Anamorphosis: skulls, songbirds, and invisible portraits


The Ambassadors, 1533
Hans Holbein the Younger

In the artistic technique called anamorphosis, an object is depicted in distorted perspective, so that the viewer has to take special action, like looking from a specific angle, to see the "correct" image.

The most famous example of anamorphic painting is Hans Holbein's The Ambassadors (1533), a double portrait in which the illusion of highly detailed reality is fractured by a blurred grey streak superimposed across the painting's bottom third. If one stands at an acute angle, close to the painting, the blurred streak resolves itself into a skull, like a creepy Renaissance easter egg:


An alternative way to resolve an anamorphic projection is to view its reflection in a convex mirror. That's the principle behind these porcelain dishes by the design team of Luc d'Hanis & Sofie Lachaert. The cylindrical anamorphic projections of songbirds and bees on the platters are only resolved when a reflective vessel is placed in the platter's center.


Mirror anamorphosis has also been used extensively by the Hungarian artist Istvan Orosz. Orosz adds additional layers of illusion by making the anamorphic projection an artwork unto itself. For example, Jules Verne's Mysterious Island is an icy landscape that conceals an anamorphic portrait of the author's face:

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The idea of combining a landscape with a portrait is actually quite old: a student of Durer made an anamorphic landscape-portrait around 1535. One of the oldest extant cylindrical anamorphic portrait paintings, St. Jerome, by a follower of Caravaggio, dates to 1635:


Orosz has created a number of variations on anamorphosis. One illusion pairs a drawing of a nude with an anamorphic projection of a foot; when the reflective cylinder is placed in the right location (on the anamorphic drawing and in front of the nude) the resolved foot appears to hover in front of the nude body it belongs to. Orosz's Dinteville pays explicit tribute to Holbein's Ambassadors: a still life, including a skull and drafting equipment, resolves itself at an angle into Holbein's portrait of Jean de Dinteville. Orosz has also done anamorphic portraits of Shakespeare and Einstein. (All of these artworks can be viewed at Orosz' website.)

Kelly Houle is another contemporary artist who uses cylindrical anamorphosis; her anamorphic artworks include a pencil portrait of Da Vinci (who did perhaps the earliest anamorphic sketches) and a collage portrait of Lewis Carroll. Archangel is an example of contemporary public art using the principles of anamorphosis. Passing Through is an anamorphic mosaic that can only be properly seen from the vantage of a viewing bench.

Personally, my modern eyes find The Ambassadors jarring. It looks to me as if it's a Photoshop cut-and-paste job, not a real painting - I'd love to view it in person and see if I can shake that feeling! The skill Holbein needed to render it is impressive: he couldn't have painted the skull while constantly viewing the painting at the angle which makes the skull visible, so he had to have executed the transformation and mapped out the anamorphic projection beforehand. The general consensus among art historians has been that Holbein used mathematical principles and geometric projection to create the distorted perspective view (the compasses and other drafting equipment shown in Orosz' Danteville are likely a nod to that idea, as well as to cartography and architecture). But Charles Falco, who along with David Hockney has popularized the idea that Renaissance artists used both mirrors and lenses as drafting aids, argues that the anamorphic skull could have been constructed optically, using a concave mirror - basically, the reverse of the process used to view d'Hanis and Lachaert's bird platters. Falco claims that the distortions and inaccuracies in the "real" skull image are consistent with adjustments made to accommodate the mirror's depth of field during the drafting process. In general, Falco bases his arguments on the grounds that if Holbein and others had used geometric projection, it would have yielded better results than they actually got, and that the many mistakes and inconsistencies in the paintings are evidence of how they were created. Falco says, "It is only when artists made mistakes--such as Lotto's problem with depth of field in his Husband and Wife--that can we extract indirect evidence about the type of optics they may have used."

No matter how they were created, anamorphic projections force the viewer to think about how they interact with the artwork: how viewing art is a highly subjective process contingent on unstated assumptions and conventions. We describe Holbein's anamorphic skull as "hidden" only because it is normal to us to view a painting head-on. Viewers assume they should position themselves with their eyes equidistant to the painting, somewhere in the center of the artwork. But there is nothing inherently privileged about that viewpoint, as opposed to an oblique viewpoint, or a view from above or below. Artworks installed in architectural spaces - such as the trompe l'oeil ceiling of the church of Saint Ignazio in Rome - are usually distorted to work with, not against, the viewer's perspective - but only work if the viewer stands in a certain place. An exhibition catalog entitled Anamorphoses: Games of Perception and Illusion in Art (1975) states that "anamorphoses are an extreme example of (a) subjectivization of the viewing process. The observer is first deceived by a barely recognizable image, and is then directed to a view-point dictated by the formal construction of the painting. . . the spectator must play a part and re-form the picture himself."

A Dutch novelty toy from the 1700s, currently in the Getty collection, is sort of like an anamorphic Viewfinder: a series of watercolored cards with anamorphic projections are transformed by a reflective copper cone placed in the center into a series of illustrations, such as a tulip. One card reads "Verwagt nog beeter" - which means "even better [images] are still to come." That phrase captures the charm of the anamorphic projection - the viewer knows there must be a solution to visual puzzle, and actively searches for the right way to view the piece and see what the artist intended. It's rare that an artwork makes the viewer so conscious of the active process of viewing - or so delighted by the simple principles of geometric perspective that we generally take for granted.


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Thanks, Jessica. As usual, I've learned something new.

Yes! Wonderful post Jessica. I had completely forgot about anamorphs. I've always had the same feeling about that Holbein piece too. The skull is at such odds with the rest of it, like it was just an after thought. There appears to be no reason for it. Even the figures with their dead-pan expressions seem to be thinking, "Yeah? So there's an anamorphic skull on the ground. What of it?".

But thank you for this great post. It made for an enjoyable and Sunday afternoon. Not to mention bookmarks for further inspiration.

By Joe Leasure (not verified) on 03 May 2009 #permalink

"Even the figures with their dead-pan expressions seem to be thinking, "Yeah? So there's an anamorphic skull on the ground. What of it?""

Ha! That is precisely the way I feel about it! It's like a Renaissance anamorphic LOLcats with a bad Photoshop job! I mean, seriously. . .

Right?!?! And in art history books then NEVER mention how odd it is! I could swear the skull was done by someone else entirely.

By Joe Leasure (not verified) on 03 May 2009 #permalink

*they never mention...

By Joe Leasure (not verified) on 03 May 2009 #permalink

Personally, my modern eyes find The Ambassadors jarring.

I'm with you on this one. Looking at the painting head-on, one can clearly see the skull, it just looks really ridiculous smack dab in the middle of the bottom of the painting. Paint me unimpressed.

Devorah Sperber is another contemporary artist who experiments with these techniques, usually in direct dialog with famous artists and works. Here is a work called After Holbein:…
She also uses spools of thread as pixels of color that, when viewed through an acrylic sphere, coalesce into a unified image, often an appropriation of another artist's work:…

I believe there was an anamorphic portrait of Bonnie Prince Charlie, or some Scottish rebel hero, which was distributed-- the sassenachs thought it was just a blob, but the Scots knew how to turn it into a portrait.