How artists have been inspired by mirrors and reflections

Artists and architects have long used the reflections caused by glass and water as a device to create compositional variety, communicate discreet messages and cultivate surprise for observers. Reflections also have many aesthetic advantages, as this short hop through history reveals.

WORDS: Sienna James
ILLUSTRATION: Diego Velazquez

How have reflections from water been used in the art of gardening?

Small or large, man-made or natural, bodies of water have long been exploited for their reflective and kinetic qualities. When walking around a lake or gazing out at an ocean sunset, nature’s beauty can appear exemplified through reflections in water.

Perhaps it’s for this reason that water has been used as a design feature in many gardens, both formal and informal. From the early modern period of Chinese history, landscape gardeners have been incorporating ponds and streams of varying sizes in their designs, to provide diversity and surprise, but also to exploit water’s reflective qualities. Positioned and used effectively, for example, architectural features such as downscaled pagodas or bridges can be enhanced by their reflections in water, be it a naturally occurring stream or a man-made pond. Their impact is doubled by their reflections, ensuring that visitors can encounter a feature twice.

How have artists used water reflections in their work?

Reflections in water have also been used to communicate moral messages in visual art. Famed for his dramatic use of chiaroscuro, Caravaggio used the strong contrast of light and dark to emphasise the internal struggle of Narcissus in his late 16th-century painting of the same name.

The myth features in Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses, with the prophet Tiresias predicting that Narcissus would only live to old age ‘as long as he did not come to know himself’. While out on a hunting trip, however, the beautiful youth stops to quench his thirst in a stream. Caravaggio depicts the moment that Narcissus falls in love with the image in the water, not realising that it’s his own reflection. Eventually, Narcissus realises his error and wastes away.

Caravaggio’s use of reflection also enabled him to illustrate his technical skill. Not only could he produce a natural depiction of the human form, he was able to paint Narcissus’s face, with realistic shadowing and hues, reflected in water.

In Greek mythology, the stream itself, black and uninviting, was known as the river Styx, a boundary between Earth and the underworld. The drama of the moment is enhanced by the neutral, black, delimited space in which Caravaggio chose to set the scene, a decision that separates it from other, more colourful artworks depicting scenes from classical mythology.

How have artists used mirrors in their masterpieces?

Just as water is key to many famous artworks, mirrors are also intriguing compositional tools.

Perhaps the most famous mirror in visual art is that in Diego Velázquez’s 1656 portrait of Spanish royalty at home, Las Meninas (The Ladies-in-Waiting). In the painting, which has long been discussed and debated by scholars, Velázquez painted himself – between brushstrokes – on the far left as he observed Margaret Theresa, daughter of King Philip IV of Spain and Mariana of Austria, flanked by a pair of female attendants – the eponymous ladies-in-waiting – and other household members. Reflected in a mirror at the back of the room, meanwhile, are the king and queen. They are both in the scene, but also absent.

Antonio Palomino, Spanish painter, writer and biographer of Velázquez, said the artist ‘demonstrated his brilliant talent by revealing what he was painting through an ingenious device, making use of the crystalline brightness of a mirror painted at the back of the gallery and facing the picture.’

Another interpretation suggests the mirror was a means for Velázquez to include himself within the scene and thereby elevate himself above the realm of manual craftsman and present himself as both intellectually independent and on a par with royalty. Writing in the 1960s, art critic Paul-Michel Foucault suggested the relationship between viewer and artist in Las Meninas signalled the boundary between the classical and modern period. He saw it as a new way of understanding both the act of painting and the potential relationship painters might have with their audiences. In this sense, the mirror was key to Velázquez’s potential empowerment of the artist, as well as his contribution to interactions between creator and viewer.

In the end, there are no definitive conclusions for Velázquez’s decision, but its legendary status has nonetheless inspired a range of artists to reinterpret Las Meninas.

How noticing reflections can help you to cultivate mindfulness

Reflections have been used by architects, designers and visual artists to accentuate aspects of their work and exploit what is, after all, a common phenomenon. Whether you enjoy a bright summer sky reflected in the water of a beach resort or delight in considering how mirrors can skew and morph the world around you, stop and consider how reflections can shift, enhance and emphasise your surroundings.

Noticing reflections in water, mirrors and windows can bring a fresh perspective on a familiar scene – an office building can become a hub of different hues and views of the high street – or provide a new take on nature. Watch, for example, at sunset when the fading colours in the sky are reflected and mirrored in lakes, ponds and the windows of passing cars. Wherever you are – be it town or country, indoors or out – use these often-unexpected reflections as moments to pause and ponder their variety, beauty and intrigue.


Read more articles about culture and art history in the latest issue of Breathe magazine.