More on Chicago’s Mirrors-in-Art

Even when I would describe this type of posts as “акын” (aqyn) in my Russian blog, the exact meaning often evades the readers. The literal definition – Kazakh poets and singers-performers – does not capture the aspect of meaning I am trying to express. Even in the Russian-language article the reference to the ‘improvisational’ nature of their performances still doesn’t quite convey one of the key characteristic of these Kazakh nomadic poets.

In many ways, aqyns were the first multimedia bloggers, as one of the most important KPIs of their singing was the degree in which they reflected here-and-now. In their songs (=’posts’) еhey had to describe the events happening at this very moment at a particular event – birthday party, marriage, or any other festival in a Kazakk villages (called auls).  In doing so, aqyns were in many ways similar to the ‘social mirrors’ (I am sure with some ‘fun-house’ effect installed).

But back to ‘my’ mirrors. From time to time I am also writing this type of ‘aqyn’ posts where I simply describe the art-mirrors I’ve seen recently – often in museums, but also in other, less usual places, too. The most recent examples of this kind was the post about Prado Museum, but I remember writing them from the early days of this blog (see, for instance, a merely descriptive post about the mirrors at the TEFAF’13.

I know that many people don’t like this kind of postings, but myselfI actually regret that I don’t write them more often. There is a large number of mirrors that I ‘met’ during the last two-three years that still didn’t make their way here, only because I am waiting for the moment when I could write the ‘Big Story’ about them. Sometimes there is no Big Story – or may be not yet, and the story starts emerging when I am putting the first, even merely descriptive stubs.

So, this posting won’t be about the Etruscan mirrors, as the above picture may imply (I am still working on that one). It will be a simple WYSIWYG story about the visit to the Art Institute of Chicago (that is located merely across the Mirror Cloud by Anish Kapoor I just wrote about) and about the mirrors I’ve seen there.

Below is the same mirror as above, but taken by me (the former one is from their web-site):

I like my version more (surprise, surprise), and not only because I can have a better zoom-in and see more details:

So far it’s a clear advantage for me, although I don’t know how long it will stand. Today one of the reasons I go to those museums that allow taking pictures exactly because I can see the art-works and bring home the photographs to study them later. But some museums have started to upload their collections online, in hi-res images, and not only that is now on display but the archives too (one striking examples is Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam). Will I go there again? What for? To see these paintings in (often) bad light and with a limited access, although in ‘real flesh’?  Sure, the presence of other people can often add some value (it’s always interesting to observe how people perceive and interact with art.

Here is an interesting moment – this museum visitor was looking at this Etruscan mirror with a vivid interest –

but guess what? when I took my camera (or rather iPad) out, he was already looking at something else with the same vivid interest, so I couldn’t even present his ‘interactions’ with this mirror.  Ideally, I would like to talk to him – or any other visitor interested in this mirror, but then again, an online site seems to be a better option for these conversations.

Do museum add ‘value’, so to speak, to the art objects they display? In this case it was just a short generic description: “Found in women’s graves, bronze mirrors [of Etruscans] were luxurious personal possessions used in life and then buried with the dead for use in the afterlife.” It’s important, but too generic a note, especially if to consider that in the majority of cases these mirrors were found in the graves of males.

There is also a short description of the scene on the mirrors’ back:

“[It] shows the goddess Eos carrying the body of her son, Memnon, who was killed by the hero Achilles. The episode was taken from Homer’s Illiad.”

It’s interesting to know, but without any further elaboration of why would Etruscans used the image of the goddess of Dawn (later she will become Latin Aurora) and the sister of Helios (Apollo), the god of Sun, it becomes just yet another factoid to remember.

There is another interesting bronze mirror on display in the museum. Here is its ‘face’ (lacking any reflective capacity by now, of course):

And here is its rear view – where we barely see some engraving:

But in this case it’s not so much the engraving that matters, but the handle of this hand-mirror.  It is assumed that the winged female figurine is of Lasa, the goddess of Fate of the Etruscans, and closely associated with Turan, the goddess of Love and Beauty (not unsimilar to Aphrodite of Greeks, and then Venus of Romans.)

Thus, in some way it may looks quite banal (where is Venus, there is a mirror, or vice versa), but the story also has many interesting twists (Life/Death (graves), Fate and so on) that invite to think deeper. Needless to say, all these things are not really presented by the museum.

Anyway, enough with Etruscans for a moment, I would still need to write a more detailed post about their mirrors (or at least on what I’ve learned so far).


Similar to many other art establishments, I found there not only ‘mirrors in art’, but the mirrors themselves, too, although very old and artistically decorated.

Here is an example of the mirror from England, in a lavishly decorated gilt wood frame, dated to the first third of the 18th century:

Below is its decorative ‘shell’ crowning the top:

Here is another mirror, also from England, but apparently made earlier, in the very beginning of the 18th century:

What is interesting is that it’s made from two pieces, it was difficult – and expensive – to produce large glass sheets, and the mirrors were often assembled out two or more parts (we saw similar mirrors in in the Couven Museum in Aachen.

What is even more interesting is that it’s frame is also made out of mirrors, or at least glass sheets gilded by gold from inside (so called verre églomisé):

The technique was known already to Romans, but then well-forgotten, and revived only around mid-18 century in France (though some experts say that it was imported from China. The country also became the main source of many reverse mirror paintings that would become very popular in England, and broader in Europe around that time (yet another story to write!)

The last example of ‘just mirrors’ is is this refined cabinet, made in England but in a chinesque style around 1820.  It has an embedded mirror right in the center, which also serves as a door to a locked inner compartment.

A couple of examples of more classical ‘mirrors-in-art’ which I knew nothing about before. Which is not very surprising, since both paintings are made in Lima, Peru, and my knowledge about Latin American art is really very shallow.

The first portrait is by some Pedro José Díaz, described by the museum as one of the most famous artist in Lima at the end of 18th – beginning of 19th century, but of whom I found nothing, not even a short wikipedia article (there is one, but apparently about other Pedro José Díaz, a military man).

The lady portrayed here is Dona Maria Rosa, who, judging by the painting, had to belong to the crème de la crème of the Limian society of that time. Her wealth and social rank are manifested not only in her richly embroidered cloth and abundance of the pearl jewellery, but also, for example, in the luxuriant lace on her dress sleeves and decollete. Such lace could be made only in Flanders back then, and should cost s fortune when brought to Lima.

Having such as luxurious context, I would expect to also see very large and decorated mirror. Alas, it’s fairly modest, and we can also say, functional one; the mirrors is combines with a jewellery box of some sort.

There is another Latin American portait in the the collection, by anonymous master but from Cusko (also Peru), and the model is also unknown. The painting is dated circa 1670.

We see only a part of the mirror here, and it’s much smaller than the first one. It reminds the table mirror of the Dutch masters I was writing some time ago – see On mirrors, tables and walls (and yes, girls too); but now in the context(s).

Speaking about ‘Dutch masters’, I later figured that the Art Institute has an original of the painting I was writing about in that posting, but was not able to find a color copy; I instead used only the black-and-white one. Unfortunately, I didn’t see it in the museum itself, and only later found the copy on the website.

Caspar Netscher – Girl Standing before a Mirror (1668)

In the museum itself I found an original of the etching by Israhel van Meckenem – I wrote about this, and few other mirrors of him in Inconspicuous Mirrors of Israhel van Meckenem:

This etching is usually referred as The Organ Player and His Wife (c. 1495).   The etching is very small, and it has been hung in a very dark corridor, but I was still able to see many lovely details, including of the mirror (though I still struggle to decode the writing on a frame, around its reflective surface).

But I also found another work by van Meckenem next to it, and also with a mirror! It looks these two works belong to one series of etchings each depicting a couple (I found few similar examples, though without mirrors, and in total it is supposed to be twelve works).  This one is known as the Singer and Lutist:

It has a very similar mirror, but I have even less chances to decode the writing. Plus, of course, it is hung in a very different place, near a door (the first one was near a window, a more frequent location).

There was also another amazing – well, not quite a mirror, but in many senses the object that gave me more insights into ‘mirrors in art’ than any other mirror. I mean here the panel that hangs in the bed of Maria in the scene of Annunciation depicted by Jean Hey:

I wrote about this work in the posting about 1002 virgins and their mirrors, but by then I only had a very poor copy of this work, and wasn’t even completely sure if the depicted figure is of Christ. The original I saw in Chicago leaves little double, of course (here we can even see that Jesus holds the world sphere, which may shed more light into why convex mirrors were used in the place instead).

*** But enough with the oldies, let’s see what modern (and post-modern) mirrors! There are plenty of them in the Art Institute, too. Personally, I have seen only a few examples as I didn’t have time to visit all the departments, but I later tracked some of the mirror-works in the online archive of the museum.

The Bedroom of Van Gogh is one of the three versions of this work of (and the one considered to be the best one by many experts).

I only very shortly wrote about Van Gogh and his mirrors in a semi-jokin Olympic Mirror Race post, and the main reason was that he had only one mirror (although three versions of it).  I lately found a possible second mirror by Van Gogh (see a small note about it here), but let’s not deviate as it’s a totally different story.

I also found a wonderful Madame Dietz-Monnim by Degas –

and then I found that the copy of the work I had before was of very bright and aggressive colors. In reality it is very gentle and softly colored work:

This work I did mention in my epic triptych about Degas’ mirrors (at the end of the second part), but another interesting work by Degas was not known to me at that time, and was not included. I found its copy much later, and never added to the main three-post, and now had a chance to see the original.

This painting is known as the Portrait of Henri Degas and His Niece Lucie Degas (c.1875); the mirror about a fireplace is barely visible but hey, it’s the mirror nevertheless.

This work by Félix Vallotton is known as the Red Room, Etretat (1899), and it has an interesting story behind. But I would park it till the moment I write the story about his mirrors.

Same story with theMoulin Rouge by Toulouse-Lautrec. It is a very famous work, with a complex story

… and a wonderful mirror, comparable to the one in the Bar of Folies Bergere, by Manet. But again, I will tell all these stories later, when I will be talking about mirrors of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and the vicious fin de siècle.

Speaking about Manet, I did mention this work by Berthe Morisot – Woman at Her Toilette (1875).

I am very impressed with – and intrigued by – the mirrors by Morisot, and would love to write a story about them too, time allowing.

This is one of the stunning work by Ivan Albright, called Into the World There Came a Soul Called Ida (1929–30).

I remember writing about Albright’s mystical works, back in Livejournal era of my blogging, but back then the story was not so much about mirrors. But what I didn’t know is that Albright was from Chicago, and thus the museum has a vast collection of his works, which I really regret I hadn’t seen.

Paul Klee – In the Magic Mirror (1934). A wonderful, but one-off work of the master who otherwise didn’t pain any more mirrors (and even this one is rather metaphorical one):

Another regretful omission is a giant work by Roy Lichtenstein, so called Mirror #3 (In Six Panels) (1971). I wrote a large posting about his mirrors (Master of Fictitious Mirrors), but didn’t see that many of them in reality, and missed this one, too.


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