Like the diorama, the magic lantern was central to the popular success of commercialized forms of visual culture. Like other optical devices ultimately used for entertainment, the magic lantern had its origins in scientific experimentation. In his book Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae (The Great Art of Light and Shadow, 1645–1646), the Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher described a device he called the catoptric lamp, which could create illuminated images by catching sunlight on a mirror and reflecting it through a lenticular lens (that is, shaped like a doubleconvex lens) onto the wall of a darkened chamber. An opaque image or word (with letters inverted) embossed upside down on the mirror would be directed (but not quite projected) by the reflected sunlight on the darkened wall. Kircher used transparent paints to color his images and would employ two or more lamps to allow multiple images and words to appear on the wall simultaneously. In the absence of natural sunlight, Kircher demonstrated that illumination sufficient for projection could be obtained by condensing candlelight through a glass sphere filled with water. The catoptric lamp was the precursor to the very popular magic lantern.
In 1659 the Dutch physicist Christian Huygens developed his lanterne magique, a device that contributed to the development of projected images. Huygens’s correspondence describes how he painted images on glass slides (rather than a mirror) and directed artificial light through a lens to project his images. The Danish lens grinder and teacher Thomas Rasmussen Walgensten is known to have publicly demonstrated his magic lantern before small, exclusive audiences (such as royal families) between 1664 and 1670. The magic lantern did not move out of closed circles of private demonstrations for scientists, experimenters, and privileged audiences until the 1790s (once the social and economic conditions became ripe), when the Belgian Etiènne Gaspard́rt (1764–1837) developed the magic lantern for the purposes of commercial entertainment with great success. Robért changed his name to Robertson and premiered his spectacular magic lantern show, the Robe Fantasmagorie, at the Pavillion d’Echiquier in Paris in 1799. He professed that his magic lantern would help dispel his audiences’ belief in the existence of ghosts and spirits while simultaneously delighting them with the terror that his display of illusory specters inspired.
Several years later, Robertson transformed the chapel of an abandoned Capuchin monastery into an atmospheric venue for his show. Robertson exploited the inherent spookiness of this setting and established an atmosphere of terror by shuttling his audiences through dark corridors to a chamber illuminated only by glowing coals. The space was decorated with skulls and mysterious markings, and the death knell of tolling bells and other sound effects established an ominous mood. Once his audience was seated, Robertson threw chemicals on the glowing coals to make smoke billow from them; he then extinguished all the lights, cloaking his audience in a terrifying darkness. Images of ghosts, ghouls, demons, distorted human faces, and skeletons were projected onto the clouds of smoke by magic lanterns that had been craftily concealed from the audiences’ view, thanks to Robertson’s use of rear projection. The billowing smoke gave an illusory movement to the static images that were skillfully painted on glass slides and projected through the lantern’s lens. Robertson also projected images onto thin gauze that had been treated with wax to make the fabric translucent and allowed the rear-projected image to be visible through its surface. As film historian Erik Barnouw explains, the gauze was hidden behind black curtains, which were drawn back once the venue was thrown into darkness. To further conceal the source of the projected apparitions and thereby intensify the illusion, Robertson darkened the area of the glass slides surrounding the illustration, so that when the images of ghosts and phantoms were projected they seemed to hang eerily in the darkness. He also mounted his magic lanterns on an apparatus that would allow him to slide the lanterns forward and back. This had the effect of making the projected image appear to grow and approach the audience when the lantern was moved forward or shrink and move away from the audience when it was moved backward. When the lantern’s focus was expertly adjusted in sync with the movement of the apparatus, the illusion of emergence and retreat intensified the sensationalism of the spectacle. Robertson not only projected images of phantoms and ghosts but also made reference to the contemporary political context by projecting an image of the recently executed Robespierre along with other images of the famous dead, such as Voltaire and Rousseau.
Two significant technological developments improved on Robertson’s magic lantern. In 1822 Sir Goldsworthy Gurney developed limelight, a source of very bright artificial illumination first used in lighthouses but later put to numerous uses in theater and entertainment, including as a light source for magic lanterns. In the 1830s the magic lanternist Henry Langdon Childe developed the “dissolving view,” a process for transitioning from one image to the next by fading in one image as the other fades out.
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