Mirrors in Art

Mirrors in Art
Dating to ancient Greece, writers spoke of artists using mirrors as a practical tool. From illuminated manuscripts to modern art, I will discuss a subject that is akin to the familiar 'selfie'.

Iaia of Kyzikos was a female painter from ancient Greece (late 2ndc- early 1stc BC), mentioned by Pliny the Elder who wrote "she painted a portrait of herself with the aid of a mirror."

Iaia would have used a bronze mirror as glass mirrors weren't used until the early 15th century.

The oldest illuminated manuscript with the artist known as Marcia is from 1403. She was known for self-portraiture with the aid of a mirror. The image can be found in a French book, translated into English is "Book of Noble and Renowned Women."

Perhaps one of the most recognized paintings featuring a mirror is Jan van Eyck's "Arnolfini Wedding Portrait" (1434). It can be seen at the National Gallery, London, UK.

In 1507 a patent was awarded to brothers del Gallo from the island of Murano, near Venice, Italy.

Their invention was preceded by small convex mirrors, distorting the image. An example is Parmigiano's "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" (1524) where his hand is seen as distorted.

Venetian artists such as Giovanni Bellini and Titian began using mirrors from the early 1500s.

The model of Titian's "Woman with a Mirror" (1512-15) holds a small flat mirror while a convex mirror is held behind her. This painting can be seen at the Louvre, Paris.

Later we see Titian's spectacular "Venus with a Mirror" (1555) from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Cupid holds a mirror for the goddess of love's admiration of herself, or perhaps an onlooker. (Note her flushed cheeks.)

Vanity would become a popular theme, known as "Ladies at their toilet."

This subtle form of voyeurism was meant to capture the true, natural beauty of the female body.

Imagine the surprise (and perhaps delight) when a person could see their full-length reflection in a mirror. And if you had two mirrors, you could see your backside. Certainly, a time for self-recognition and self-awareness.

Two notable works by women artists from the late 16thc and early 17thc are Annibale Carracci's "Venus Adorned by the Graces" (1590-1595) and Orazio Gentileschi's "Two Women with a Mirror" (1620). The two women are believed to represent sisters Martha and Mary from the Bible.

Sir Peter Paul Rubens' "Venus with a Mirror" (1614-1615) portrays the goddess admiring herself, while we, the viewer admires her attributes.

Diego Valezquez continues the popular theme with "The Toilet of Venus" aka "Rokeby Venus" (1647). It remains as the only surviving painting of an unclothed female by the Spaniard. It can be seen at the National Gallery, London, UK.

Another recognizable painting featuring a mirror is Diego Velazquez's "Las Meninas" (1656) that (ingeniously) reflects the images of the King and Queen of Spain.

Modern artist George Seurat painted "Young Woman Powdering Herself" (1889-1890) in the pointillist style.

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