The convex mirror in the corner of my very favorite painting, The Goldsmith in His Shop by Petrus Christus, was not the only curved looking glass I saw in New York last weekend. During my time in the American period rooms, I spotted several Federal girandole mirrors, and in the paintings gallery I encountered a work by one of Christus’s near-contemporaries, The Marriage Feast at Cana (c. 1500-1504) by Juan de Flandes, and the charming Victorian painting In the Studio (1888) by Albert Stevens. Two very different paintings with similar mirrors in the background, projecting out to us, the viewers.
Of course Renaissance artists, particularly northern Renaissance artists, loved their mirrors and used them not only in their paintings but (probably) as a device to perfect their technical skills. The three most common examples of the “mirror painting” are Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait (1434, National Gallery, London), which never fails to produce an intense questioning scrutiny on the part of my students, The Money Changer and His Wife by Quentin Massys (1514, the Louvre), which is very reminiscent of The Goldsmith, and Parmigianino’s Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror (1524, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), which seems to capture the very essence of the Renaissance.
I had no idea that the use of the convex mirror persisted into the modern age until I saw the Stevens painting above. Apparently there was a revival in its appearance as a background emblem and device at the turn of the last century, exemplified perfectly in several works of the Irish artist William Orpen (1878-1931), generally classified as a portrait or “war painter” but obviously possessing a broad range of ability. I had never heard of Orpen before (shame on me) but did see his dashing Self-portrait (1910–a mirror, but not a convex mirror) at the Met last weekend and made a mental note to look him up. Then came my escalating convex fascination, which led me to his other works. Below is the Self-portrait, followed by The Mirror (1900, the Tate), A Mere Fracture (1901, with a girandole mirror in the background), and The Bloomsbury Family (1907, National Gallery of Scotland), with Orpen himself (just like van Eyck!!!) reflected in the convex mirror.
I’m really impressed with Orpen’s paintings, and apparently they impressed his contemporaries as well if my last painted convex mirror is any indication: the Australian artist George Lambert’s Convex Mirror, which really moves the mirror to the foreground, like Parmigianino’s Self-portrait above.
George Lambert, The Convex Mirror, 1916. National Gallery of Australia.
We did manage to do some shopping this past weekend, after the weather cleared to produce a glorious Sunday. At the John Derian shop I encountered (of course) more convex mirrors. Small and black-framed, and very elegant. I have some lovely period mirrors, gilt and brass and very Federal, but decidedly square and flat. Perhaps the cosmos is telling me that I need my own convex mirror. After the John Derian mirrors below are some high ($$$$, Richard Rothstein–a reproduction of the van Eyck mirror), moderate ($$$, Two‘s Company), and low ($$, West Elm) options for consideration.
November 3rd, 2011 at 8:27 am
I like the detail in The Moneychanger and his wife.
In the olden days, mirrors were very valuable and expensive. Not many people could afford them
November 3rd, 2011 at 8:37 am
Hi Donna, another fascinating post! Glad you have discovered Orpen, one of my favorite artists, I particularly love The Bloomsbury Family. I also love Massys Money Changer And his Wife. Wonderful mirrors too.
November 3rd, 2011 at 1:11 pm
I Love it when you go off on a tangent.. what a superb collection of everything, I have one of these mirrors. It is small and belonged to my great- grandmother. As a child i spent a lot of time moving my head in and out watching the changes in my face.. c
November 4th, 2011 at 10:46 am
Creating good art is difficult enough; to recreate images in a convex mirror must have been incredibly difficult. These are great examples of outstanding works, many of which I was unfamiliar with. Thanks for sharing.
May 8th, 2015 at 2:41 am
And have you seen the self portrait in a magic mirror of the French photographer Charles Nègre, from 1848! Did he knew the Arnolfini portrait? More about Nègre’s self portrait on: http://www.optischefenomenen.nl/blog/zelfportret-charles-negre-uniek-fotografisch-wonder
May 8th, 2015 at 12:41 pm
Thanks–I have not: checking it out now!