Mirrors placed in paintings have been a tradition since the Renaissance, evolving through different artistic movements and periods. The scenes reflected in mirrors have puzzled historians and viewers alike because of their ambiguity and multiple interpretations. Below is a comparison and in-depth look at a variety of paintings that feature mirrors.
Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding Portrait, 1434
Can you spot the mirror? One of history’s most enigmatic paintings is the Arnolfini Wedding Portrait by Jan Van Eyck. It is known for having multiple layers of symbolism hidden within objects in the room.
The mirror is placed between the couple of Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife. It is in the center of the room and is encircled with the images of the Passion of Christ. Within the mirror, the viewer can see the backs of the couple, as well as two unidentifiable figures, one possibly Van Eyck himself.
These figures within the mirror allow Van Eyck to create a closed-in space while simultaneously expanding it. This allows the viewer to see different parts of the room otherwise unseen in a two-dimensional space. This also enables the viewer to see what else is happening within the room that would otherwise be hidden. The mirror acts as an eye, seeing everything that is taking place and relaying it back to us. The words above the mirror read “Johannes Van Eyck was here 1434” as a record that this event took place. This gives us the impression that we see the events as Van Eyck himself saw them.
Diego Velazquez’s Las Meninas, 1656
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Yet another painting that has mystified art historians is Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez. The mirror in this painting is located over the left shoulder of the painter who is Velazquez himself. The luminosity and white highlights are clues that it is indeed a mirror. The mirror uncovers the figures of King Philip IV and Queen Mariana of Spain. The couple is possibly standing in a doorway looking in on the scene before them. Another interpretation is that it is a reflection of the artist’s canvas.
The mirror reveals the presence of the king and queen in the room and establishes our place and perspective as the viewer. This is confirmed as Velazquez stares back at the viewer along with other members of the court. The acknowledgement of our presence allows the viewer to feel invited into the scene.
Compared to the Arnolfini Portrait, the reflection in this mirror is blurred and does not have as much detail. Velázquez was instead focusing on the actions of the scene he was depicting. Their fuzzy appearance represents movement and life just as he paints the other figures in this scene of the royal court.
Edouard Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergere, 1882
Do you see the tiny acrobatic feet hanging from the ceiling? How about the woman with a spyglass sitting at the counter? Unlike the previous paintings, the mirror at the Folies-Bergere by Édouard Manet takes up the majority of the painting. The notorious nightlife of Paris is in the background behind the barmaid. Within the swift and blurry brushstrokes, there are hidden details that portray the activities of the Folies-Bergere.
Our place as the viewer is unknown because of inconsistencies in the reflection in the mirror. For example, the barmaid’s reflection in the mirror is leaning towards a man on the right of the painting. The barmaid adds more mystery as she leans forward not towards us, but towards the man in the mirror. Manet creates mystery as we the viewer can only see this transaction taking place because of the mirror. Rather than drawing the viewer into the space, the barmaid stands guard and restricts our enjoyment of the scene.
Mary Cassatt’s Woman with a Sunflower, 1905
Woman with a Sunflower by Mary Cassatt depicts not one, but two mirrors. She creates an intimate portrait of the relationship between a mother and child. In this painting, we see a mother with her child in her lap playing with a mirror. In the small handheld mirror, both mother and child contemplate the child’s image with the child looking back at us.
The handheld mirror allows the viewer to see a frontal view of her face, rather than a side profile. The use of this mirror shows how the child sees herself as well as asking the viewer to stare back at the child.
The two mirrors show the difference between innocence or naiveté versus maturity and vanity. The mother in the painting looks at herself in a mirror to prepare herself before going out into society. It acts as a before and after of what the mother once was and what this child will eventually become.
Pablo Picasso’s Girl Before a Mirror, 1932
The painting Girl Before a Mirror is considered to be a masterpiece of Pablo Picasso. Like the previous paintings discussed, this painting has multiple interpretations and guesses as to what message Picasso is trying to convey. Unlike the other paintings, the mirror in this painting is a deliberate feature rather than an intriguing item. There are no hidden details within Girl Before a Mirror. The mirror is the main focus of the piece.
The woman featured on the left is clean and has lighter color conveying a put-together figure. On the opposite side there are rougher textures and darker colors. This is possibly representing the contrast between day and night, old vs. young, or how this woman truly views herself compared to how the world does.
What the viewer does not have is a clear perspective of where they should be looking compared to the other paintings. Instead the viewer is asked to look at the image as a whole to see the complete picture rather than sections of it. Girl Before a Mirror is an emotional response rather than a technical one. It depicts how mirrors can be used as a reflection of one’s emotions and inner thoughts rather than surface level appearances.
Rene Magritte’s Not to Be Reproduced, 1937
Rene Magritte’s Not to Be Reproduced is different compared to other works because it does not give a true reflection. The poet Edward James commissioned this painting to be a self-portrait. Next to the man is a copy of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Magritte was inspired by Edgar Allen Poe and used his writing as inspiration in other works.
The mystery in this painting lies in the fact that the viewer never sees the subject’s face. At first we see the back of a man’s head in front of the mirror. Upon closer inspection, the reflection is also the back of a man’s head. However, the book is reflected correctly, unlike the man. The title is ironic because the mirror does, in fact, reproduce the same image.
This painting relates back to traditional painting and original work. The fine detail in the hair and the book has a realistic approach reminiscent of the Arnolfini Portrait. Magritte is speaking to the idea that originality cannot be reproduced.
Norman Rockwell’s Girl at Mirror, 1954
The mirror featured in Girl at Mirror by Norman Rockwell is a simplistic approach to a complex subject. A girl is seen sitting in front of a wall mirror that is propped up by a chair. As the viewer, we have no indication as to where she is or where we are supposed to be. In her lap is a photo of actress Jane Russell and on the floor there are brushes and makeup. Her doll is cast aside while she focuses on herself through the mirror.
Even though there are no hidden figures inside this mirror, there are still clues as to how to interpret this painting. The girl’s white dress represents childhood and innocence. Her doll being put aside is the transition into becoming a young woman. The magazine and makeup are her tools toward the desire of wanting to be mature. Yet her face has a worried look and a sense of uncertainty.
The theme of womanhood is seen here as in Cassatt’s painting. However, in Girl at Mirror the child is pictured alone and having to contemplate herself without guidance. Her face has a worried look and a sense of uncertainty. Unlike Picasso’s painting, the girl cannot see how she wants to see herself. The image we see in this piece is clear and unwavering. It is just a young girl contemplating her appearance.