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Mirrors In Artwork: Showing Or Hiding Details?


Human nature is narcissistic, therefore majority of us have mirrors. Mirror has always been a subject that is often included in artwork. It brings along a note of mysticism, to hide some hint of someone or something, or on the contrary to mock some flaw. Apart from artistic features it could be just a challenge for the painter to make the mirror look natural on the painting. Self-portraits we are admiring now would not be possible at all without the mirrors. Van Eyck, Velazquez and Manet painted mirrors to show people who are not seen to the viewer’s eye, while Parmigianino and Vermeer used it to emphasize the technique of distorted perspective and their talent.

The Arnolfini Portrait

Jan Van Eyck reflected a wedding ceremony with the mirror on the background that has religious decorations om it. In the reflection of a room is painted with two people who might be just bypassing or being guests of the ceremony. Mirror has a signature of the artist, the choice of the signature place could let us assume that he wants the viewer to see the painting from the mirror perspective.

Jan van Eyck. Giovanni Arnolfini and His Wife (the Arnolfini Portrait). 1434.

Jan van Eyck. Giovanni Arnolfini and His Wife (the Arnolfini Portrait). 1434.

Las Meninas

In Diego Velazquez painting “The Maids of Honor” a mirror again allows to peak what is on the other side of the painting. One can see Infanta Margherita surrounded with people and the king and the queen on the other side being painted by the artist. Diego has reflected himself as well to make the viewer feel to be the one that is being painted.

Diego Velazquez. Las Meninas (the Maids of Honor), 1656

Diego Velazquez. Las Meninas (the Maids of Honor), 1656

Bar at the Folies-Bergere

Edouard Manet has reflected a French bar, showing in the mirror everything the bartender sees. The bartender is pictured from two different perspectives – the front and the back reflected in the mirror. The intention of this painting was to show the nightlife from the perspective of the bartender, the one not enjoying the night but making the night enjoyable for others.

Edouard Manet. A Bar at the Folies-Berger. 1881-1882

Edouard Manet. A Bar at the Folies-Berger. 1881-1882

Toilet of Venus

One of the most famous pictures of naked women is Velazquez’s “Toilet of Venus” or “The Rockeby Venus”, another alternative name – “Venus and Cupid”.
Cupid assists Venus by holding a mirror to let the goddess of love to admire herself. The goddess was not facing the viewer with the intention to hide who the model actually was, however a blurry reflection left in the mirror let the viewers’ imagination do the rest and give the goddess features they want to see.

Diego Velazquez. The Toilet of Venus. 1647-1651

Diego Velazquez. The Toilet of Venus. 1647-1651

Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror

Parmigianino used this painting to show off his talents to his future employer Pope Clement VII, by not only professionally reflecting the distorted perspective but also painting on a wooden panel, he actually is considered as one of the beginners of Mannerisms in art.

Francesco Mazzola, called Parmigianino. Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror. 1524

Francesco Mazzola, called Parmigianino. Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror. 1524

Music Lesson
On Johannes Vermeer’s painting a classic Dutch interior is reflected, as it comes to the couple on the painting the painter reflected a secret affection.

ohannes Vermeer. The Music Lesson or Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman. 1662-1665

ohannes Vermeer. The Music Lesson or Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman. 1662-1665

Vermeer uses mirror not only to enrich the painting with distorted perspective but also to show how short the earthly pleasures are, the moment is passing and leaving all in vain.