Titian’s Woman with a Mirror (1512-15)

If considered literally, there is not much to say about Titian’s Woman with a Mirror other than to comment on vanity.1 Rona Goffen, though, has identified the real subject of Titian's nudes as art itself based on the traditional association between a beautiful nude and beautiful art. She claimed that in representing a nude female “the [Renaissance] artist represented his own genius”.2 The conclusion to her argument, though, must have stunned her more conventional colleagues: Titian’s women represent the artist himself even when, as here, clothed. 3 Goffen had also argued that Giovanni Bellini's similar painting, Venus with a Mirror, is a representation of the sense of sight and, by extension, that of painting. Mary Pardo then helped the argument by noting that the ointment jar [another is in the lower right corner of our picture] was analogous to paint which is also blended and applied.4 Thus, we are not alone in thinking of this image in terms of Titian's self-representation. In a confluence of ideas, not as rare as you might imagine, the groundwork for a better understanding of this image has been laid.

For someone certain that every painter paints himself the circular mirror can only be the artist’s eye, but with the two human figures on the inside of the eye in darkness. (We have shown something similar in Goya's work.)5 Like all eyes, though, it only reflects what the mind already knows or can imagine. The oddest feature, though, is the woman's arm bent so the hand resembles what the artist’s hand might look like on the surface of the canvas. It is one of those visual inconsistencies that cry out for an explanation and are no doubt included for that purpose too.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Titian, Woman with a Mirror (1512-15)

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Picasso drew his hand in a similar way, as though he was looking at his own on the paper. It's worth comparing the two. Titian's arm, though, emerges out of a giant sleeve; the elbow too far from its shoulder to make figurative sense. In addition, the forearm is lit from a different direction than the rest of her figure. This is important because the finger stroking her hair is the focus of the whole composition.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Left: Detail of Titian's Woman with a Mirror
Right: Detail of Picasso's Study for Two Nudes

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Joseph Leo Koerner commenting on a similar feature in Dürer's Self-portrait as Christ came close to noting that that the fur being stroked by Dürer’s hand recalls the hairs of a paintbrush. 6 So does the hair here, being stroked by the finger of Titian’s woman. 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Durer, Self-portrait as Christ (1500) with detail on right

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The twist in the forearm, though, is the key to its meaning. As suggested above, it allows the hand to face the canvas as though it was the artist’s own hand touching, and thus "painting", the portrait. It is the woman’s hand only as part of Titian’s visual illusion. In his own imagination it is his hand painting the woman herself. That is why the elbow is so far from the shoulder and why it is lit from a different direction than the figure of the woman in the painting.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Titian, Woman with a Mirror (1512-15)

 

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Using different  reasons and a different argument we have come to the same conclusion as Goffen: Titian identified with the woman in the picture. Years later in a variation on this composition he arranged the mirror so that while the woman appears to see herself (from our viewpoint) she really sees Titian, the artist in front of the canvas. Titian and the woman are one androgynous whole. 

See conclusion below

Captions for image(s) above:

Titian, Venus with a Mirror (c.1555)

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The principal figure in Woman with a Mirror is the artist himself, one finger pointing (thus, "painting") her/his own figure with a brush; the other is on the ointment jar, a "pot of paint.". Touch was extremely important to Titian and he used his fingers instead of brushes throughout his career.7 There can be little doubt then, given Titian's identification with his female figures, that a woman with a pointing finger "paints."8

Notes:

 

1. Rona Goffen, “Introduction” in Titian’s Venus of Urbino, ed. R. Goffen (Cambridge University Press) 1997, p. 17

2. Goffen, ibid., p. 13

3. Goffen, Titian’s Women ( Yale University Press) 1997, pp. 8, 286

4. Pardo, “Artifice as Seduction in Titian” in Sexuality and Gender in Early Modern Europe, ed. J. G. Turner (Cambridge University Press) 1993, pp. 82-4

5. See Goya's Disasters of War

6. Koerner, The Moment of Self-Portraiture in German Renaissance Art (University of Chicago Press) 1993, pp. 167-9, 186

7. Pardo, ibid., pp. 82-4

8. The man attending our woman holds two mirrors, the ocular mirror in front and another rectangular mirror, less prominent, behind. The two mirrors represent different modes of seeing because a circle in the Renaissance signified celestial matters; rectangles, earthly ones, in reference to the four points of the compass, the four elements of matter etc. Titian's mind, like all significant artists, had access to both forms of perception, the conventional perception of everyday life and the esoteric perception of the spirit. There is little question here which of the two mirrors is the more important one: the inner "eye" of the soul.

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 12 Apr 2011. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.