The Formation of Images by Plane and Spherical Mirrors

This page is authored by Ray Purdom, University of North Carolina at Greensboro
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This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project


Students will examine paintings done by several masters which include images formed in mirrors. Students will discuss the images depicted by the artists with the images predicted by geometric optics. Students will also estimate various parameters of the mirrors.

Learning Goals

These activities will reinforce the student's knowledge of geometric optics. Students will also explore the artwork of early masters.

Context for Use

This activity will follow the teaching of the principles of geometric optics related to materials and a homework assignment on the subject.

Description and Teaching Materials

Students will view the painting
A Bar at the Folies-Bergère - Edouard Manet.
Questions - How do the images not follow the principles of geometric optics. What should the images look like? If you are viewing this painting, which character represents you?

Then the students view - Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife 1434 – Jan van Eyck.
Questions - What type of mirror is being used? What is the mirror's approximate focal length?

The students then view The Toilet of Venus - Diego Velázquez.
Questions - How does the image not follow the principles of geometric optics. What should the image look like?

As an additional related activity, students might view the video -
The Use of Optical Devices by Master Painters - Robert Greenler

Teaching Notes and Tips

Students might know of other famous paintings that depict mirrors and reflections. These paintings will probably be readily found on the Internet and students could examine these additional works of art.


Assessment can be made using standard tests on geometric objects. The value of this activity could be determined by comparing test resulta with students who did and didnot do this activity.

References and Resources