Culture and Civilisations

Reflections in an artist’s eye: seven great mirror-paintings 

Member ratings
  • Well argued: 94%
  • Interesting points: 96%
  • Agree with arguments: 96%
14 ratings - view all
Reflections in an artist’s eye: seven great mirror-paintings 

A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1881–1882) by Édouard Manet. Courtauld Institute of Art, London

In several famous Old Master paintings the mirror is more than a symbol of Vanitas. The artist, perfecting his own accurate representation of the image, uses the mirror’s capacity to reflect reality, while subtly altering or distorting it, and to create ambiguity and mystery. Van Eyck, Titian, Parmigianino, Velázquez and a modern master, Manet, all use mirrors to expand the boundaries of two-dimensional space. The mirrors reflect the pictorial illusion, revealing another viewpoint that cannot be seen directly, and enhance traditional perspective. They offer a picture within a picture that draws the viewer into the painting. These artists sometimes use mirrors to include reflections of themselves at work on the painting, as if teasing our sense of space and time. In every case the presence of the mirror intensifies our attention and engages our intelligence. 

Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait (1434, National Gallery, London), an oil on wood panel, is the earliest known painting to use a mirror-image. It was taken from the Netherlands to Spain, and was discovered after the Battle of Waterloo by a British officer, who sold it to the National Gallery in 1842. The painting depicts an Italian couple, the severe Giovanni Arnolfini and his young bride Giovanna Cenami. A native of Lucca working in Bruges, he was, as one can immediately tell from his fur-trimmed costume and lavish surroundings, a wealthy silk and textile merchant, as well as a capitalist who lent money to the Duke of Burgundy. 

The Arnolfini Portrait (1434) by Jan van Eyck (National Gallery)

The convex mirror on the rear wall, which seems to be part of the chamber’s décor, is crucial to the meaning of the painting. It is circled by a band of blue and white stones, and by ten small decorative medallions that depict Christ’s Passion from the Garden of Gethsemane to the Resurrection. It is framed below by the arc of the couple’s joined white hands and gracefully extended arms, on the sides by the hanging crystal rosary beads and whisk broom, and above by van Eyck’s elaborate signature — “Jan van Eyck was here”: fuit hic (not the usual “Jan van Eyck made this”: fecit hic) — and by an ornate polished brass chandelier with a single lit candle. 

The mirror shows the rear view of the couple, framed by a concave cruciform window, the dependent chandelier, a red-curtained canopy bed and two tiny richly-dressed men as they enter the room through a small door. Arnolfini raises his right hand to welcome van Eyck (who truly “was here”) and the other guest, witnesses to the marriage ceremony that begins when they arrive. The lively silky-haired griffon terrier in the centre foreground, perhaps the earliest portrait of a dog in Western art, acknowledges their arrival. In his monograph on the painting, Edwin Hall concludes: “The inscription of the Arnolfini double portrait encourages us to look even more closely at the mirror, which by its distorted reflection draws the viewer further into the picture while at the same time extending our vision out from and beyond the frontal plane of the panel.”

Titian’s Young Woman with a Mirror (1515) was owned by the Gonzagas of Mantua, Charles I of England, a Parisian banker and Louis XIV, before finally settling in the Louvre. Titian uses the mirror to create a portrait in the round and display various aspects of his subject. He portrays a seated woman in three-quarter length, who tilts her head to her right and holds a thick strand of her long brown wavy hair with the extended fingers of her right hand. She has large brown eyes, a straight nose, rosy cheeks, sensual red lips and a pensive expression. 

Beneath an expanse of white flesh, she wears a low-cut pleated white blouse with wide hanging sleeves, a v-parted bodice supporting her full breasts, a tight cincture and heavy dark skirt with wide folds. A shadowy male hairdresser (not the usual maidservant), with beard and ruffled jacket, stands behind her, speaks to her and assists in her toilette. He surrounds her with two mirrors. He holds a small flat rectangular one in his right hand and, with his extended left arm behind her head, holds a large round convex mirror, which reflects her head and back and a bright window in front of her. The man looks attentively at her while she looks into the small mirror, and we look at both her and the large mirror. 

Paul Joannides suggests the complexity of the image: “Titian uses the mirrors with a deliberate poetic vagueness, to evoke multiple beauty, different visions of the same woman, but without showing them in detail. . .  The woman studies herself in a mirror, which also reflects another mirror behind her, and as she changes focus from one to the other she sees revealed not merely herself from the front and the rear but, in wide angle, the scope of the world in front of her. The painting is as much about mental as physical reflection.”

Titian’s Venus with a Mirror (1555) was sold to a contemporary Italian, bought by Czar Nicholas I for the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg and acquired by the American industrialist Andrew Mellon, who gave it to the National Gallery in Washington DC in 1937. Painted some forty years after the earlier work, it has a mythological subject and reveals a tremendous advance in technique, interest and meaning.

The sumptuous nude goddess, with elaborately braided and bejewelled hair (one strand drops lightly to her shoulder), has a headband decorated with pearls, dangling pearl earrings, gold bracelets and rings. Seated on a striped divan, she’s covered from the waist down by a burgundy-coloured velvet shawl, which is trimmed with gold and silver threads and lined with fur. She looks to her left in three-quarter profile, covers her left breast with her left arm and spread fingers, and leaves her right breast and sensual belly exposed above her right arm that rests in a modest gesture on her lap.

Venus with a Mirror, Titian, 1555 (Shutterstock)

Two chubby grey-winged naked cupids, standing on the divan and reaching the height of her eyes, attend and actively engage their divine mother. Their quivers and arrows rest at their feet. One blond curly-haired little fellow familiarly places one hand on her shoulder and reaches up to crown her with a garland of flowers. The brown-haired cupid raises before her, with both hands, a tall flat ebony-framed mirror. The weight of the heavy mirror makes him bend his knees and sink his feet into the divan.

Offering another angle to look at the stunning Venus, his ideal beauty, Titian uses the mirror to show the left side of her hair and eyes (mostly hidden in profile) and the upper part of her soft shoulder. The cupid encourages her to contemplate her own reflection as she reflects on her opulent beauty and the erotic effect it has on her admirers — the viewers. 

Parmigianino painted his Mannerist Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) in 1524 when he was only 21 years old. Vasari recorded that for this unusual circular picture the painter “had a ball of wood made, and cutting it out to make it of the same size and shape as the mirror, he set to work to copy everything he saw there, including his own likeness, in the most natural manner imaginable. As things near the mirror appear large while they diminish as they recede, he made a hand with wonderful realism, somewhat large, as the mirror showed it. Being a handsome man, with the face of an angel rather than a man, his reflection in this ball appeared divine. He was most successful with the lustre of his glass, the reflections, shadows and lights, in fact human ingenuity could go no farther.” 

Both realistic and distorted — like Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533) — Parmigianino achieved his trompe loeil effect by simulating the curve of a convex mirror on the surface of the small round panel. The young man stands near the mirror that rounds out the leaded window, bent to form a skylight, and the coloured panelled ceiling just above his head. He has reddish shoulder-length hair parted in the middle and curled beneath his ears, pale rose-tinted cheeks, widely spaced heavy-lidded grey eyes on slightly different planes, light glinting off his bold straight nose, pursed cupid-bow lips, firm chin, curly white-silk collar, outsize sleeve ruff and fur-trimmed coat. Decorated with a coral ring, his disproportionately large hand and elongated fingers — a sign of artistic proficiency — spread across the foreground in a mysterious gesture that both invites and excludes the viewer. In this chest-length, full-face portrait, the angelic artist, looking slightly to the left at his own reflection, has a wise-for-his-years expression and a soft, gentle, innocent, dreamy, androgynous, even girlish appearance. Delicate and elegant, the picture evokes surprise and astonishment. David Ekserdjian, Professor of Art and Film History at the University of Leicester and a leading authority on the Italian Renaissance, notes that “the gold-framed form to the painter’s extreme left is the portrait the viewer is admiring, set up on the artist’s easel.”

John Ashbery begins his long ambitious poem of 1972, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, with a precise description. As Parmigianino did it, the right hand 

Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer 

And swerving easily away, as though to protect 

What it advertises. A few leaded panes, old beams, 

Fur, pleated muslin, a coral ring run together 

In a movement supporting the face, which swims 

Toward and away like the hand 

Except that it is in repose. 

Ashbery calls Parmigianino’s work “the first mirror portrait,” though Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait preceded it by a century. 

Ashbery was attracted to the picture by what Arnold Hauser called Parmigianino’s “virtuoso, precious, playful artistry, the light and gentle flow of his line, his sensuous delicacy of draftsmanship and voluptuousness of form, his feminine sensibility and erotic subtlety.” In his 1964 review of Parmigianino’s drawings, Ashbery praised “the almost supernatural refinement . . . the sense of the mystery behind physical appearances.” The beauty of the narcissistic young man reflected the poet’s ideal self. Ashbery once told me he chose this painting because he “thought the subject was cute”. The portrait, a celebration of himself, is a tribute to Parmigianino’s precocious talent, brilliant technique, physical beauty and personal charm.

Venus at Her Mirror (1650, National Gallery, London), Velázquez’s only nude, was influenced by Titian. Though Italy and Spain were both Catholic countries, the former gloried in nudes, while the latter suppressed them. Lying fully extended with one leg tucked beneath the other, Venus turns her back to the viewer and reveals her pink and ivory skin, narrow waist rising to full hips and rounded bottom — all highlighted by the dark, wavy, satin-covered bed. She rests her head on her right arm, has tied her reddish-brown hair into a bun, and shows only the left cheek, eye and ear of her face. Her sinuous body expresses her sensual character. 

Venus at Her Mirror (The Rokeby Venus) by Velazquez (1644)

The diagonal of her pose leads to her son Cupid. The white-winged, curly-haired boy kneels on the bed in front of her, his head tilted and belly slightly distended. His crossed hands hold the corner of a flat silvered mirror resting in a heavy dark frame. His pink ribbons hang over it and a rose-red curtain drops behind him. The mirror reveals Venus’ slightly blurred full face, the left side in shadow, and the ruffled white sheet in front of her. We now observe her contemplating herself, but the frontal nude, which we hoped to see, remains hidden. A more explicit exposure would have led Velázquez directly to punishment by the Spanish Inquisition.

Velázquez’s masterpiece Las Meninas (The Maids of Honour, 1656, Prado, Madrid) portrays at the centre the stiff little blonde-haired five-year-old Infanta Margarita, daughter of the king and queen. Her left hand rests on her narrow-waisted, grey-satin, wide-hooped gown decorated with black lace and salmon-pink ribbons. Both a charming child and high-born noble, she’s attended by two kneeling maids, one of whom offers her a drink on a tray. 

Visitors at the Prado view the painting “Las Meninas” by Velazquez (PA Images)

The entourage, following the rigid formality of the Spanish court, includes an ugly but nicely dressed megalocephalic dwarf to set off their beauty, and another, more childlike dwarf with extended hands, looking down at and resting one foot on a large crouching earth-coloured mastiff.  A woman in a nun’s habit and steward stand behind them whispering in the shadows. A courtier, dressed in black, pauses in the rear and turns on the yellow steps for a last look back before leaving the dark high-ceilinged room and walking into the bright light behind him.

The large flat heavy black-framed mirror on the back wall reflects the half-length dim image but strong presence of King Felipe IV and Queen Mariana of Austria, who are watching the maidens in front of them. Velázquez himself is a handsome gentleman — painted from a mirror — with long black hair, high forehead, winged moustache and full lips. He tilts his head backwards to see better, wears a black doublet over shiny grey satin, and proudly displays on his chest the red cross of the Order of Santiago, bestowed by the king. He holds a palette and a spear-like brush, stands before a gigantic wood-framed canvas twice as tall as himself, and with a mirada fuerte concentrates on creating this ambitious painting. 

His dazzling technique forces the viewers of the painting to shift their perspective, almost simultaneously, from the maids of honour and their companions, to the courtier leaving the room, to the two royal figures (who can see their own image reflected in the mirror) and, most significantly, to the figure of Velázquez himself. Viewers don’t realise at first that the maids are not the true subject of the picture. All eight members of the royal household watch the artist paint the king and queen, who are there and yet not there. The monarchs, who elicit their reactions, gestures and expressions, both stand before them and are reflected in the mirror.

The distorted reflection of the mirror in Edouard Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882, Courtauld Institute, London), one of his finest paintings, is the most celebrated example of his illusionism. The Folies was a grand café, garden promenade and theatre that featured ballets, pantomimes, acrobats and musical performances. In the background of Manet’s palace of pleasure, a well-dressed crowd in the balcony, under bright moons of light and a huge glittering chandelier, gazes at the spectacle and at each other.

The sombre, imposing and monumental barmaid dominates the foreground. She has long blonde bangs, rosy complexion and melancholy expression. She wears a black neck ribbon with locket, a gold bracelet, and a handsome, low-cut, lace-trimmed black velvet jacket that accentuates her full bosom, wasp waist and ample hips. The barmaid leans on the marble counter, decorated with a vase of flowers that complement those fastened on her breast, and offers her tempting wares: a delicious bowl of tangerines, as appealing as her own fresh face, and colourful bottles that range from Bass ale and vin rosé to green Chartreuse and golden-foiled champagne.

Behind her, and extending for the entire length of the four-and-a-quarter foot painting, is the gold frame of an enormous mirror. The French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty called a mirror “the instrument of a universal magic that changes things into spectacles, spectacles into things, me into others, and others into me.” We, the viewers, stand opposite the barmaid on the other side of the counter and, looking at the reflection in the mirror, see exactly what she sees. Her own reflection, however, is not directly behind her, according to the strict rules of perspective, but at a right angle to where she is standing. It reveals her long hair, cheek, collar, skirt and back as she serves and chats with a moustached male customer in a silk top hat. A critic has noted that Manet’s “preliminary study shows her placed off to the right, whereas in the finished canvas she is very much the centre of attraction.” Though Manet shifted her from the right to the centre, he kept her reflection on the right. Seen in the mirror, she seems engaged with a customer; in full face, she’s protectively dreamy, withdrawn and remote.

Two literary critics have offered suggestive interpretations of this enigmatic painting. Roger Shattuck observed that “standing between two worlds, dejected without being tragic, the barmaid is lost between reality and illusion.”  Enid Starkie wrote that the barmaid “expresses all the sadness and the weariness of a Baudelairean character as she gazes out at ‘le spectacle ennuyeux de limmortel péché’ (the tedious spectacle of immortal sin)”. Unlike her customers, we are not lining up to buy a drink, looking at the bottles and deciding what to choose. We look directly at her and focus our attention on her rosy oval face. We notice her world-weary, disillusioned expression and see her as a sensitive and forlorn woman. Dispensing pleasure but receiving none herself, the barmaid knows instinctively that the Folies is well-named.

In 1882 Manet was seriously ill with tertiary syphilis, yet at the peak of his power as an artist. This masterpiece suggests the inexorable progress of his fatal disease, the shadows closing in. There is music and laughter amid the bright lights of the dance hall and bar, yet the barmaid’s steady gaze and black dress convey deep sadness. The fashionable gentleman reflected in the mirror represents the possibility of the barmaid’s escape from one kind of servitude into another, though more luxurious, form of human bondage. Yet, as Shakespeare wrote, “the prince of darkness is a gentleman.” The gentleman at the bar, approaching the barmaid from an unexpected angle and appearing in an oblique reflection, is also a figure of Death. The painting is Manet’s farewell to the follies of love and the pleasures of life, and the viewer shares his regret and mourns the loss of a superb talent.

The seven paintings by these five great artists reveal the universal magic of the mirror in art. Van Eyck’s mirror reveals the perfection of detail as the visitors enter; Titian employs it for eroticism and self-contemplation; Parmigianino uses it to create a distorted and self-satisfied self-portrait; Velázquez cunningly exposes partial nudity, and discreetly paints his royal masters who remain outside the picture; Manet’s mirror reflects a dramatic encounter with his own impending death.

A Message from TheArticle

We are the only publication that’s committed to covering every angle. We have an important contribution to make, one that’s needed now more than ever, and we need your help to continue publishing throughout the pandemic. So please, make a donation.


Member ratings
  • Well argued: 94%
  • Interesting points: 96%
  • Agree with arguments: 96%
14 ratings - view all

You may also like