Art history fans always seem to recall which famous paintings stoked their love affair with the history of painting.
One of the most famous Picasso paintings, Girl Before a Mirror, sealed the deal for me.
Girl Before a Mirror is a vanitas, a painting genre reminding viewers of imminent mortality and the vanity of earthly pleasures.
Ironically, the Girl Before a Mirror is Marie-Therese Walter, Picasso's youthful mistress and favored model in the 1930s. Picasso shows her both in profile and frontally as she peers into a mirror that reflects a woman she isn't.
Pablo Picasso. Girl Before a Mirror, 1932. Oil on canvas, 5'4" by 4' 3 1/4". Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Mrs. Simon Guggenheim.
Or could the older woman be gazing out at her younger self in this vanitas?
Although Girl Before a Mirror was groundbreaking (more on that later), his use of a mirror was old stuff in art history.
Knowing that Picasso frequented Italian and Parisian art museums, we can safely assume his familiarity with other famous paintings using mirrors, such as:
van Eyck's The Arnolfini Portrait (1434);
Petrus Christus' A Goldsmith in his Shop, Possibly St. Elegius (1449);
Parmigianino Self Portrait in a Mirror (1524); right;
Titian's Venus With a Mirror (ca. 1555);
Rubens' Venus at a Mirror (ca. 1615)
Diego Velazquez' Venus with a Mirror or Rokeby Venus (1647-51) and Las Meninas (1656);
Julie by Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun (1786);
Ingres' Portrait of Madame Moitessier (1856)
The Dance Class by Edgar Degas (1874);
Bar at the Folies-Bergeres by Edouard Manet (1882)
Mary Cassatt's Mother and Child or The Oval Mirror (ca. 1889)
Berthe Morisot's Before the Mirror (1890)
Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones The Mirror of Venus (1898);
Ingres' Portrait of Madame Moitessier (1856).
Part of Picasso's genius was concurrently rejecting classical art history - he and George Braque together jettisoned central perspective, used since the Renaissance, when they created Cubism - but also incorporating art history.
Girl Before a Mirror is Picasso's riff on the traditional vanitas.
The woman on the left appears pregnant or at the least, fertile and sensual. Her youthful,
Jean-Auguste-Dominque Ingres. Portrait of Madame Ines Moitessier, 1856. Oil on canvas, 47 1/4" by 36 2/4". National Gallery, London.
haloed profile contrasts with the moonlike, frontal view of her face in the mirror. The reflected woman, captured in profile, has a different torso and a darker, more mature face.
Girl Before a Mirror is a journey into psychological reality that has remained elusive despite significant art historical research and commentary.
As noted by Laurie Schneider Adams (Art Across Time, 2nd edition. New York: McGraw Hill, 2002, p. 893), one French term for mirror is psyche, meaning soul. This suggests, Adams argues, that Picasso aligned the multiple views of Cubism with multiple psychological views, simultaneously showing the girl's psyche and physical appearance.
I prefer to conclude that the ambiguity is Picasso's invitation to create one's own meaning.
Girl Before a Mirror reminds me of an insight from Madeleine L'Engle, author of Wrinkle in Time:
The great thing about getting older is that you don't lose all the other ages you've been.
I hope that this is what the Girl Before a Mirror is pondering, anyway.
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