Reflections have always been an important part of art composition. Even the very earliest artists were aware that some surfaces – still water, shiny objects, even the eyes of a person or animal – would hold reflections, and would have realised that depicting them without said reflections would lead to a flat and unrealistic appearance. The invention of the mirror, and even the rise in metalworking before that, led to an increased potential for reflections in artistic work, and over the years many artists have made reflections a significant part of their work.
Francis Campbell Boileau Cadell is one artist who is particularly known for using mirrors in his compositions. Many of his works, including The Black Hat, At The Mirror 1913, Nude Seated on a Sofa, and Reflections (the latter of which inspired the anonymous composition seen above) set a figure beside or in front of a mirror, allowing the artist to depict the model from more than one angle. In his interiors, Cadell made effective use of mirrors to enhance and play with the light, and to expand the portrayed area; reflections are also found in The Red Chair to portray a well-polished floor.
Mirrors can also be used to enhance the composition of a still life; Cadell again provides an example in Still Life With A White Buddha And A Porcelain Buffalo, as does De Belder in the example above. In these cases, where the mirror in the image faces outwards, we see the interesting dichotomy of a painted mirror; it reflects the objects in the frame, but naturally does not reflect the observer as a true mirror would.
Another telling aspect of the use of mirrors and reflections is in the choice of what is reflected; particularly the artist themselves. In many cases, the point of view and the angle of the mirror should, if portrayed exactly as observed, show the artist, but he or she has chosen to remove themselves. In other cases, the artist is indeed present, such as in Dali from the Back Painting Gala from the Back Eternalized by Six Virtual Corneas Provisionally Reflected by Six Real Mirrors by Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dali. One famous example where the artist is thought to be present – yet only in a very subtle and almost imperceptible way – is the Arnolfini wedding portrait by Early Netherlandish painter Jan Van Eyck; the convex mirror at the back of the portrayed room appears to show two additional figures, which some commentators believe to be the artist and an unnamed other, although others believe it is intended to portray the two required witnesses to the marriage.
Away from the world of mirrors and man-made materials, reflections remain an important part of many landscape paintings, particularly those portraying large bodies of water. Landscapes such as Delpy’s Evening on the river (above) make excellent use of reflections in the still water of their scene to evoke a sense of calm and tranquillity; a similar scene with distorted reflections indicating the rushing of a hurried river would create a different atmosphere altogether.
Similarly, in Andrew Wood’s Axmouth, the reflections highlight the stillness of the water and emphasise the idea that activity is brought to rest in the moored boats; this sense of stillness and peace thus fills the frame, whereas a similar composition with broken reflections would seem more harried.
Reflections and mirrors are, of course, not restricted to the world of paintings; they are also frequently at the heart of today’s most ubiquitous form of portrait, the “selfie”. It seems unlikely that these images will ever be treasured in the same way as the painstaking creations of great artists – but the future is hard to predict, and many an artist was unrecognised in their time.