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Mirrors, like their reflections, can be ambiguous and even contradictory in their meaning. Do they show truth or illusion? Beauty or vanity? Self-reflection or shallowness? The answer is as mutable as the object itself: mirrors have been used to reflect all of those meanings and more in art.

Mariana in the South

Mariana in the South c.1897

John William Waterhouse (1849–1917)

Cecil French Bequest

Below are five key themes mirrors have reflected in art – and in their viewers, too.

Self

Mirrors have been around for as long as humans have enjoyed looking at themselves. Reflections could be found in polished obsidian, metal, and even water when needed, but the earliest known examples of obsidian mirrors date from around 6200 BC in modern-day Turkey. A recent analysis confirmed that the obsidian mirror used by Elizabethan advisor and occultist John Dee, now in the collection of the British Museum, was Aztec in origin.

Though mirrors became increasingly popular and could be obtained in almost any form or price from the sixteenth century, glass mirrors remained a luxury until the industrial advent of the nineteenth century.

Regardless of the form it takes, the mirror is a crucial tool for artists to paint themselves, an important starting point when learning how to depict other features and figures. Mirrors have proved especially useful for artists who couldn't afford or gain access to models, such as women artists who were barred from traditional art academies. An example is seen in an early fifteenth-century manuscript of Giovanni Boccaccio's 1361–1362 treatise De Mulieribus Claris (Concerning Famous Women), which illustrates the ancient Roman artist Marcia using a mirror to paint her self-portrait.

Illustration from Giovanni Boccaccio's 'De Mulieribus Claris'

Illustration from Giovanni Boccaccio's 'De Mulieribus Claris'

c.1403, by the Master of the Coronation of the Virgin

As humanism came in and respect for the artistic profession rose in the early modern era, self-portraits also became important signatures to express artists' identity and prestige. Early artists rarely showed the mirror in use, preferring to either erase or imply its presence by depicting themselves posed like any other sitter or gazing directly at the viewer. But those who did include it could pull the viewer into deeper questions about the work and what it means to look at someone's inverted image. By looking at a painted reflection, we are reminded of the painter's artistry, perspective, and power to shape what we see.

In My Studio Mirror

In My Studio Mirror 1952

Trevor Makinson (1926–1992)

Hereford Museum and Art Gallery

Trevor Makinson asserted his artistic identity by framing himself with the tools of the trade in In My Studio Mirror.

Self Portrait

Self Portrait 1909

George Frederick Harris (1856–1926)

Merthyr Tydfil Leisure Trust

George Frederick Harris' 1909 self-portrait achieves a similar goal by alluding to famous works like Parmigianino's Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror and Jan van Eyck's mirror from The Arnolfini Portrait.

Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror

Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror

c.1524, oil on convex panel by Parmigianino (1503–1540)

Vision

Artists have also used mirrors to look outward, symbolising sight and truth. Early modern personifications of truth often incorporated mirrors and scales, like the sombre, seventeenth-century painting of Truth Presenting a Mirror to the Vanities of the World.

Truth presenting a Mirror to the Vanities of the World

Truth presenting a Mirror to the Vanities of the World c. 1620–1630

Northern European School

The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology

The mirror's dark surface reflects the skull in front of it to show the transience of earthly life and pleasures. The same symbolism is found in allegorical images like Death and the Maiden, which depicts an old man surrounding a young woman with a skull and a mirror. The mirror shows both her and the skull looming over her shoulder, at once a heightened contrast between life and death and a vision of the inevitable future.

Death and the Maiden

Death and the Maiden c.1570

British (English) School

Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

In Lukas Furtenagel's 1529 portrait of the painter Hans Burgkmair and his wife Anna, Anna holds a mirror that reflects skulls where their grim faces should be.

The Painter Hans Burgkmair (1473–1531) and his Wife, Anna

The Painter Hans Burgkmair (1473–1531) and his Wife, Anna

1529, oil on limewood by Lukas Furtenagel (1505–1546)

More prosaically, mirrors can show off artists' skill at capturing depth, perspective, and light, like Herbert Davis Richter's Reflections in a Silver Bell or James Cowie's The Looking-Glass.

Reflections in a Silver Ball

Reflections in a Silver Ball c.1932

Herbert Davis Richter (1874–1955)

Rochdale Arts & Heritage Service

The Looking-Glass

The Looking-Glass c.1940–1950

James Cowie (1886–1956)

Glasgow Museums

They also add to the compositional playfulness or complexity of portraits – from a cheerful, homely watercolour of a baby...

Viola

Viola 1915

Alfred Usher Soord (1868–1915)

Bushey Museum and Art Gallery

... to the stark surrealism of John Humphrey Spender's photograph of Ben Nicholson.

Ben Nicholson

Ben Nicholson c.1935

John Humphrey Spender (1910–2005)

National Portrait Gallery, London

As a visual device, the mirror purports to expose deeper truths about their subject not readily apparent on the surface.

Illusion

Conversely – or perhaps convexly – mirrors can be associated with deception and trickery. Cornelis de Man used one to add depth to the Dutch genre painting A Game of Cards with a Woman Reflected in a Mirror, hinting at both deception within the game and the possibility of sexual stakes.

A Game of Cards, with the Woman Reflected in a Mirror

A Game of Cards, with the Woman Reflected in a Mirror

Cornelis de Man (1621–1706)

National Trust, Polesden Lacey

Artists also use mirrors to play benign tricks, creating visual illusions that enthral audiences and encourage them to contemplate the very idea of seeing and the limits of reality.

Las Méninas

Las Méninas

1656–1657, oil on canvas by Diego Velázquez (1599–1600)

Diego Velázquez's Las Meninas famously includes the Spanish King and Queen reflected in a mirror on the far wall, implying their entrance into the scene where the real-life viewer of the painting stands. This small detail adds to both the visual depth and political complexity of the work.

Portrait of Giovanni(?) Arnolfini and his Wife

Portrait of Giovanni(?) Arnolfini and his Wife 1434

Jan van Eyck (c.1380/1390–1441)

The National Gallery, London

The Arnolfini Portrait's central mirror adds similar nuance to its depiction of a newly married couple by introducing the reflections of two visitors entering the room where they stand.

Other works use mirrors to insist that appearances are not always what they seem, like Édouard Manet's A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. The apathetic barmaid appears to both face the viewer frontally and lean towards a customer in the mirror behind her that reflects the buzzing surroundings of the bar.

A Bar at the Folies-Bergère

A Bar at the Folies-Bergère 1882

Édouard Manet (1832–1883)

The Courtauld, London (Samuel Courtauld Trust)

Some scholars have proposed that Manet's perspective is actually an offset view, heightening the optical trick. However you look at it, the mirror's illusion reinforces the divide between internal and external realities and the barmaid's isolation within the roaring crowd.

Vanity

Allegorical images of women admiring themselves or performing their toilette in a mirror proliferated in European art, serving as a moral admonition against ego that remained popular over the centuries – especially as they often served a dual purpose by providing titillating subject matter for male viewers, too. These images embody the complex, gendered rules that demand beauty from women but punish the appearance of effort.

A Woman holding a Mirror

A Woman holding a Mirror 1625

Pieter Jacobsz. Codde (1599–1678)

The National Gallery, London

A figure-shaped 'dummy board', like this one, served as a life-size reminder of the vice of vanity in a seventeenth-century household, while a companion figure holding a broom promoted the virtue of industry.

Woman with a Mirror

Woman with a Mirror (dummy board) 1630–1650

unknown artist

Furniture Collection

Woman with a Broom

Woman with a Broom (dummy board) 1630–1650

unknown artist

Furniture Collection

In the same era, Gabriel Metsu's allegory of human frailty, A Woman at Her Mirror, warned women away from the dangers of focusing on physical instead of spiritual beauty.

A Woman at Her Mirror

A Woman at Her Mirror 1657–c.1662

Gabriel Metsu (1629–1667)

The Wallace Collection

Mirrors could easily reflect lust and beauty along with vanity, as in Velázquez's The Toilet of Venus and numerous idealised depictions of the goddess of love.

The Toilet of Venus ('The Rokeby Venus')

The Toilet of Venus ('The Rokeby Venus') 1647-51

Diego Velázquez (1599–1660)

The National Gallery, London

Velázquez's painting shows a reclining nude Venus gazing at her blurred reflection in a mirror held by her son, the love god Cupid. The sketchy brushwork in the mirror keeps the focus on her body in this scene intended for private titillation.

Similarly, the rosy-cheeked, bare-breasted woman in Paulus Moreelse's Allegory of Profane Love unabashedly points to her own reflection, symbolising material and sexual desires.

A Girl with a Mirror, an Allegory of Profane Love

A Girl with a Mirror, an Allegory of Profane Love 1627

Paulus Moreelse (1571–1638)

The Fitzwilliam Museum

Images of women at their toilet also featured heavily in eighteenth-century Japanese ukiyo-e prints by artists like Kitagawa Utamaro, designed to highlight beauty and pleasure.

c.1795, woodcut print by Kitagawa Utamaro (c.1753–1806)

Takashima Ohisa Using Two Mirrors to Observe Her Coiffure

c.1795, woodcut print by Kitagawa Utamaro (c.1753–1806)

Later paintings continued to follow the conventions of 'vanity' compositions, employing their mirrors and gestures to create works that chastised women for caring for their appearance and simultaneously objectified their bodies.

Nude Holding Mirror Adjusting Her Hair

Nude Holding Mirror Adjusting Her Hair

Georges van Houten (1888–1964)

Examination Schools, University of Oxford

This compounded sexism is apparent in works like Georges van Houten's Nude Holding Mirror Adjusting Her Hair.

Self Portrait with Mirror

Self Portrait with Mirror c.1962

Gwendolene E. Rodger

Edinburgh College of Art (University of Edinburgh)

However, some works by modern artists show women harnessing the power of the mirror for themselves, like Gwendolene E. Rodger's 1960s self-portrait.

Reflection

Mirrors can visualise emotional as well as physical realities, evoking deeper meanings in pensive and ambiguous scenes like David Muirhead's Girl at the Mirror.

Girl at the Mirror

Girl at the Mirror 1928

David Muirhead (1867–1930)

Royal Academy of Arts

Jane Urquhart's Britannia provokes further thought as well: the personified warrior stands draped in the Union Jack in the mirror, but beyond the glass surface we can see her crumpled newspaper wrapping, revealing the doll's wooden under-structure, and the drooping stalk of wheat she carries.

Britannia

Britannia 1968

Jane Urquhart (1947–1983)

The Wilson

What painting reflects, and what it doesn't, are up to the audience to decide. Reflections can also be imagined – Ken Currie's portrait of physicist Peter Higgs uses a large mirror to halo his ground-breaking work on the Higgs boson behind his head.

Peter Higgs (b.1929)

Peter Higgs (b.1929) 2008

Ken Currie (b.1960)

University of Edinburgh

And the surrealist René Magritte imagined a reflection as a translator between word and image in his Magic Mirror, which reveals the words 'corps humain' (human body) instead of a visual figure.

Le miroir magique (The Magic Mirror)

Le miroir magique (The Magic Mirror) 1929

René Magritte (1898–1967)

National Galleries of Scotland

The wonder (or terror) of mirrors is that they can reflect anything and everything: their meaning is what we see and paint in them. Something to reflect on next time you glance in one.

Anne Wallentine, writer, editor and art historian