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:
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.
Or again, completely metamorphosed, so to speak, by Dali :
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.
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 :
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.
Even without these complex devices, artists are happy to use the mirror for their self-portraits. Thus in the young Parmigianino, Vuillard or Escher :
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.
In this image of the ageing artist, the reflection becomes as blurred as the images surrounding the mirror.
MC. Escher is reflected in a ball that deforms the space, in the same spirit as Parmigianino.
The process is also used by photographers.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Velasquez places a rectangular mirror on the back wall in which the faces of the rulers, probably posing for him, are reflected.
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.
While distorting reality, the artist creates a new landscape
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 :
It is thanks to the mirror in the rear-view mirror that the spectator understands why the characters are together.
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:
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.
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 :
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?
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
The central panel of a small polyptych evoking Earthly Vanity and Heavenly Redemption, this young girl with a mirror symbolises both vanity and lust.
The beautiful young woman who sees death reflected in her mirror symbolises Vanity, the fragility of beauty and the passing of time.
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.
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.
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 :
By extension, the mirror appears in certain representations of philosophers, evoking Marcus Aurelius’ « Look within yourself… ».
Finally, the mirror is the symbol of sight in the representation of the five senses.
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:
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?