Thursday, September 11, 2014


Some times it takes a while to learn what something “really” is and what its appropriate name is and even then, there are still unanswered questions. That process of discovery is one of the joys of collecting. Some ten years ago, I bought a wonderful18th century boxed set of glass views of a group of people watching a fireworks display.

I thought it was a rare set of glass peepshow views. It looked similar to paper sets of peepshow views made by the famous German printer, Martin Engelbrecht, in which a scene was printed on six different cards. When the views are placed in a peepshow box and the viewer looks at the scene through a lens, the scene appears three-dimensional and much more life-like than a flat painting, drawing or a print. I thought some type of rare peepshow would be used to view these glass transparencies. I held that view for quite a long time and even saw one or two peepshows that I thought might be used for such a purpose. I also saw a couple of exhibitions in which sets of these glass views were included and displayed in a way that gave credence to the idea that they were peepshow views.

The last few years my thinking about these incredible views began to change as I did more reading and began seeing references to things called Diaphanoramas and Diafanoramas. Some times the term Diaphanorama is applied to other sorts of visual entertainment but both terms are used when describing glass transparent views. I will use the term Diafanorama since it seems to refer exclusively to transparent glass views. This past May, when I went to Amsterdam, I learned more about Diafanoramas. There were three of them on display at the Rijksmuseum. They were set into the wall and displayed in a way that you might look at a set of peepshow views. However, Tristan Mostert, the curator of the show, told me of research that suggested that this was not how these images were viewed; in fact, these images were to be viewed as reflected in a concave mirror (often referred to in the 18th century as a burning mirror). A set of candles would be arranged behind the box to provide lighting and a concave mirror placed in front of the box, with the mirror turned toward the box. The image would be reflected in the mirror. The mirror view created a greater appearance of depth (much like the hidden mirror in the top of a vertical peepshow does). I didn’t have time while I was in Amsterdam to see the other Diafanoramas in the Rijksmuseum, but they are online. I also found there is a large collection of these views at the Rotterdam Museum, which I also visited online

Helmut Wälde has just written a very interesting article for The New Magic Lantern Journal (Vol 11, #9) on The Dutch Diafanorama. Wälde adds considerably to the existing knowledge about these glass paintings, how they were painted and what sorts of people owned them. His article focuses exclusively on Dutch examples. His research suggests a common format. Each set has four painted sheets of glass with the same measurements of width and height. I have in my collection a number of sets of transparent paintings done on two sheets of glass. Furthermore, my sets with more than two sheets of glass are different sizes, suggesting that there was not a common format.

Diafanorama seem to have begun appearing in the middle of the 18th century. They were an amusement mainly for the private entertainment of well-to-do families. There were, however, in the19th century public shows of both Diaphanoramas and Diafanoramas. I have two broadsides in my collection advertising such shows. One is a Russian broadside advertising a Diaphanorama (gallery of transparent pictures) on display in Moscow in 1834. Very recently I added another broadside advertising a 1833 Diafanorama entertainment in the city of Altenburg, Germany. The Altenburg show contained thirty different painted scenes, most of them painted by the famous Swiss painter, Franz Niklaus König. König began giving public shows of Diafanoramas in 1811. He built up a stock of different scenes and took his show on tour in the 1820s. Upon his death in 1832, Christian Stettler and a partner bought König’s collection and began making shows with the collection. This broadside advertises a show over two evenings. I hope over time to learn more about his shows. What size were the views? What size was the audience? Did the audience use a mirror to view the scenes?

Now that I am posting images and information on my collection of Difanoramas and associated broadsides, I have to decide where they belong within my web site. I considered placing them in the peepshow section.I have decided, at least for now, to put them in the Panorama/Diorama section because the Difanoramas have much in common with Diorama paintings. Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre opened his first Diorama in Paris in 1822. Scenes were painted on multi-layered panels of linen, with selected parts treated to be transparent. These multi-layered paintings were on a different surface and of a very different scale but like the Diafanorama, they were a form of entertainment that made the viewing of a painting a more three dimensional experience.


  1. Hello!
    I learned of your sites through a "This is" website feature. I love these different sorts of 'performing' arts. There is a lady who has stages and such, from bygone eras, that reminds me of your things.
    I am so enjoying reading the posts and seeing what you have, both here and on!
    Thank you!