Terminology: Convex Mirror, “Girandole” Mirror, or Bulls-Eye Mirror
Convex mirror is the generic term for a reflective glass surface that is in a convex, or outwardly rounded, shape. Unlike a “looking glass” that is a flat plane of surface-reflective glass showing a “mirror image,” convex mirrors distort the reflected perspective to capture light at angles within a room, allowing a wider field of vision and reflection than a looking glass permits.
Convex mirrors are seen in Dutch paintings as early as the 15th century, and the mirror form is also recorded in documentation from Germany of the same period. They were sometimes referred to as “bulls-eye” (“oeil-de-boeuf”) mirrors on the Continent. The form of decorated gilt wood frames on convex mirrors with candle arms gained great popularity at the end of the eighteenth century, especially in England and soon thereafter in North America.
Girandoles, that is wall-mounted candle holders, had long been part of the decorating and lighting scheme of fine European residences. They often included reflective glass plates as illustrated, for example, in the elaborate rococo designs by Thomas Chippendale in his The Gentleman & Cabinet-Maker’s Director of 1760. Convex mirrors are often referred to as “girandole” mirrors because the design included arms for candles, so-called “girandoles.” The lack of candle arms in some designs has been ignored through the passing of time, and the term “girandole” is regularly applied indiscriminately to convex mirrors with or without candle arms.
By 1800 convex mirrors, as well as unassembled portions of their frames, were being imported from England and the Continent to America in large numbers. America did not have the capability at this time of manufacturing the convex mirror glass itself and relied on importation. These were sold by frame manufacturers and mirror dealers along side their own products, sometimes with their own trade label. Many experts agree that it is extremely difficult to establish an American manufacture for convex mirrors although they may have a recognized label. Even if wood analysis might indicate a frame is made of a North American wood such as white pine, late eighteenth and early nineteenth century commerce in secondary woods between both sides of the Atlantic makes a definitive attribution difficult.
How Convex Mirrors and Frames Were Made in the Late 18th and Early 19th Century
The reflective surface of the convex glass mirror was achieved with an applied metallic solution of tin and mercury to the underside prior to the nineteenth century, and a silver application beginning in the nineteenth century.
The mirror glass was generally installed in the frame with a decorative “fillet” around the mirror to hold it in place. Most often, the filet was ebonized or black-painted wood, that was often carved in a simple reeded style.
The frames were constructed and gilded similar to frames for paintings of the period. The carved wood had layers of applied gesso which were carved to enhance detail. Layers of “bole” or a very fine clay were then applied to tone and even the surface for the final layer of gold leaf.
Form and Decoration of Convex Mirror Frames
Gilt-framed convex mirrors of this period reflect the changing taste from the rococo to the neoclassical aesthetic. Commonly used ornaments include foliate pediments and surmounts in the rococo style. Very often, the top ornament is on a rusticated perch of rocks, another rococo device. However, the mirror surround itself often reflected a more symmetrical use of decoration in the Adam-style, with evenly-placed gilded spheres and outlining in lambs-tongue or beaded decoration.
The top ornament was a matter of choice, with a winged eagle often in preference, but with wide variations, some of which were whimsical: Deer, dolphins, and sea creatures are often found. The winged eagle was seemingly a preference in America as in England . From its beak, it is common to find a fine chain attached to a single ball or sphere. This device is purely decorative, although its origins may be with Chinese decoration akin to the use of ball-and-claw feet on furniture of the period. The gold spheres or balls that may surround the inner convex area of the mirror frame are purely decorative and seemingly have no other significance.
Suggested further reading:
Barquist, David L . 1992. American Tables and Looking Glasses in the Mabel Brady Garvan and Other Collections at Yale University, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT.
Conger, Clement E. and Rollins, Alexandra W. 1991. Treasures of State: Fine and Decorative Arts in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U.S. Department of State, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York.
Cooper, Wendy A. 1993. Classical Taste in America : 1800-1840 , Baltimore Museum of Art and Abbeville Press , New York.
Flanigan, J. Michael 1986. American Furniture from the Kaufman Collection, National Gallery of Art , Washington . Distributed by Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York.
Montgomery, Charles F. 1966. “Looking Glasses,” in American Furniture: The Federal Period, in the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, The Viking Press, Inc., New York.
Sack, Albert 1993. The New Fine Points of Furniture: Early American, Crown Publishers, Inc., New York. Tracy , Berry B . 1981. “Looking Glasses, Clocks, Fire Screens, and Chandeliers,” in Federal Furniture and Decorative Arts at Boscobel, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York.