What a Spectacle!

I overheard someone say they forgot their glasses and it made me 1) jealous they could function without them and 2) want to research imagery of eyeglasses in society, art and fashion. Today's beverage is the strawberry cheesecake martini because the martini was Dorothy Parker's drink of choice and my favorite Mrs. Parker quip is 'Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.' 

 I have my cat eyes on so let's talk spectacles! 

The earliest known painting featuring glasses is a fresco by Tommaso da Modena circa 1352. Cardinal Hugo of Provence, seated on the right, hunched over his desk wears spectacles. Significantly he is Dominican, a monastic order called 'carriers of the sciences.' Hugo's 1290 death was pre-spectacle invention so it's likely the artist added them to indicate education. 1  


Another early example is from The Book of Hours. A group of monks is singing and the figure wearing spectacles is hunched over, straining to see the text.

Book of Hours
Origin France, Central (Paris)

Date c. 1450 - c. 1460


Things don't change much in 16th century art. A Dutch, wood panel (16th-17th c.) shows a man using spectacles to examine a document. So spectacles are still strictly functional and a visual tool used by artists to show literacy and education.

17th century works show some movement and bespectacled subjects occupied with activities besides reading. YAY!

In Mu'in al-Musawwer's The Persian artist Ridhā al-'Abbasī in his old age ca. 1635, the subject is depicted on a gold background and wears spectacles while painting.  It is the oldest known painted image of spectacles in the Muslim world.2 


In the 18th century specs boomed and the demand may have been due to availability of cheap daily newspapers. 3  William Hogarth's 1720 engraving Characters Who Frequent Button's Coffee House incorporates newspapers and spectacles.  The Spectacle Pedlar, a 1741 German engraving of a door to door spectacle salesman,  exemplifies this increased availability and need of spectacles. 

Portraits including spectacles were still popular in the 19th century, but we see more female subjects, fashion, and socioeconomic standing added to the mix.  In the portrait of Mrs. Meffre-Rouzan her elegant dress, the lush red backdrop, and what appear to be gold spectacle frames indicate wealth.

Portrait of Mrs. Antoine Julien Meffre-Rouzan

Jean-Joseph Vaudechamp (1790-1866)


Oil on Canvas


Socioeconomic status is also demonstrated through fashion and spectacles in Renoir's  La Loge, 1874. A couple attends the theater and use opera glasses. Income for such things scream 'we're rich.' The opera glasses also really tie the composition together; the male figure using his glasses to survey the theater wonderfully contrasts the female figure holding her glasses still.  

 La Loge (The Theatre Box)

Pierre-Auguste Renoir

1874 oil on canvas



In these examples glasses are fashionable and a sign of high social status.   

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the stigma that glasses are unfashionable and nerdy.


The Norman Rockwell 1922 Saturday Evening Post cover Boy Lifting Weights embodies this nerdy image. A thin boy wearing glasses lifts weights while looking at a poster of a body builder featuring the slogan 'Be A Man.' 

The stigma also applied to women, which is articulated perfectly by the Dorothy Parker quote referenced earlier.  



Things turned around in the 1940's with the introduction of the cat eye frame and the notion that glasses can be fashionable. A 1943 Harlequin Glasses ad claims their glasses won't make a girl look 'owlish, bookish, or just pain dull!' There is a fab 3 minute video about Harlequin Glasses here.


The cat eye style gained popularity in the mid 20th century. In René Gruau's Portrait of Fleur Cowles (a writer, editor and artist) her cat eyes are bold and draw attention to her fierce side eye. 



Glasses continue to add personality to subjects in  contemporary works. Check out Kei Meguro's 'Babes' - they are freaking INCREDIBLE! There are more fantastic examples of spectacles in art here and here.

I've finished my martinis so time to wrap up. Glasses are an ever-changing, integral part of art, fashion and pop culture. Think Holly Golightly's sunglasses in Breakfast at Tiffany's, Gloria Steinem's aviators, and Harry Potter's constantly in need of repair specs.







This research was so fun! The museyeum (yay puns!!!) and vintage cat eye frameswere my personal favorites. I hope you enjoyed too. Cheers!


1) https://www.college-optometrists.org/the-college/museum/online-exhibitions/virtual-spectacles-gallery/the-invention-of-spectacles.html


2) http://www.muslimheritage.com/article/invention-spectacles-between-east-and-west




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