The Mirror of Venus

 Stephen Rose, The mirror of Venus, 2012

This is one of the most colourful and decorative still life paintings within our collection – at once a still life which seems purely representational, and a work which veers towards abstraction. – at once a still life which seems purely representational, and a work which veers towards abstraction. But is it just an observational study of forms, volumes and effects: just a composition of coloured shapes? Is there more to it than a group of glass scent bottles on a reflecting table? Why is it called The mirror of Venus?

Mirror of Hathor, c.1479-25 BC, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

‘Mirror’ actually means ‘reflection’ – it doesn’t mean the object, which is properly called a looking-glass; and the theme of Venus and her reflection is a very ancient one in art. Hathor, goddess of love, joy and beauty, is associated in ancient Egyptian art and the decorative arts with all the appurtenances of beauty – ornamental cosmetic jars and pots, palettes and looking-glasses. She is also known as ‘Lady of Malachite’ and ‘Lady of Turquoise’, semi-precious stones which were ground to make an equivalent to eye-shadow.  When this was applied to the skin, the user was in some sense taking on or absorbing the goddess’s being: becoming her reflection or mirror. Hathor, often appearing as a cow or part cow, was therefore a very suitable emblem to decorate a hand glass, as in this example; she is usually shown with a woman’s head and cow’s ears, whilst the solar disc she carries on her head conveniently becomes the actual looking-glass (made of polished silver or bronze).

 Bronze looking-glass cover, Hellenistic style, 4th century AD, Musée du Louvre

 In Greek mythology Hathor’s equivalent was Aphrodite, who was born from the sea; and thus her watery element very conveniently became the substance which reflected the goddess and her beauty. On this cover for a looking-glass (above) she is shown, either twice or with one of her handmaids, doing her hair with the help of a bowl of water and a hand-glass, and so getting double the reflection. Sympathetic magic (as it were) might help the human owner of this object to believe that Aphrodite would inspire her own process of beautification, and perhaps even inhabit her, so that she too would become a reflection of the goddess.

 Aphrodite & Eros, 1st century AD, the House of Apollo, Pompeii

In this Pompeiian fresco of Aphrodite and Eros, the goddess is ready, enthroned in her expertly-arranged dishabille, while Eros holds up a looking-glass for her to see her own perfection. In other versions of this subject she holds the glass and is surrounded by a train of erotes or infant cupids; Rabun Taylor points out in The moral mirror of Roman art (2008, p. 45) that, ‘Venus… receives an…  injunction from her retinue of erotes…: “look into the mirror; remember you are  a goddess” .  In a sense, a part of Venus resided in every woman’s mirror. Her task was to liberate the goddess – to make Venus part of herself…’

 School of Fontainebleau, Venus at her toilet, c.1550, Musée du Louvre

By the time this mid-16th century painting was executed, by an artist of the Fontainebleau School, the image of Aphrodite enthroned, regarding her own perfection, had become conflated with the image of her preparing herself to conquer. The container of water is now her bath; it contains her, reflects her beauty, and is the element from which she is made. Because this is a scene in which the goddess is beautifying herself, more props are creeping into the painting: as well as the bronze and gold water pitcher and the looking-glass, Venus has pearls and precious stones bound into her hair, and Eros – or Cupid- is bringing her a bottle of scent.

 Peter Paul Rubens, Venus before the looking-glass, 1614-15, Liechtenstein Collection

Rubens’s Venus before the looking-glass is another version of the subject; now, however, instead of Venus holding up the glass for a private view of herself, Cupid is supporting the glass, through which the goddess stares straight into the spectator’s eyes; – or, as Taylor says, ‘The public Venus, validated by her mirror, is as frank and confident as Manet’s Olympia… [she] provides an almost Ovidian brand of female empowerment within a patriarchal… society.’ She also glories in the precious gems which adorn her – the bracelet and earrings covered in great glowing pearls, which are also emblems of Venus.

Francesco Albani , The toilet of Venus, 1621-33, Musée du Louvre

Another treatment of this was commissioned in the early 17th century by Ferdinand Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua; it shows Venus being prepared by the Graces to meet her lover Adonis. On a cloud above her, her chariot awaits, drawn by swans and tended by erotes.  The goddess is seated beside the sea from which she was born, and which will form a vast mirror for her beauty when she rides out in her chariot; a smaller looking-glass is held by another cupid, and the nearby fountain provides both reflection of her charms and water for her bath.

 Lo specchio di Venere, Island of Pantelleria, Sicily

The idea of Venus’s birth from the water, her bath as part of a divine beautification, and the reflection of her beauty on earth come together in the naming of various lakes across the world.  These are often lakes formed in the craters of extinct volcanoes; they are usually very deep and extremely placid, unruffled by currents or tides, and sheltered from winds by the rim of the crater. This one in Italy is a typical example: Lo specchio di Venere, the mirror of Venus: a heart-shaped lake in Pantelleria, which reflects the tranquil sky and also (with luck) the face of the goddess of beauty and love.

Edward Burne-Jones, The mirror of Venus, 1898, Museu Calouste Gulbenkian

Burne-Jones adapted the idea of this calm, flat lake in a rocky landscape for the setting of his painting, The mirror of Venus.  The goddess is no longer bathing, preparing herself for conquest or sitting enthroned; instead she forms the focal point of a frieze of her handmaidens, as they kneel around the lake, using it to mirror their own beauty and that of Venus herself. She, however, no longer needs to look at her own reflection, just as she no longer needs the props of earlier paintings – the pearls, the golden pitchers and baths and scent flagons. This is a purely decorative and aesthetic celebration of the beautiful, expressed through an harmonious arrangement of composition, colour and line; so that the subject and the manner of painting it become one.

Georges Seurat, Young woman powdering herself, 1890, Courtauld Gallery

Seurat’s painting of his mistress at her toilet, from the same decade as Burne-Jone’s work, takes the opposite route. Instead of removing all the props and narrative from the subject, he transforms the goddess into an ordinary young Frenchwoman of the 1890s, seated at her dressing-table, preparing herself for conquest. She does not need erotes or any other sign of divinity; she reflects the goddess merely by copying the divine toilet. The looking-glass held up by numerous cupids through the history of art becomes part of a small, curvaceous Art Nouveau object, which also holds her scent bottles. Another looking-glass hangs on the back wall and reflects a vase of roses, which symbolize the woman’s power in love; it takes the form of a triptych, like a small mediaeval altarpiece – the only hint in the painting at a divine connection.

Pablo Picasso, The dressing-table, 1910

In Picasso’s Cubist work, The dressing-table, even Venus (or her echo in a human woman) has all but vanished.  The only sign of her is a vague reflection in the looking-glass (here, of Picasso’s mistress, Fernande Olivier). Instead, the dressing-table itself stands in for the goddess and her toilette, and the things posed on the table, including a scent flaçon and a toothbrush in a glass, take the place of her attendants and support the theme.

 Stephen Rose, The mirror of Venus, 2012

Stephen Rose’s painting, The mirror of Venus, carries on this process of stripping away and leaving fewer and fewer objects to indicate the subject of the painting. Here is a vanitas from which Venus herself has now completely disappeared; it evokes the toilet of the goddess without the need for her or any other actors, and from which even the props have been successively leached away.  The looking-glass has become the mirrored top of the dressing-table – at least, this is what we assume; there is no definition or boundary within the canvas, and the painting conjures up an infinite space where only a brightly reflective surface beneath the scent bottles can be taken for granted.  Because of the lack of boundaries, however, the connection back to the illimitable sea from which Aphrodite was born, and to the wide, tranquil lakes known as the mirror of Venus, is very plain: the mirror-like table-top may also be a sheet of reflecting water. The scent bottles, all by themselves, tell us what the subject is, and their variety and number hint at the capriciouness of the goddess. This is a very modern mythology. The mirror of Venus is one of the most unique still life paintings for sale within our collection thanks to Stephen Rose’s use of alternative subject matter, interesting composition and use of bright, decorative colours.


About Mark Mitchell

Dealers in 19th-20th Century British and Continental Works of Art
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