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By special guest writer Philippa Campsie, Tornoto, Canada

Coco Chanel's Apartment, Paris, by Barbara Redmond

Coco Chanel’s Apartment, Paris, by Barbara Redmond

When Coco Chanel was turning the building at 31 rue Cambon into her studio and fashion house, she lined the curving staircase with tall, slender mirrors that reflected everyone who went up or down. During fashion shows, she would sit on the fifth step from the top, able to see the models as they walked towards the crowds and able to hear the responses to the clothes, but unseen by all but her close associates.

Coco’s apartment, shown above, also had a large, elaborately framed mirror over the sofa. Unlike the art deco effect of the staircase mirrors, this was a much more traditional version, made up of six panes, surrounded by rococo gilt. It could have come straight from the Hall of Mirrors (la Galerie des Glaces) at Versailles.

Louis XIV: Versailles mirrors

The Versailles mirrors were among the first mirrors to be manufactured in France. Before that time, mirrors had been made on the island of Murano, part of the city of Venice. The Venetians had developed a procedure for making flat polished glass that sent back a clear, true reflection. They were proud of this process and kept it a secret. In fact, the Venetian Council of the time stipulated that if any worker or artist took the secret to another country, his relatives would be immediately put in prison. If he still didn’t come back, an assassin would be sent after him, with orders to kill him on sight.

As an way of preventing industrial espionage, this worked pretty well. But the Venetians reckoned without Louis XIV, the Sun King, and his finance minister Jean Baptiste Colbert. Louis liked fine clothes, and he liked to admire his reflection in mirrors. But importing them from Venice was ruinously expensive. Louis wanted more mirrors, and Colbert saw both an economic development opportunity and a way to save money.

Jean Baptiste Colbert and glassmakers from Venice

Colbert asked the French ambassador to Venice to see what he could do to lure a few glassmakers away from Venice. The French ambassador paid a local merchant to make discreet inquiries. All businesses have a few disgruntled employees, and the mirror-making business was no different. The merchant identified three rather unsavoury but knowledgeable types who were willing to take the secret to France. Perhaps they had no families. Perhaps they didn’t like their families. In any case, they were willing to risk having their families imprisoned in return for a fat French fee.

The three were smuggled out of Venice and came to France in 1665 to set up a glass factory on the rue de Reuilly in the Faubourg St-Antoine. More mirror makers followed them, to the fury of the Venetian Council.

Louis was pleased. The mirrors they made were excellent. But there was a problem. The workers had a tendency to fight each other. After all, mirror making involves mercury, and mercury sends people mad. (Hatters also used mercury, and you will have heard of the Mad Hatter. Fewer people know about the Mad Mirrors Makers of Murano.) When gunplay was involved, mirrors were often the main casualties.

French mirror makers

The French insisted that the Venetians take on French apprentices to learn the secrets of the craft. After a few years, they had less need of the crazy Venetians, many of whom eventually drifted home to whatever was left of their families. If they were still on speaking terms.

By 1684, the Hall of Mirrors was complete, with its seventeen mirrors made up of eighteen panes each (about ten of the original panes survive to this day). During the day, they reflected the gardens through the windows opposite; in the evening, they reflected candles and the thousands of diamonds worn by the king and his courtiers.

But technology never stays still, and already, French mirror makers were working on making the panes larger and larger. The centre of mirror making moved out of Paris to St-Gobain, about 140 kilometres to the northeast, where there were forests – a source of fuel for the glass ovens. The factory in the rue de Reuilly was given over to the final process of polishing the mirrors. But as the mirrors got bigger and bigger, transporting them back to Paris got harder and harder, as they tended to shatter on the journey over the less-than-smooth roads.

This was apparently considered acceptable wastage, as the market was booming. Everybody who was anybody wanted mirrors for reception rooms and boudoirs and dressing rooms. The Comtesse de Fiesque told her friends, “I had a wretched bit of land (une méchante terre) that yielded nothing but wheat; I sold it and bought this mirror instead. Have I not done marvels (des merveilles)?” Mirrors were still not cheap, but they were becoming a necessity.

French mirrors: Adding light and mystery to interior décor

Wall mirrors added both light and mystery to interior decorating (one art critic wailed that they would be the death of painting, since they were taking up valuable wall space), but hand-held and table-top mirrors became essential tools for the great beauties of the 18th century. Free-standing mirrors were called psychés and they came in a variety of sizes, from full-length to table-top. Many had candle sconces on the sides, just as some modern mirrors have electric lights.

Mirrors: Features in French decorating, painting and photography

Boucher’s portrait of Madame de Pompadour, the mistress of Louis XV, at her toilette shows her applying what we would call blusher in front of a sloping mirror on her dressing table. People entertained in their boudoirs, and the mirror made it possible to talk to people without turning around from the important task of applying cosmetics and studying one’s reflection.

Madame de Pompadour clearly loved mirrors and surrounded herself with them. Another Boucher portrait reveals a shadowy mirror reflecting the back of her head.

Mirrors have remained an important feature of French decorating, as well as of painting and photography. Think of The Bar at the Folies-Bergère by Edouard Manet. This painting can give you vertigo, trying to figure out the angle of the enormous plate-glass mirror behind the young woman serving at the bar. The lines in the painting are horizontal, but the angle of reflection of the man being served, who is presumably standing directly in front of the serveuse, shows him off to one side. How does that work?

The photographer Brassaї also captured the effect of another huge mirror at the Folies-Bergère, this one reflecting dancers relaxing backstage. His photographs of people in cafés often include mirrors, such as the lovers embracing in a corner where two mirrors meet. You see the two together and the individual faces in the surrounding mirrors. Why does the man’s face appear less rapturous than the woman’s? We’ll never know. The mirror keeps its secrets.

Vocabulary: French to English translations

Glace and Miroir: Two words for mirror in French.
La verrerie de laboratoire: Laboratory glassware.
Le cristal Baccarat: Baccarat is a manufacturer of fine crystal glassware located in Baccarat, France. It received its first royal commission in 1823 and first began making its work with a registered trademark in 1860.
Les verres: Drinking glasses.
Solutions pour l’énergie solaire: Glass for solar energy installations.
Verre actif: Special glass that can change its properties when an electric current runs through it.

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Text copyright ©2010 Philippa Campsie
Illustrations copyright ©Barbara Redmond
All rights reserved.
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