Sometimes we stumble on strange backwaters of graphic arts history. One of those is the artistic tradition of creating images which appear normal, but also create a secondary image of a skull, an artistic optical illusion which was very popular it he late 19th and early 20th century, especially in France.
The most famous of these images is C. A. Gilbert’s 1892 sketch “All is Vanity” (see right) which depicts a girl seated at a vanity and admiring herself in a mirror, but if you ignore the details and focus on the whole image the various elements combine to create the appearance of a skull, making a point about the transitory nature of beauty.
As it turns out, Gilbert’s sketch inspired a trend and there are many other images from that period which are done in a similar style and producing a similar illusion, such as “L’Amour de Pierrot” which was produced in France in 1905 (see left). It depicts the characters Pierrot and Columbine and foreshadows a tragic outcome to their love.
When it comes to foreshadowing, none of these images is more on target than the politically motivated French 1894 cartoon “Familie Imperiale de Russie” which shows the Russian royal family inside a skull illusion.
In many cases these skull illusion pictures feature images of children or young lovers, drawing the contrast between youth and life and the inevitability of death, as shown in the examples shown below.