The doors, the windows, the walls – and the mirrors – of Johannes Vermeer

To write about Jan, or Johannes Vermeer is “easy”. He is so very… compact. There only 36 of his works known, all registered, all well studied, and studied again, and all well-documented – most likely, there is a separate page in wikipedia for each of his paintings.

Which also means that I shouldn’t write myself about all these ‘brilliant construction of space’, or ‘transversal ambient light’, and ‘magically tranquil interiors’ and other usual cliches about his art; all these things are already said, many times, and in perfect Art English.

My job is therefore simple. I looked through all his works and found a few ones with ‘mirrors’.  I now need to place them here in some order – or another. For example, I can chose a chronological order, but I can also consider some meaningful alternatives; the only small room for my own creativity, in fact.

The fragment above is not the earliest mirror by Vermeer, but I consider it the most interesting of them (yet also perhaps the least typical). It may sound a bit confusing, but I will try to explain.

That’s the whole picture:

The painting is traditionally called The Music Lesson. However, as some Desmond Shawe-Taylor explains in this short clip, it is the wrong name. He offers his own, beautiful alternative version (I do not want to repeat it here, partly because it’s better to listen the original, but also because it doesn’t say much about the mirror; but otherwise, it’s really worth spending a few minutes and learn his story).

(Another additional value of this clip is that it shows the size of the painting – it is quite small, in fact, and its ‘mirror’ is hardly more than a palm. Here is a close-up:

From this close-up we can see, all of a suddenly, that it’s almost a self-portrait of the master: We don’t see Vermeer’s face but we do see the legs of his easel – and may be his own legs too?

A very interesting quest is understand if it is at all possible, such a reflection. Can the mirror hanging at this angle reflect both the woman’s face AND the easel standing so far?

But for me a more interesting moment is not the reflection, but the very fact that the mirrors “just hangs.”

We saw many mirrors hanging on the walls before – starting from the mirror in the Arnolfini portrait, and including may other works. But in all those works the mirrors were convex; and they also were hanging in somewhat ‘special’, very deliberate way. They were hanging to ‘express’ and ‘symbolize’ something (in the painting, but in ‘real life’, too). Also, as I am trying to argue, they often were not the mirrors in the sense how we understand them now.

And when the mirrors in the paintings become closer to our understanding, they’ve been kept or hold in the hands (or lately also put on the table).

Mirror as an element of interior (and increasingly nondescript, unremarkable) emerged much later, somewhere about the mid-17th century, and Vermeer was one of the first painters who depicted this transition.

So, the ‘strong’ statement about the mirrors of Vermeer is that they merely a part of  interior. In such a categorical form it is wrong, because he also had ‘other mirrors’, more remarkable, placed deliberately and loaded with meanings. Yet it’s important for me to spot this transition to ‘unremarkable’ status of mirrors in his works.

Johannes Vermeer was born in 1632 in Delft, and the first known painting of him dates to 1653; The Lesson is a relatively late work, created about 1665.  Very first, earliest known works of Vermeer were, as we know, pretty mediocre (and didn’t include any mirrors, for that matter). Here, for example, his Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (c. 1554-55):

We see no mirrors (some did include a mirror in the scene), but we also see no Vermeer’s branded light or space solutions yet. But soon Vermeer would move from the religious themes towards more “ordinary life”.

This is his first painting with a mirror (Sleeping Girl, 1657); but it’s almost hidden here, it hangs on the back wall of the second, inner room. It’s easy to miss it:

And even we notice this mirror, it is still not clear whether the maser was actually trying to show something in it, for example, if there is any reflection or not; maybe sone day they will x-ray this painting too, as they did with many of his works, and we learn something new.

In the next work, of 1659 (Girl Reading a Letter at the Window) there is no mirror, but we see yet another time his abosolote trade-mark, the famous Vermeer Window

– but in this case, with a reflection:

I usually don’t include such reflections in my “mirror stories”, but here it’s just wonderful, and nears the full-blown mirror.

The next work, Woman Pouring Milk, or The Milkmaid (1660) is one of the best-known by Vermeer; not perhaps as widely as his Pearl Girl, but close (especially here in the Netherlands, with their milk obsession).

This is indeed an amazing work, with its charming details:

Its attention to the mundane details of otherwise boring surfaces makes it resembling some of the works of  aman_geld:

Yet very few people would connect this work with anything related to mirrors – while it is there, in the shadow corner. I am not sure it plays any significant role in this painting, but they also say that *everything* plays a role in his painting, so this mirror should, too:

But there exist more ‘remarkable’ Vermeer mirrors as well:

Like in the Milkmaid, the mirror in his painting (1662) is also depicted merely as a thin strip of reflected light:

But unlike the Milkmaid, the mirror’s role here absolutely central, it holds an entire composition.

Two years later, in 1664 Vermeer paints his last piece with a mirror. As if fearing potential negative impact of mirrors on a woman, he again strip it down to a mere interior details:

Although, of course, it is very important, and plays a role in the complex game of metaphors in this work: the Scale (and the Last Judgement scene) question the woman of her choice – whether she would go with the shining vanity of the material world, or will focus on spiritual and immaterial (the woman here, by the way, is pregnant, so she is making her choices not only for herself.)

In some sense, Vermeer has made a full circle of in his artworks – he began with the image of Christ and other Biblical figures, then departed to more secular subjects, and yet at the end the comes to the issues of faith again. Symbolically, his last work is The   Allegory of Faith (1670)

Again, there is no mirror here, but there is a very interesting, and very strange object, this glass sphere; I’d like to learn at some point if it corresponds to something real, or was a pure fiction, a fantasy of the master:

In any case, this mirror-like object coexist with – not one, but two! images of Christ; a record of some sort, the Guinness Mirrors in Art Book.

I can complete this short story with a beautiful and catch (yet factually wrong) quote by Proust:

You told me that you had see some of Vermeer’s pictures: you must have realized that they’re fragments of an identical world, that it’s always, however great the genius with which they are re-created, the same table, the same carpet , the same woman. ‘(In Search of Lost Time, v, The Captive).

For the record: here is my a symbolic representation of the contribution by the Master from Delft to the art-mirror-art Hall of Fame:




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