On mirrors, tables and walls (and yes, girls too); but now in the context(s)

The collage above could be seen as a ‘visual digest’ of my previous posting, about the Ter Borchs mirrors. It was interesting (for me, at least) to overview all the ‘mirrors’ depicted by the master, to spot certain patterns and to gain a few insights.

This unit of analysis, so to speak, still remains the main one for this blog (see another example, of the mirrors by Salvador Dali).  In a way, it’s (relatively) easier to write such overviews, compared to other, more complex forms, and it does produce good results. 

However,  such review often miss broader contexts, of time and space, and also of the ‘art flow’ in general, and so today’s posting is an attempt to reconstruct such context, at least to the extent.

Speaking about such broader context (and mean specificall ‘mirror’ context here), one of the easiest way to represent it would be to demonstrate other ‘art mirrors’ in the time-space vicinity of ter Borch: 

Gerard ter Borch and his mirrors are from the very middle of the 17th century, the one called Golden in the history of Dutch art (and here I bet on at least minimal knowledge of (art) history – at least it’s worth to know that it was quite a turbulent time for the Dutch provinces, who were still accommodating the influx of ‘creative class’ from the southern Flemish territories, squeezed by the Spanish/Catholic forces).

Speaking about Spain, Velasquez created his Venus (~1650), and then, the Meninas (1656).   A bit earlier, Rubens made a copy of the Tititan’s Venus, and then created his own Venus, the Voliptous – but for me it’s even more important that he also painted another mirror, hold by a woman, not the goddess (in 1640).   I keep planning to write about Rubens’ mirrors, but since I don’t particularly like this painter, this may take a while.

The mirrors by Georges de La Tour Tour are not yet completely without any allegorical meaning, but they are still much closer to the fabric of daily life; also worth noting that his mirrors are already standing on the tables, not hold in hands.   

On the other hands, we also see some ‘After’, in form of Vermmer’s mirrors: in the latter case the mirrors will almost disappear, blend with the walls, and will be hanging there hardly visible, unremarkable.

Although this Vermeer’s ‘after’ is a bit apple-vs-peers compared to the other masters; all other are ‘international’ vis-a-vis ter Borch, and Vermeer is his compatriot.  And in this regards, it would be also interesting to track his compatriotic ‘befores’, too, a mini-context of ter Borch.


As I wrote earlier, the great explosion of art production in the Netherlands in the 17th century is caused, among other reason, by the defeat of the South Flemish provinces and cities in the 16th, where after the siege (and fall) of Antwerp in 1585 the masses of talented and skilled professionals moved up North:


France Hals is one of the typical examples of such ‘creative migration’. Although it was not him who made the decision but his parents (he was born in Antwerpen in 1582, and was too young during the siege of the city), but in any case he eventually found himself in Haarlem, and is now known as the Dutch painter, not Belgian (or Flemish).

(allegedly the Self-portrait of Frans Hals, c.1630)

Now, the trick is that Hals didn’t paint any mirrors (or at least I am not aware of any).  What is more important for my story is that it was Hals who radically departed from pompous allegorical scenes a la Rubens and started to portray the scenes of everyday life:

Frans Hals – Portrait of a Dutch Family (1630)

Many of his portraits are still too gala, too staged, but these are already ‘normal’ people, not allegorical heroes (albeit quite wealthy ones, those who could afford to commission their portraits). But wealth is another essential element of the Golden Century, it indeed brought some into the hands of entrepreneurial Dutchmen. Lots of people very quickly accumulated astonished wealth, and as all nouveau riches do, they try to show this wealth in the interiors of their houses and splendour of their dresses:

This painting, however, is already not by Hals, but Pieter Codde (1599-1678), who is regarded as one of the pupils of Frans Hals.

Pieter Codde – Self-portrait (c.1630)

In his Cavaliers and Ladies (1633) we see the nouveau riches’ lifestyle manifested to the max, including one object that I tend to consider as a mirror: 

I am not 100% sure, but it’s box-like frame resembles the one depicted later by ter Borch, and it is also placed among other cosmetic and coiffeur objects (brushes, comb etc.)  During my recent visit to TEFAF  I found one interesting painting there, attributed to Sebastien Stoskopff, where I spotted a similar ‘beauty kit’ (although without a mirror). In this painting it was associated with the Vanity theme, which means that the mirror could be somewhere in the proximity, even if imaginary one:

Codde has few more such coiffeur scenes where mirrors are used more (or less) actively:

Pieter Codde – Woman combing her hair in front of a mirror (с.1625)

Unfortunately, I don’t always have the good quality reproductions, and can’t ‘zoom in’ and explore the mirrors in more details in these works.

Pieter Codde – Woman at her toilet (1630)

There is a tendency to regard these painting as Vanities too, but I think it was already this theme has lost any relevance the Dutch masters; paraphrasing Degas, to portray a woman with a mirror, they didn’t have to portray her as the goddess Venus.  These Venuses were often on the old pantings, hanging in their houses, but the new paintings were already supposed to portray these very houses and their inhabitants!

I found another interesting painting by Codde, where the mirror is neither cosmetic, nor related to hairdressing, yet it seem to be playing a very important role here:

Pieter Codde – Woman holding a mirror (1625)

This mirror confuses the National Gallery in London: they can’t already interpret it as Pride or Superbia, yet they also can’t accept it as the sign of a simple ‘life scene’. The remaining rest is to proclaim it ‘Vanity’ (although they still open some room for alternative interpretations.)

I will formulate my own version here very briefly, and come back to it later in this posting, when I will be showing more paintings. My take is that that mirrors served as the symbols of marital intent (or a marital status); when a young lady was ready to marry, she was presented with a mirror (by her mother? or both parents?) The very fact of displaying this mirror could be interpreted as her matrimonial intent.



The next Dutch master I would like to mention is Caspar Netscher (1639-1684), although he is not a predecessor of Gerard ter Borch, but rather his follower (some even consider him a pupil of ter Borch, however the sources vary on this matter).

What is known,however, is that Netscher indeed produced a lot of remakes of the ter Borch’s paintings, including this one: 

Executed by Netscher, the painting is simply called The Visit, and no particular allegations toward ‘prostitution’ have been raised.

I found a few different works with mirrors painted by Netscher, but unfortunately almost all of the reproductions I have at the moment are of very poor quality.

Again, some of the scenes depicted are very close to the ones created earlier by ter Borch:

Caspar Netscher – Lady at her toilette

Caspar Netscher – Young woman with a magnifying glass (?) (1667)

Because of the low quality of the reproductions, I can say with any certainty of this is a magnifying glass or simply a medallion (or her future husband, perhaps?) But in any case, in both of the above works the mirrors are not really used, similar to the manner of ter Borch.

There is another work where we see the mirror ‘working’, it reflects the woman’s face (which also means that she wouldn’t be able to see herself in this mirror).  This painting is often described as ‘Venus with Cupid‘, but again I doubt that this a correct attribution:

Looking at all these paintings, I would propose my ‘mirror hypothesis’: I tend to think that the presence of a mirror in many of the artworks from this period reflects (sec!) a certain social practice, the practice that existed at that time (17th century) and place (Netherlands) but is currently forgotten, or misinterpreted.

The mirrors were available at that time, but still relatively expensive, not every woman did have them. The very ownership of ‘her own mirror’ may well mean a social achievement of some sort for a women (or the fact of belonging to a certain social group). Perhaps, it was a gift to a young lady when she was achieving the age of marriage? Such a present could be both functional and symbolic, and could also work as a marker of her readiness for the marriage.

I have only a black-and-white copy of this painting by Caspar Netscher (currently described very neutrally, as Girl Standing before a Mirror (1668)), but it depicts a very interesting scene, so I would show it anyway. The girl, or young lady doesn’t look at the mirror here, she is merely pointing at it, as if willing to tell us something about this ‘gadget’:


There is another interesting work to consider in this context, by one of the most famous Dutch painters,  Rembrandt van Rijn  – in fact, it is his only known work of him that depicts a mirror:

Rembrandt – Young woman trying earrings (1654)

It’s relatively late work by Rembrandt, and its exact meaning is not really clear; of course, it could be seen simple as ‘Girl trying an earring‘ – or as ‘Vanity‘, if one wants to assign symbolic meanings. But similar to the same-name work by Vermeer, the painting may also has a hidden meaning, such as her engagement. To support this hypothesis I would need to conduct a elaborate historical research that I could afford at the moment, so for now I would live it as such, a hypothesis.

Very recently I found another painting by Netscher, presented as Portrait of a lady at her toilette, attended by a negro page with a dish of fruit (1669):

Again, we can see it simply as a bragging depiction of the lady’s wealth, or perhaps an indication of her social status (e.g., recently married ? or boasting with her large dowry?)

Another work with a ‘negro page’, A lady washing her hands (1657)

Again, this scene can be seen as a simple hygienic procedure, but we can also understood it as a preparation for a marriage (the bride had to be ‘clean and cleared’ before the wedding ceremony already in Ancient Greece).  Now, I understand that Ancient Greece is not necessarily the right historical reference for the Netherlands of the Golden Age, but who knows? Again, having more time I’d explore it in more depth.

The scene is nevertheless very interesting and evidently ‘pregnant’ with the hints and hidden meanings:

The next painting by Netscher is one of the most interesting ones with a mirror I’ve seen so far:

It is usually called Mother combing her son (1669), but knowing the traditions and practices of the Dutch society, I wouldn’t be surprised if the true meaning is Mother checking her son for fleas (1669).

This work is also currently in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, where I’ve seen it relatively recently ‘alive’:

It is a very interesting and informative work itself, and it displays a lot of nice, tiny intricate details of people’s life at that time (e.g., kids’ toys, for instance, or details of their costumes).  But it also shows a remarkably ‘downshifted’ mirror:

The mirror here is not used by adults, but used (or a rather abused) by the child.   Such unserious treatment of the mirror is not exactly approved by the maid, who’s looking at the – boy (?),  girl(?) – with visible disproval.

And of course, the whole scene is a rich food for thought for all the Lacanians, with their Mirror Stage concept and parle-miroir.


The next master is Gabriël Metsu (1629-1667) who in his works show a continuing ‘degradation’ of mirrors.

(presumably) Self-portrait (c.1652)

One of his works – Lady at the mirror (1667) – is marvellous in this respect:

At first look, it shows already familiar scene, a woman near her table covered by luxurious carpet, with a mirror and jewelry boxes. It looks like the mirror’s frame is also made of metal (sliver?)

However, we also see another mirror in this painting, hanging on a background:

It’s very interesting, since before we saw the mirrors only on the tables, and now they gradually move to the walls, becoming more a part of interior and less so an expensive gadget.

I have a few more ‘wall mirrors’ by Metsu, but first I’d like to show a number of more traditional table ones.

Here is another scene of ‘washing hands’, this time in a presence of a man:

There is a feeling that the guy is looking not so much on the woman, but at the mirror; and the maid seemingly understands, why:


The next work is even more revealing; we see here an ‘intruder’ who breaks into the lady’s bedroom (The Intruder (c. 1660).

Yet not all the ladies in the room are shocked, and one of them (with a mirror!) is actually quite amused with the infiltrator’s behavior:


The last work is a portrait of a Hunter Visiting a Woman at her Toilet (c.1661-1663), another popular motive of that times. The mirror’s frame in front of the woman is richly gilt.

There is another painting by Metsu, A Woman at her Mirror (1657) which I personally call ‘Maid at the Mirror of her Lady‘. I might be wrong, but I see here a scene where a maid is trying to used the mirror of her missis – her dress is relatively simple for the real owner of such window.

Speaking about ‘wall mirrors’, on another work by Metsu, Woman reading a letter (1662), one of them is presented very proudly, as a central part of the composition, and perhaps even its central ‘focal point’:


We are very tempted to look at the letter read by the young woman (although we can’t, since the mirror only shows us some elements of the window).  But may be the maid can?  Perhaps her movements, to look at the painting covered by a curtain, is only a cause, helping her to read the letter in the mirror?

One small detail: the mirror, despite already on a wall, still has a ribbon on the top. It could be just an element of decoration, but could also be the trace of an earlier used curtain, that was used to cover the mirror.  I am no working on a posting about these ‘mirror covers’, and will come back to this subject.

The issue of ‘mirror covering’ also manifests on another painting by Metsu, Lady at a Virginal (1665)

Gabriël Metsu – Lady at a Virginal

Again we see the mirror on a wall, but it is partly covered by a window curtain (quite a cleaver lifehack, I should say):


Frans van Mieris (1635-1681) was a Dutch painter from Leiden. 

Frans van Mieris – Self-portrait (1667)

Two of his works show further migration of mirrors to the wall, from the tables…

Frans van Mieris – Woman in her bedroom with a dog (1670)

…to the walls:

Frans van Mieris – Woman before the mirror (c.1670)

For the record, this is one of the earliest portraits of a woman looking at her body reflected in a wall (=flat) mirror. That kind of composition, which we now take for granted, was simply unthinkable for people until certain time – there was no such large mirrors available.

I once read an article on how the very availability of larger mirrors transformed the image of their own body in the minds of people during Renaissance: the fact that you can see a significant part of yourself (and soon – the whole body) should be a striking experience for people back then.



The next master – Pieter de Hooch (1624-1689), whose works are often compared to Vermeer.  

In this work we see the mirror firmly established on a wall: 

Woman with a Water Pitcher, and a Man by a Bed (or The Maidservant) (1667)

This mirror may well be used for make up, or to check the dress, but here it’s mere purpose is to simply reflect some elements of the interior:


The mirror above has a richly decorated frame, but the room itself is fairly basic; the one on the next painting, so called Leisure Time in an Elegant Setting (1663-65), is not only elegant, but very richly decorated:

However, its mirror is not a frontal place, it’s rather hidden, and its depiction resembles the one by Vermeer, where we see a mere stroke of light instead of the ‘mirror surface’:

The same approached is used in another painting, The Bedroom (1658)

Who has borrowed the trick from whom?  “19th century art historians had assumed that Vermeer had been influenced by de Hooch’s work, but the opposite is now believed” – the sentences like that should decorate every posting in this blog: once we thought this, and now that. A motto of this project.

In this particular painting I am also interested in another ‘object’ – I think it may be a mirror too, but I can’t say that with certainty, it could well be another painting:

The ribbon on its top points to a mirror direction, but its frame is not so typical for mirrors.  If that would be the case, such ‘mirror’ could bear the legacy of the ‘mirror-thingies‘ I am chasing already for ages.



The next interesting pivot can be found in the works by Cornelis de Man (1621-1706), Dutch painter of the late 17th century more known for his paintings of the Northern Campaign.

Cornelis de Man – Self-portrait (c.1670s)

But he also left many genre scenes, some of them very witty, mirror-wise.  It was perhaps Vermeer who started to use wall mirrors as a way for us to look at the other side of the Moon scene (see his Music Lesson) , but his reflections are not exactly accurate.  De Man’s compositions are not only more precise in terms of optics, but also more playful.

Cornelis de Man – Geographers at Work (c.1675)

This one, also related to music, could be be a direct allusion to the famous work by Vermeer.

Cornelis de Man – Music Lesson (c.1670)


The last name in this ‘downshifting’ (or ‘elevating’?) progression Pieter Janssens Elinga (1623-1684). His mirrors are practically indistinguishable from the interior elements, the are not special in any sense, and used as one (of many other) tools to make the composition more interesting and complex; the mirrors in his works are unremarkable, which in fact indicates their total blending with life (thus, inseparable from this very life).

Pieter Janssens Elinga – Reading woman (1668)

Pieter Janssens Elinga – Room in a Dutch house (1655)

Pieter Janssens Elinga – Interior with a painter, his wife, and a maid (1676)

Pieter Janssens Elinga – Interior with seated husband, his wife, and a maid (1670)

Elinga also made a few very interesting objects, so called Perspective boxes, 3D models of the Dutch houses that would allow the spectators to ‘peep’ into the life of their fellows:

I would love to write a separate posting on these construction, and I am interested to see how he depicted mirrors in this box (or used them). But for that I’d need to see at least one ‘alive’, so to speak.  I know that the Museum Bredius in Den Haag has one, but last time I’ve been there this very room was closed, so I need to postpone this posting for better times.


It was a long story, but it could be summarized in one simple image: from A to B:

PS: After multiple revisions and re-working of this text I managed to come up to a second conclusion, also in a format of “Before & After”:


2 thoughts on “On mirrors, tables and walls (and yes, girls too); but now in the context(s)

  1. The Netscher painting “Lady combing her son” might very well depict a scene superficially showing a combing but actually the removal of vermin, only it would be lice. One way of battling them is to comb the hair regularly with a narrow comb. — When we learn about history, we’re hardly ever told about the way they lived, there and then. Novels, paintings, drawings, artifacts etc. present a tantalizing puzzle.

    • You are right, both specifically – this painting is indeed sometimes referred in Dutch as ‘Moeder verzorgt haar zoon tegen hoofdluizen”, ‘Mother checks her son against lice’, and general. Indeed, we are rarely told about the real life’s fabric when taught history. The latter is still largely a collection of heroic fairy-tails, without the details of daily life. You may have sensed from my writings that I am very interested in the latter, rather than a former.

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