Art and mirror

In the beginning was Narcissus. Narcissus, whose story is told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Narcissus, that ephebe of exceptional beauty, who leaned over the water of a spring, a perfect mirror, and fell in love with his own reflection to the point of letting himself die of despair. This water mirror, and by extension all mirrors, became, from the Renaissance onwards, the emblem of painting. Leon Battista Alberti, in his De Pictura, makes Narcissus the inventor of painting.

So let’s take a look at the different uses of the mirror. It goes without saying that my subject is totally subjective and, anything but exhaustive, as the subject is so vast. It will sometimes take us to other media than painting.

First of all, some painters have, of course, used the myth of Narcissus to represent the reflective surface of water as a mirror. This is the case of Caravaggio:

Caravage (attribued to), Narcissus, 1598/99, Oil on canvas, 110×92 cm, Rome, Galerie nationale d’Art Ancien

In this painting, whose attribution to Caravaggio is debatable, the young man is leaning over the water in a composition that forms a circle with his double. He modernizes the myth by dressing the figure in contemporary clothes.

We find the theme in the English painter, Waterhouse, close to the style of the Pre-Raphaelites.

John William Waterhouse, Echo and Narcissus, 1903, Oil on canvas, 109×189 cm, Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery

Or again, completely metamorphosed, so to speak, by Dali :

Salvador Dali, Matamorphosis of Narcissus, 1937, Oil on canvas, 51×78 cm, Londres, Tate Modern

In Dali’s work, the reflection of Narcissus is no longer only in the water, but also in the sculpted hand in the foreground.

But back to the object « mirror », we find it in portraits, and even more precisely, in self-portraits. Indeed, without a mirror, there is no self-portrait. The artist needs the mirror to be able to fix his features on the canvas. The device is, moreover, revealed to us by the painter Johannes Gumpp.

Johannes Gumpp, Self-portrait, 1646, Oil on canvas, 88×89 cm, Florence, musée des Offices

The Austrian painter Gumpp looks at himself from behind in an octagonal mirror so that he can paint on the easel to his right.

This form of multiplied self-portrait can be found in Savoldo’s work :

Giavanni Gerolamo Savoldo, Portrait of a man in armour, Circa 1525,Oil on canvas, 91×123 cm, Paris, musée du Louvre

The painter represents himself in armour in a space where two large mirrors reflect his image from different angles.

Or at Norman Rockwell, who uses Gumpp’s device for a cover of the Saturday Evening Post.

Norman Rockwell, Triple self-portrait, 1960, Stockbridge, Musée Norman Rockwell

Even without these complex devices, artists are happy to use the mirror for their self-portraits. Thus in the young Parmigianino, Vuillard or Escher :

Francesco Mazzola or Parmiggianino, Self-portrait in convex mirror, 1523/24, oil on wood, Diam : 24.4 cm, Vienne, Kunsthistorisches museum

At the age of 21, Parmigianino demonstrates all his technical virtuosity by depicting himself in a room deformed by the use of a convex mirror.

Edouard Vuillard, Self-portrait in the bathroom mirror, 1923/24, Oil on cardboard, 81×66 cm, New-York, private collection

In this image of the ageing artist, the reflection becomes as blurred as the images surrounding the mirror.

Maurits Cornelis Escher, Hand holds a spherical mirror, 1935, Lithography

MC. Escher is reflected in a ball that deforms the space, in the same spirit as Parmigianino.

The process is also used by photographers.

Ilse Bing, Self-portrait in mirror,1931, Silver gelatine print, 26×29 cm, Ottawa, musée des Beaux-Arts du Canada

The artist’s portrait can also be slipped in indirectly. The reflection in the mirror becomes a visible element, as if by mistake.

Marguerite Gérard, sitting at her easel, is reflected in the spherical mirror at her feet.

Henri Matisse, Carmelina, 1903, Oil on canvas, 81×59 cm, Boston, museum of Fine Arts

Helmut Newton, Self-portrait with wife and model, 1981, 22×22 cm

Even if the photographer seems to be seen by accident, he remains in the centre of the image.

The use of mirrors is also an excellent way to introduce a third dimension into painting. It allows the viewer to see spaces that would otherwise be hidden from him.

Jan Van Eyck, Portrait des époux Arnolfini, 1434, Oil on wood, 82×60 cm, Londres, Natianal Gallery
detail of mirror

The convex mirror is not only a piece of bravery on Van Eyck’s part, it is also a way of reconstructing the characters’ space in its entirety. In the mirror we see the Arnolfini couple from behind, as well as the room’s decoration, slightly distorted by the convexity of the mirror, and also a half-open door through which two men enter, one of whom is probably the painter himself. He is in search of total space.

Petrus Christus, Saint Eloi in his workshop, 1449, Oil on wood, 100×85 cm, New-York, Metropolitan Mueum of Art

In the foreground on the table, on the right, the convex mirror reflects what is happening in the street through the open shop door.

This process marks the entire history of painting, among the great artists as well as lesser-known painters.

Diegi Vélasquez ,Les Ménines, 1656/57, Oil on canvas, 318×276 cm, Madrid, Musée du Prado

Velasquez places a rectangular mirror on the back wall in which the faces of the rulers, probably posing for him, are reflected.

François Boucher, The lunch, 1739, Oil on canvas, 81×65 cm, Paris, musée du Louvre

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Portrait of mrs Moitessier, 1847-1856, Oil on canvas, 120×92 cm, Londres, National Gallery

Edouard Manet, A bar at the Folies Bergère, 1881/82, Oil on canvas, 96×130 cm, Londres, Courtauld Institute

Maurice Lobre, Wood panelling in Versailles, Circa 1900, Oil on canvas, 101×64 cm

Like Boucher before him, Maurice Lobre plays with the mirror to sublimate the woodwork of the Château de Versailles, which he has spent his life painting.

Jeff Wall, Picture for women, 1979, 161×223 cm, Paris, Centre Pompidou

Anish Kapoor, Cloud gate, 2006, 10×20 m, Chicago, Millenium Park

While distorting reality, the artist creates a new landscape

Doug Aitken, Mirage, mirror house

The American artist covers his house with mirrors that make up ever-changing landscapes.

The mirror can be used to highlight an essential element of the image :

Norman Rockwell, The flirts, 1941

It is thanks to the mirror in the rear-view mirror that the spectator understands why the characters are together.

Elliott Erwitt, California Kiss, 1955, 31×46 cm

Taking up the idea of the rear-view mirror, the photographer captures his main subject in it.

Sometimes the mirror does not show the reality we expect. It can, for example, show the future:

Lucas Furtenagel, Portrait of the painter Hans Burgkmair and his wife, 1529, Oil on wood, 60×52 cm, Vienne, Kunsthistorisches museum

Both models, as they age, see the reflections of their faces transformed into skulls. This also constitutes a Vanity, i.e. an allegory of the passage of time, death and the futility of human activities.

Jacopo Robusti or Tintoretto, Mars and Venus surprised by Vulcan, Circa 1555, Oil on canvas, 135×198 cm, Munich, Alte Pinakothek

In this vaudeville scene where Vulcan, captivated by the beauty of his wife, does not hear the dog bark and reveals the lover hidden under the table, the mirror shows us the moment that is about to follow. Indeed, if Vulcan approaches Venus’ bed here by putting one knee on the mattress, the mirror shows him kneeling completely on the bed.

The mirror can show a blurred or distorted reality :

Diego Velasquez, The Venus toilet, 1647/51, Oil on canvas, 128×177 cm, Londres, National Gallery

Venus reflects its beauty, which is reflected in the mirror. But its face escapes us, because it is blurred. But who can claim to have seen the face of love?

Edgar Degas, At the milliner’s, 1882/85, Oil on canvas, 88×102 cm, Richmond, Virginia museum of Fine Arts

Normally the presence of the mirror allows the model to be seen from two different angles, but Degas decides to give only an allusive image of the face. It is up to the spectator to project an image.

Francis Bacon, Portrait of Georges Dyer in a mirror, 1968, Oil on canvas,198×147 cm, Madrid, musée Thyssen-Bornemisza

Here the face reflected in the mirror, even if it is split in two, is more realistic than the portrait of the model to which the painter applies distortions. If we join the two reflected halves together, we obtain a rather naturalistic portrait of Georges Dyer. What interests Bacon is not appearances but what is hidden inside his models. The halved reflection perhaps evokes the double nature of Dyer’s character.

The mirror can also lead us to another reality, an offbeat or magical world:

Paul Delvaux, The dawn, 1937, Oil on canvas, 120×150 cm, Venise, musée Peggy Guggenheim

The mirror, placed in the foreground on a pedestal, should reflect the image of the painter. Without any apparent logic, it shows us the bust of a woman as if the spectator were assimilated to a fifth tree-woman.

René Magritte, The reproduction prohibited, 1937, Oil on canvas, 79×65 cm, Rotterdam, musée Boijmans Van Beuningen

While the objects (such as Edgar Poe’s book on the mantelpiece) are perfectly reflected in the mirror, the character’s reflection is totally unrealistic.

Gustaf Tengrenn, Illustration for Snow White, 1937

Tales have taken hold of the image of the magic mirror, as evidenced by the Swedish illustrator Tengrenn in this drawing which served as a preparatory study for Walt Disney’s famous cartoon.

The mirror is also very regularly used as an allegorical emblem. We have already discussed this with Furtenagel; the mirror is often linked to the allegories of Vanity. Fragile by its material, it refers to the fragility of life, to the ephemeral nature of beauty.

Hans Memling, La Vanité, Circa 1490, 20×13 cm Strasbourg, musée des Beaux-Arts

The central panel of a small polyptych evoking Earthly Vanity and Heavenly Redemption, this young girl with a mirror symbolises both vanity and lust.

Hans Baldung Grien, The three ages of women and Death, 1509/10, OIl on wood, 48×32 cm,Vienne, Kunsthistorisches museum

The beautiful young woman who sees death reflected in her mirror symbolises Vanity, the fragility of beauty and the passing of time.

The candlelight master, Vanity, 17th century, Oil on canvas, Rome, Galerie nationale d’Art Ancien

Accompanying the mirror are the other symbols of Vanity, the skull and the candle. This type of subject is very close to the « Repentant Madeleines » where we often find the symbols of Vanity.

Orazio Gentileschi, Martha reprimands her sister Mary, Circa 1620, OIl on canvas, 132×154 cm, Munich, Alte Pinakothek

In this image of Madeleine before her conversion, the rectangular mirror seems to be an integral part of the young woman and only reflects her.

Georges de La Tour, Madeleine at the mirror, 1635/40, Oil on canvas, 113×92 cm, Washington, National Gallery of Art

After its conversion, the mirror only reflects the skull…

Paradoxically, the mirror is also the attribute of Prudence, because it allows us to look back :

Giovanni Bellini, Allegory of Prudence, 1490, OIl on wood, 32×22 cm, Venise, Galerie de l’Académie

Hans Baldung Grien, Allegory of Prudence, 1529, Oil on wood, 83×36 cm, Munich, Alte Pinakothek

By extension, the mirror appears in certain representations of philosophers, evoking Marcus Aurelius’ « Look within yourself… ».

Jusepe de Ribera, Philosopher at the mirror, 17th century, Oil on canvas

Finally, the mirror is the symbol of sight in the representation of the five senses.

Jacques Linard, The five senses, 1638, OIl on canvas, 55×68 cm, Strasbourg, musée des Beaux-Arts

The mirror introduces the idea that sight is a misleading sense.

To end our tour in beauty, the mirror can be found in many representations of women at their toilette. This is because it has great erotic power: it can be seen from many angles and enhances a woman’s body and adornment. Here again, a large number of works over the centuries bear witness to this:

Ecole De Fontainebleau, Woman at toilet, 16th century, Oil on canvas, 105×76 cm, Dijon, musée des Beaux-Arts

Giovanni Bellini, Youg woman at the toilet, 1515, Oil on wood, 62×79 cm, Vienne, Kunshistorisches museum

Titien, Woman and mirror, Circa 1515, Oil on canvas, 99×76 cm, Paris, musée du Louvre

Piere Paul Rubens, Venus and Cupidon, 1606/11, Oil on canvas, 137×11 cm, Madrid, musée Thyssen-Bornemisza

Nicolas Regnier, Young woman at the toilet, 1626, Oil on canvas, 130×105 cm, Lyon, musée des Beaux-Arts

Utamaro, Young woman at the mirror, 1792/93, Print

Christoffer Eckersberg, Woman at mirror, Copenhague

Pierre Bonnard, The dressing table, 1908, Oil on canvas, 52×45 cm, Paris, musée d’Orsay

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, The toilet, 1913/20, Oil on canvas, 100×75 cm, Paris, Centre Pompidou

Pablo Picasso, Young woman at the mirror, 1932, Oil on canvas, 162×130 cm, New-York, Museum of Modern Art

There, we were able to realise the importance of the mirror in the visual arts. It has fascinated artists over the centuries, perhaps also because it comes close to the painter’s canvas by being both a surface and a depth. The only thing that painting cannot do is go through it. Let’s leave that to others…

And you, what do you think about it?

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