The world’s most famous optical illusion

The world's most famous optical illusion
"All is Vanity"
(Click to enlarge)

Charles Allan Gilbert drew this optical illusion picture in 1892, when he was 18 years old. After he sold it to Life Magazine and they reproduced it as a print, it became famous.

This is an ambiguous optical illusion, where we see more than one thing in the picture. If we view the overall image, we see a human skull. When we focus on the details of the picture, we see a woman looking in her vanity mirror.

The world's most famous optical illusion
A window display from 1907 showcases 
multiple prints of the optical illusion "All is Vanity."

The phrase "All is vanity" comes from the book of Ecclesiastes in the Christian Bible. It refers to the vanity and pride of man. In art, vanity has long been represented as a woman preoccupied with her beauty. And art that contains a human skull as a focal point is called a momento mori (Latin for "remember you will die"), a work that reminds people of their mortality.

The world's most famous optical illusion
Vanitas by Philippe de Champaigne, 1671 

The type of optical illusion where faces or bodies make up another face is not new. The Italian artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo painted similar illusions in the 16th Century. In his painting Eve and the Apple, Eve’s face contains nude figures.

The world's most famous optical illusion
Eve and the Apple, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, 1578

If we look at a close-up, cropped image of "All is Vanity", we don’t see the skull, we just see details of a woman sitting at her dressing table. Look at these three images:

The world's most famous optical illusion
There’s no optical illusion here – 
it’s merely the back of a woman.

The world's most famous optical illusion
A woman looks directly out
at us from a mirror.

The world's most famous optical illusion
A vanity table with 
tablecloth, candle and flowers. 
Again, nothing extraordinary.

But if we expand our view, even without seeing the entire image, once we know we’re going to see a skull, we can’t help but see it.

The world's most famous optical illusion
The skull starts to peer out from this image.

And when we look at the picture from a distance, because of all the black surrounding the skull, once the details of the woman get fuzzy, all we can see is the skull. In the pixelated version of the skull below, it’s almost impossible to see anything but the skull.

The world's most famous optical illusion
"All is Vanity", – pixelated
(Click to enlarge)

(Strange, I never noticed this before, but is that a cross to the right of the skull?)

– Charles Allan Gilbert, Wikipedia>>
– Window display, Saks and Company, New York, 1907. Displaying the papeterie (fancy stationary) made popular by George E. Newcombe & Co., Google Books>>
– Vanity, Wikipedia>>
– Ecclesiastes 1 (King James Version), Bible Gateway>>
– Hidden faces, Wikipedia>>
– Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Olga’s Gallery>>
– Momento mori, Wikipedia>>

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6 thoughts on “The world’s most famous optical illusion

  1. FANTASTIC!!!! When I was a kid a guy in the neighborhood had a yard sale and this print was one of the things i bought along with a Remington typewriter !!! i was only about 10 yrs old in the late 80’s… I loved this photo!
    I had lost it since and don’t know what I had done with the small beat-up copy i bought in a cheap frame.. and TONIGHT !!! HERE IT IS !!!
    I didn’t know all these years what exactly what to Google it as… and Bam! I came across it tonight 20 years later!!! THANK YOU !!! It’s wonderful to see her again !!! and I feel just a weird as when I first saw it ..Like, – "oh , it’s a woman in the mirror ..victorian… Oh!
    man … I shouldnt’t be look’n at this’s kinda evil in a way…. weird eh?

  2. I think it is fascinating! I wonder if woman in mirror sees skeleton or only her lovely reflection? I saw it first time 15 yrs ago at open house in an old tudor mansion & wondered of its history. Now I know…cool & thanks!

  3. No, it’s not a cross to the right of the skull. They didn’t have digital pixelation back then.

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