the surrounding dry ground, and although it may not have recognised what it saw as displaced sky, I suspect that it did see something at a disconcerting depth below the surface of the road. In other words, the cat reacted to the `virtual' view of sky and branches above as if it were the `actual' view of an illuminated cavity.

    In that sense, the cat's behaviour was comparable to that of a human infant who will consistently refuse to crawl across the edge of a trompe l'oeil `cliff' painted on the nursery floor. In fact, one of the most important functions of the visual system is to represent the mechanical supportiveness of the ground underfoot and to anticipate dangerous pitfalls. The ability to detect watery depths has the added advantage of protecting terrestrial mammals against the risk of drowning as opposed to merely stumbling.

    In the natural conditions under which the visual system evolved, horizontal sheets of still water would have been the only surface whose reflectiveness represented an interpretative challenge. Upright surfaces of rock and vegetation are self-evidently opaque and readily identifiable as solid obstacles to be got round, or behind which prey or predators might be concealed. In nature there are no vertical surfaces offering deceptive views of a `virtual' beyond. So the invention of artificially reflective materials complicated the scene considerably, and although human beings have learned to live in a world which now includes mirrored walls and plate-glass windows, it's easy to underestimate the perceptual problems created by surfaces which are reflective enough to provide misleading views. We take it for granted that the `virtual' view to be seen in a mirror is automatically distinguishable from the `actual' view through a doorway or a window, but the distinction requires cognitive work. One of the purposes of this exhibition and book is to bring the details to light, and to analyse how and why we make perceptual mistakes. As we shall see, it takes some time for the relevant skills to develop, and it's not until the second year of life that the human infant fully grasps the `grammar' of reflection.

    It is hardly surprising that artists, who deal in representational ambiguities, should have been attracted to the motif of the mirror, and exploited it in many different ways.

    The mirror in Van Eyck's The Arnolfini Portrait is paradoxically shiny (!), its reflected imagery rendered in invisible brush strokes and turns our attention in the opposite direction to the `actual' scene represented.

    Velazquez, who would have been familiar with Van Eyck's painting since it hung in the Spanish royal collection in Madrid, developed the pictorial paradoxes of reflection still further. In addition to the represented mirror, he teasingly implies an unrepresented one, without which it is difficult to imagine how he could have shown himself painting the picture we now see, Las Meninas. For to reflect the appearance of the otherwise invisible self is one of the mirror's best-known functions.

    Most things which appear in a mirror duplicate what can be seen in its immediate vicinity. And even when the reflected objects are temporarily invisible in reality because they are behind us, we can see them by turning around. But for each of us there is one item whose appearance is inescapably confined to the mirror, because there is no way of seeing it except in a mirror. Until we see ourselves reflected we haven't the faintest idea of what the most recognisable part of us looks like. And pools of water are less helpful in this respect than the myth of Narcissus implies. In order to see your face in the horizontal surface of water you have to crane over the top of it, and from such an angle the reflected image is compromised by what can be seen through the surface. Apart from the fact that mirrors are optically insulated, so that the reflectiveness of glass is not confused by its transparency, they can be set up to afford a more convenient and often full-length view, one which corresponds to the view which others have of us.

    But in order to take advantage of this amenity, it is necessary to understand what we are looking at. Even if the polar bear illustrated on the frontispiece of this book could see himself from such an angle, it's unlikely that he would recognise himself. The chances are that, being a hear of very little brain, he, like the equally dim-witted Narcissus, thought he was looking at someone else! As it is, human beings and chimpanzees appear to be the only animals capable of identifying themselves in their reflection. Which is what we might expect, considering how anomalous the experience must be. Although we soon become accustomed to it, there is something paradoxical about seeing ourselves from the viewpoint of another person, and in the first instance at least it must be difficult to accommodate the idea of being in two places at once. And yet by the time we are two years old we scarcely give it another thought, and, as many of the pictures in this book and the exhibition show, a significant proportion of human culture is based on the reflected visibility of the personal self. Apart from its obvious and indispensable use in monitoring and modifying our facial appearance -- cosmetics and coiffure would be inconceivable without it -- the skill of the ballet dancer depends on being able to see herself from the viewpoint of an independent observer, at least during rehearsal. For all these reasons, the mirror, in art as in life, has assumed complex metaphorical significance, epitomising both the vice of vanity and the virtue of prudent self-knowledge.

    The surfaces which furnish such experiences are ideally invisible, since anything which can be seen on them gets in the way of what is to be seen in them. But there are other artefacts whose reflectiveness is deliberately contrived to draw attention to their surface, and although this may also reflect a recognisable image, that is not the point of the exercise. The reflectiveness of jewellery, armour, ornamental tableware and `important' furniture is carefully enhanced, not to allow a view of something else, but because the resultant lustre is delightful in its own right.

    The extent to which a surface reflects a recognisable image varies enormously, and in this exhibition and book I have tried to show the full range, from the diffuse sheen of burnished copper to the representational realism of silvered glass. The depiction of such variously reflective surfaces has challenged the virtuosity of artists for more than two thousand years, and the exhibition will, I hope, allow the visitor an unprecedented opportunity to reflect upon the somewhat neglected subject of reflection.

    The natural world reveals itself in borrowed light. With the exception of incandescent bodies such as the sun, whose high temperature causes them to emit light, the visibility of the environment depends on the radiant energy which it reflects from primary sources elsewhere. Although this is an undeniable matter of fact, it does not exactly correspond to our experience. It is not altogether how things look. What we see is an illuminated vista of physical objects and the reflected light to which they owe their visibility is not explicitly apparent. The reason is, that with certain important exceptions, the surface of physical objects is more or less densely pitted with microscopic irregularities from which the rays of incident light are reflected in optical disarray. Instead of preserving the parallel order in which they arrive, the rays are scattered in so many different directions that the reflected image of their source is confused beyond recognition and what we see instead is an illuminated panorama of variously coloured local textures.

    But not all surfaces disrupt the incident light to the same extent. The amount by which they do depends on the depth and frequency or `grain' of their optical imperfections. The smoother and less pitted a surface is, the more coherently the rays of incident light are reflected from it. And in the limiting case, such as the mirror or standing water, the coherence of the reflection so accurately reproduces the image of the source that it more or less precludes the visibility of the surface from which it rebounds. The result is that in contrast to a matt surface which displays nothing but its own local characteristics, the visibility of a polished one is almost entirely due to the imagery which it reflects.

    When it comes to representing water, this is something which amateur painters frequently misunderstand. The critic John Ruskin, who was an accomplished artist in his own right, encourages the novice to use his eyes before putting pen to paper. He describes this in his lectures on The Elements of Drawing (1886):

Water is expressed, in common drawings, by conventional lines, whose horizontality is supposed to convey the idea of its surface.
    In paintings, white dashes or bars of light are used for the same purpose.
    But these and all other such expedients are vain and absurd. A piece of calm water always contains a picture in itself, an exquisite reflection of the objects above it. If you give the time necessary to draw these reflections, disturbing them here and there as you see the breeze or current disturb them, you will get the effect of the water; but if you have not the patience to draw the reflections, no expedient wild give you a true effect. The picture in the pool needs nearly as much delicate drawing as the picture above the pool; except only that if there be the least motion on the water, the horizontal lines of the images will be diffused and broken, while the vertical ones will remain decisive, and the oblique ones decisive in proportion to their steepness.
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