The privileged and affluent have always loved shiny things, reflective surfaces from tiny gems to large mirrors. For the realist painter, these present challenges that often bring them into displays of technical skill, paintings rich with highlights and reflections from china, glassware, polished metal, and the occasional mirror. Because they reflect our own image, the only opportunity before photography that we got to see our face, mirrors are also a bit magical or even divine.
They briefly became part of the repertoire of the skilled realist in the Northern Renaissance.
A large convex mirror is one of the most captivating features in Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait from 1434, shown in the detail below as appearing optically faithful.
The optics of reflections in mirrors may be confusing to most of us, but their geometry isn’t normally that complex. Although reflections weren’t commonly painted during the Renaissance, they soon came to feature what’s now known as the Venus Effect, arising in images in which the viewer sees a figure and their reflection (most typically of their face) in a mirror. There’s a strong tendency among viewers to believe that the figure is looking at their own reflection, and to completely misread the optical trickery employed by the artist in creating the image. This is thought to be the result of the viewer being able to see the figure’s reflection. This is best understood by examples.
Although often illustrated by one of Titian’s paintings of Venus, the canonical example must be Velázquez’ Venus at Her Mirror, also known as The Toilet of Venus or the Rokeby Venus, from 1644-48. It shows the goddess Venus, whose face is blurred in a false reflection in a mirror being held by her son Cupid. The theme was common, seen in paintings by Titian and Rubens, with Venus sat upright. Giorgione and others had posed her reclining and facing the viewer, making her pose here unusual. Most other paintings of Venus set her in a landscape: here she rests on luxurious even sensuous fabrics.
No matter how convincing her face might appear in the mirror, a moment spent placing yourself in the same position confirms that the image in the mirror is wholly imaginary, and optically incorrect.
There are several good early examples, seen in allegorical paintings of sight, for instance.
Frans Floris’s Allegory of Sight was probably painted around 1550, making it an early and quite sophisticated entry to the subject. The face of its figure is shown reflected in the only appropriate optical instrument of the day: a simple mirror, carefully angled to project most of the face. Although only a small feature, that reflection looks fiendishly difficult, given the wildly different angle between the mirror and the picture plane. In this case, what’s shown in the mirror is optically plausible.
This painting of Sight has been attributed to Abraham Janssens, and could date to any time between about 1590 and 1632. It appears to have been inspired by Floris’s Allegory of Sight, and the reflection of the woman’s face in the mirror doesn’t appear optically correct.
No account of reflections in painting can omit Caravaggio’s brilliant Narcissus of 1594-96, which uniquely combines chiaroscuro with reflection to tell the story of Narcissus so powerfully.
Mirror play using the Venus Effect has also appeared in paintings of the Old Testament stories of David and Bathsheba, and of Susannah and the Elders.
Hans von Aachen’s David and Bathsheba of about 1612-15 introduces a figure standing behind Bathsheba, holding a mirror in front of her face with his outstretched left arm. A glance at that reflection says that something is seriously amiss: von Aachen has painted a reflection in which Bathsheba is looking to the left, although her face is actually looking to the right. No single plane mirror could ever achieve that optical impossibility.
Tintoretto’s Susannah and the Elders from about 1555 goes further with mirror play. Susannah has been caught as she is drying her leg after bathing in the small pool beside her, looking at herself in a rectangular mirror, which is propped up against a rosy trellis in a secluded part of her garden. Unlike in other paintings of nudes, neither the image seen in the mirror nor the reflection on the water show anything more of Susannah.
More conventional use was made of the Venus effect during the nineteenth century.
JW Waterhouse’s Mariana in the South from about 1897 stands her in front of a full-length mirror revealing her face to the viewer.
Laura Theresa Alma-Tadema’s A Knock at the Door, also from 1897, shows an attractive young woman checking that she is looking at her best in a mirror, before receiving a visitor. Once again it is the reflection that shows her face, and we’re struggling to be sure whether this is optically correct.
Of more modern artists, it was Pierre Bonnard who used mirrors most inventively, and explored the bounds of the Venus effect. Here are three of his more tantalising examples.
Bonnard’s unusual composition in this Interior from about 1905 doesn’t show the woman’s back in the mirror, but a chair placed quite deliberately in front of the mirror and Bonnard himself, not painting but sat at a table.
In his Woman Getting Dressed from 1906, it’s the mirror at the left that reveals the subject, who is sat beyond the right edge of the painting, getting dressed. Venus has here become a pile of discarded clothing.
For Reflection or The Tub in 1909, Bonnard adopts an elevated position, looking down into an angled plane mirror. The reflection almost fills the canvas, with the nude Marthe crouching slightly in the upper left corner, as she dries herself after a bath.
This carefully contrived angle of view plays some odd tricks. The washing bowl on the dressing table is brought to overlie the larger shallow bathtub on the floor, for example. Some of the objects on the dressing table are shown directly, others only in the reflected image. And over on the opposite side of the room is a chair, and a coffee tray.
I finish with one of the most ingenious and haunting uses of reflections, those revealing a self-portrait of the pioneering still life artist Clara Peeters.
Her still life with Flowers and Gold Cups of Honour from 1612 reveals multiple miniature self-portraits reflected in the gold cup at the right. These are shown more clearly in the detail below.
By far the most difficult and impressive examples of reflections are those seen in nature on water surfaces, the subject of the next article.