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  • Writer's pictureRomina Rosso

Van Eyck and The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood: Reflection in a mirror

Updated: Apr 10, 2021

Jan Van Eyck, The Arnolfini Portrait, 1434, National Gallery, London

In 1843, after it was bought, the painting arrived in the National Gallery and it is one of the masterpieces in the museum: The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan Van Eyck, painted and signed by the artist in 1434.

The painting was the first Flemish artwork to enter in the collection of the National Gallery and one of the oldest one as the other Flemish paintings were dated from the 16th century and they were different in subject and style.

Van Eyck was admired for his technique and he was considered the father of the oil paint.

The painting shows his meticulous oil painting technique, the brilliant colours and the extraordinary rendering of reflected light.

The subject, not the usual religious scene, depicts a private event of real people showing their status and wealth in all the precious objects in the room with mysterious and enigmatic meanings that attracted painters, critics and the Victorian society.

In the painting, the room is highly detailed and in the centre there is a convex mirror which reflects behind the couple, two standing men, one is presumably the artist. At that period, small convex mirrors were common in the Flemish houses and they were placed usually closed to doors or windows to create special light effect in the rooms.

The mirror has several moral and religious meanings but the presence of these two men close to the married couple has the meaning of seal as witness the wedding and probably for this reason it is important the date and the signature of the painter.

Jan Van Eyck, The Arnolfini Portrait, detail of the Mirror

The mirror in this work has a revolutionary effect, allowing to open the space 360° in a bidimensional canvas. This illusionism inspired a new generation of artists and their successors.

Among them there were three young students of the Royal Academy of Arts that, at that period, was in the same building of the National Gallery, providing a really easy access for the students to the artworks. Their names were Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt.

The three painters were deeply inspired by the new art of Van Eyck and they decided to form a new art movement known as The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

The revolutionary movement has the purpose to break the academic system based in the classical art of Raphael, in the static rules of the pyramidal prospective, with in the centre the subject and the shadows in one side of the painting, and the classical standard of beauty.

The Pre-Raphaelites break the prospective and look at the medieval art till Raphael thinking about that as a much closer art to the real world and nature. Their early subjects were religious and catholic and for this reason very scandalous in the protestant England, later they focus in literary subjects (Shakespeare and Tennyson were the favourite writer) till arrived in contemporary matters: life in the city, the role of woman in society and prostitution, subjects done twenty years before the Impressionists.

Women were really active in the movement as models, artists, artisans, poets, wives, partners and sisters of the Pre-Raphaelites. They gave inspirations and they were creative artists in the movement.

Van Eyck seduce the Pre-Raphaelites with the effect of the convex mirror and taught them a new method to paint the illusory and real space. The mirror allows to duplicate the internal space with the reflection and to create an internal domestic space more involving and mysterious.

Few objects have so many symbolic meanings as the mirror.

In the art history it was used as the allegory of Vanitas (Vanity) and Pride, symbol of prudence, knowledge or Illusion; a place where create you and the conscience of yourself and at the same time split the real subject with the ideal image as a passage between a real world and an imaginary one.

The use of the mirror in art allows the contraposition between the eyes and the gaze, the visible and the understanding, outward appearance and inner reality.

It gives the opportunity to expand the space showing what it is not possible to see and it is not present in the visual field painted but it is visible to the viewers through the reflection in the mirror.

The Pre-Raphaelites used the reflection in convex mirror in different ways in their works: for some it was used to intensify and increase the reality, for others in an introspective way in their self-portraits or to examine in depth literary subjects of famous legends.

William Hunt and Edward Burne-Jones used the convex mirror to expand the space and reflect the part that it is not visible to the viewer. Convex mirrors were really fashionable in the home furnishings of the Victorian middle class.

William Holman Hunt, Il dolce far niente, 1866
Edward Burne-Jones, Portrait of Margaret Burne-Jones, 1885-86, Private collection

Hunt in the painting Il dolce far niente depicted his girlfriend of the time Annie Miller (later he retained her hair but replaced her face with that of his wife Fanny) who appears to be looking directly at the spectator, is in fact gazing into the fireplace, thus making this painting yet another Victorian representation of the contemplative or dreaming woman. The painting, as the one of Van Eyck, is also showing the attention to the little details as the fabrics, furniture, curtains and flowers.

Burne-Jones in the painting of his daughter Margaret Burne-Jones depicted her sitting in front of a huge convex mirror that allows to see the opposite side of the room illuminated by a window. The mirror seems as a halo around her head and focuses the attention to the blue eyes of the girls, as her blue medieval style dress and the blue sweet-pea flower, all homages to the technique of Van Eyck.

The Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood was also a literary and poetic movement and one of the favourite sources of inspiration for almost all the artists was a poem of Alfred Tennyson titled the Lady of Shalott.

The poem is loosely based on the Arthurian legend and medieval short prose text as Donna di Scalotta.

It tells the tragic story of Elaine of Astolat, a young noblewoman stranded in a tower up the river from Camelot. She suffers from a mysterious curse and she can see the real world just reflected through a mirror without ever looking directly out at the world. One day while she was weaving, she saw reflected in the mirror a couple and a beautiful Knight named Lancelot. She stopped weaving and looked out of her window towards Camelot, the mirror brakes bringing about the curse.

Knowing that she will die, she leaves her tower, finds a boat upon which she writes her name, and floats down the river to Camelot. She dies before arriving at the palace. Among the knights and ladies who see her is Lancelot, who thinks she is lovely.

The Pre-Raphaelites were fascinated by the poem and they divided between those that prefer to paint the young woman in the tower and those that prefer to recreate her dramatic death.

Sidney Harold Meteyard and John William Waterhouse in 1913 and in 1918 painted the same subject titled

I am half-sick of shadows. These paintings depict an earlier point in the tale of the Lady of Shalott where the Lady is still confined in her tower, weaving a magical tapestry. The Lady is depicted in her drama: the sadness and tiredness of the real world that she can see just reflected in a mirror like a shadow in her world.

Sidney Harold Meteyard, I am half-sick of shadows,1913,Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

Meteyard painted the Lady in blue with closed eyes while she is dreaming about the external world but in her tapestry is already depicted Lancelot in a gold armour, the maker of her sad destiny.

In Waterhouse’s painting the Lady wears a red dress with the hand cross in her head as a sign of tiredness and rest of her weaving, in the mirror it is possible to see the towers of Camelot.

John William Waterhouse, I am half-sick of shadows, 1915 Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto

The young woman is in a room with Romanesque columns holding up the arches of the window, the room is dark but the colours of the tapestry are vividly and shining as the one in the external world.

A single poppy is reflected in the mirror and the shuttles of the loom resemble boats, foreshadowing the Lady's death.

William Hunt, John William Waterhouse and Elizabeth Siddal painted the part of the poem when the Lady of Shalott saw in the mirror Lancelot. The sight of the handsome knight and the sound of him singing draws her away from her loom to the window bringing down the curse upon her as the mirror cracked.

Elizabeth Siddal, the famous model of Ophelia by Millais, who married Rossetti in a complicated relationship that ended with her tragic suicide, depicted the young Lady of Shalott as an innocent woman who turned towards the window and the mirror behind her starts to crack.

Elizabeth Siddal, The Lady of Shalott 1857, Maas Gallery Collection, London

The version of Hunt is much more complex and dramatic. It is the moment in which the curse starts, the weaving is breaking, trapping her in its threads as a femme fatale. Her flowing hair are moved by the wind that is moving some couple of doves that are going towards the tapestry in ruin as it is her life.

William Holman Hunt, The Lady of Shalott, c. 1888–1905, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford
John William Waterhouse, The Lady of Shalott Looking at Lancelot, 1894, Leeds City Art Gallery

The composition of the Lady of Shalott 1894 by Waterhouse is similar to the one of Hunt but he placed in the middle the mirror. The young woman dressed in white has a golden thread bound around her legs, symbolizing that she cannot escape from her fate. Waterhouse creates a sense of compassion for the Lady who seems surprised, unaware of her fatal destiny. The black flowers in the floor are a reminder of her future death.

Following the example of the Pre-Raphaelites also William Orpen and Mark Gertler used the convex mirror but for an introspective study of their self-portraits.

Orpen in his work Mirror used as sitter his girlfriend Emily Scoble. The room is apparently an accurate portrayal of Orpen’s lodgings, but the shallow pictorial depth and decorative, or ‘aesthetic,’ arrangement of objects is based on Whistler’s famous portrait of his mother in profile. The circular mirror on the wall reflects the artist painting at his easel.

Mark Gertler’s Still Life with Self Portrait 1918 portrait raises a curious question. By painting a reflective self-portrait in the still life genre, Gertler seems to suggest that he, like the open bag of fruit spilled in front of the mirror in his painting, will someday decay and pass from this life. The Japanese samurai depicted to the right of the mirror underscores this, as the warrior appears to aggressively bring down his katana upon Gertler’s reflection.

William Orpen, Mirror,1900, Tate Modern, London
Mark Gertler, Still Life with Self Portrait, 1918, Leeds Art Gallery

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