Most art history fans can readily recall which famous paintings stoked their love affair with the history of painting.
Girl Before a Mirror, one of the most famous Picasso paintings, sealed the deal for me.
Girl Before a Mirror is a vanitas, a painting genre that reminds viewers of imminent mortality and of the vanity of earthly pleasures.
Ironically, the woman featured is Marie-Therese Walter, the painter’s youthful mistress who appears in numerous Picasso paintings of the early 1930s.
Picasso shows her both in profile and frontally as she peers into a mirror that reflects a woman she isn’t.
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.
Although Girl was groundbreaking (more on that later), his use of a mirror was old stuff in art history.
Knowing that he frequented Italian and Parisian art museums, we can 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).
In this work, Madame Moitessier on the left appears pregnant or at the least, fertile and sensual, but the woman in the mirror, captured in profile, has a different torso and a darker, more mature face.
Jean-Auguste-Dominque Ingres. Portrait of Madame Ines Moitessier, 1856. Oil on canvas, 47 1/4″ by 36 2/4″. National Gallery, London.
Picasso goes farther with his vanitas. He simultaneously rejects classical art history – he and George Braque together jettisoned central perspective when they created Cubism – but also incorporates it.
Girl Before a Mirror is Pablo Picasso’s riff on a vanitas.
As noted by Laurie Schneider Adams, one French term for mirror is psyche, meaning soul. This may suggest that some Picasso paintings align the multiple views of Cubism with multiple psychological views. He is simultaneously showing the girl’s psyche and physical appearance.
The youthful girl on the left has two faces, one surrounded by a white halo and the other a crescent moon face. She raises her arms to embrace her reflected image, as if trying to unite the separate selves. In the mirror, she is reflected as a death’s head, an older woman with sunked eyes and a contorted body.
Or is the older woman gazing out at and yearning for her younger self in this Girl Before a Mirror?
As with so many Picasso paintings, there never will be a definitive answer. I prefer to conclude that the ambiguity is his 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 is pondering, anyway.
(1). Art Across Time, 2nd edition. New York: McGraw Hill, 2002, p. 893.
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