The lost mirror of Jan van Eyck

I couldn’t avoid in this blog writing about Arnolfini Portrait (see The First Mirror in Oil) and I also added a less obvious work to the list, the famous Annunciation panels by Van Eyck (see Marble Mirror of Jan van Eyck).

Let’s have a look on one much less known work of the master – see above.  This painting, often referred as Woman at her Toilet, or Lady at her Bath, is widely attributed to van Eyck, although the exact attribution is problematic.

This work was painted in 1434, the same year as the Arnolfini Wedding (or Betrothal, I should say). However, the original version of the painting is believed to be lost, and what is stored today in the Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge, MA, is a copy of a much larger painting by van Eyck. It could be a also study for this larger work, or a copy made later, either during his life, or soon after his death in 1441, presumably by the members of his workshop.

We know that this work existed also because it was depicted (and described as belonging to van Eyck) on another painting, the Archduke Albert Visits the Kunstkammer of Cornelius van der Geest, by Willem van Haecht (1628).

The first immediate question about is Where did he get such a huge mirror? It’s even bigger than the one we see on the Arnolfini Wedding. This mirror is indeed huge, and thus should be very expensive, so it could belong to a very wealthy family only. Which leads to the next questions: What’s going one here? Who’s this lady (ladies, even)? Why are we invited to witness apparently very private, very intimate a process? (And of course – How likely that we see here Ms. Arnolfini again?) Unfortunately, only speculative answers to all these questions exist, since little is known about this painting with certainty.

Speaking about ‘art mirrors’, we can spot here another theme, or a method, of depicting mirrors in the paintings, that was introduced here by van Eyck; we can call it The Butterfly.

The figure of the lady is presented almost frontally on the painting and then the mirror, well, mirrors her, supposedly creating a symmetrical, butterfly-like image (or a Rorschach inkblot, if you like this metaphor better). Art Mirror Strategy 1 B (B is for Butterfly).

Here we don’t see a full butterfly, but only because of the size of the mirror.

Ot do we? Technically speaking, mirrors create ‘butterflies’ of a very particular type. Let’s have a look at this picture. This is how a ‘proper’ mirror butterfly should look like. Notice that the boy on ‘our’ side is raising his left hand, yet the boy in the mirror world does it with his right hand.

This is how the (allegedly) van Eyck’s butterfly looks:

In our world the lady is covering her (now not so) private parts with her left hand. In the mirror world she should therefore do it with her right hand; in the reflection, however, we see the left hand again.

There are few version of how this could happen. The easiest one is to suggest that either the master – or the copyist later on – made a mistake. They could be painting the scene from the memory, and made a typical mistakes, of not reverting left and right (let’s remember, the mirrors were still pretty novel technology back then). The other hypothesis is that in the original, first version the lady was using both hands to cover her genitalia (as we likely see in the reflected image), but later the real lady’s hands were re-painted.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a good copy of the painting by van Haecht at the moment, to check if the reflection painted correctly there.

PS: I later wrote another piece on this work – see Mirror Disclosure – and then, after quite some time, I have received a much larger copy of the painting from the Fogg Institute, what also allowed me to ‘close’ the case – see Mirror Closure of the Lost Mirror by van Eyck.




3 thoughts on “The lost mirror of Jan van Eyck

  1. there is yet another explanation. Because the reflected arm in the mirror is bend one is tempted to regard it as the bended left arm of the nude lady. while her right arm is stretched out to reach for the bowl of water. however; since it is obviously a convex mirror all straight lines would appear bended in the reflection. even the fotograph of the playmobile figure, reflected in a flat mirror shows that the angle of a bended arm would be distorted in a reflected immage. so it is at least plausible that van Eyck and/or the copyiest did not make a mistake. in fact the painter was more aware of optical effects than most of us are.

    • I later have received a high-rez copy of this reproduction, from the museum (I even wrote about in my my Russian blog, but still didn’t manage to translate the posting in English – as many other postings here, it still waits for its translation 😦

      But at least I can link here the larger fragment of this work, showing the situation a bit better:

      From the first sight, we see the difference (=’mistake’); in real life she is covering her pubic area with one hand, and in the reflection, with two.

      The question here is if there exists a convex mirror with such optical features that would bend the right hand in the reflection in such a way that its reflection would ‘move’ to the other hands, making it looking like they both cover the pubic area. Such convexity should also explain the different position of the fingers – in ‘real life’ the palm is open, the fingers are out, in the reflection it looks like a fist.

      • Thank you for your reply and the detailed pictures. That a convex mirror could bend a form is also to be seen in the reflexion of the bowl, where the ellips has been deformed in an irregular shape. Wether it would be able to “move” the reflexion of the right hand to coincide with that of the left hand, would depend on the position of the viewer of the whole scene. In this case: the painter. Compare this with an observation of the planets. Seen from the earth, it is possible that certain times one would have the impression that for example the moon is positioned close to Jupiter, although in real their distance is and remains immense. Or when in case of an eclips of the sun, the moon would obstruct our view of the sun. So it would be plausible that in the mirror at Van Eycks painting the right hand is “eclipsing’ the left hand, and that thus they are both covering the intimate parts of the lady. Adding to this that her right hand is squeezing something like a sponge would explain the fist. Still there seems to be a dark line separating the fist from the right arm. I guess this might also be a small crack instead of a deliberately drown line.

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