Reflections: Van Eyck & the Pre-Raphaelites

John Westbrooke visits an exhibition focusing on a mirror

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The “Arnolfini Portrait” is one of the best known and most popular works in London’s National Gallery, but it’s a surprise to discover from the gallery’s latest exhibition just how much influence it had on British painting – and how much of that came from just one object on the canvas.

The painting was something new when the gallery acquired it in 1842. Previously, the collection had been all about classical works from Italy and France. Now, for the first time, here was a masterpiece from Flanders, a region, and a painting tradition, unfamiliar to most artists.

Among those impressed were three students at the Royal Academy, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais. The RA in those days was at the east end of the National Gallery building, so they could drop in and study it at any time. In the years to come they would form the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, in reaction against the art of the high Renaissance, and the “Arnolfini Portrait” was one of the reasons why.

They disliked what they saw as the bluster of Raphael and his contemporaries in Italy. Instead, here was one alternative: Jan van Eyck’s patiently painted, highly detailed, 1434 portrait of a couple in their home. It wasn’t empty of religious content – almost everything in it has meaning – but it didn’t swagger. It had mystery, too, since not a lot was known about the artist, and even less about the subjects.

And the thing that seems to have struck the students most was the mirror on the far wall, circular and convex – that it, is bulged outward and so didn’t simply reflect exactly what was in front of it: it saw things around it too, and it showed them differently.

So Rossetti gives Lucrezia Borgia a round mirror that broadens and underscores what we initially see: its notorious subject washing her hands, having just poisoned her husband the duke. In the mirror, though, we also glimpse her father, the pope, helping the duke to walk – encouraging the poison to spread. It’s not just Lucrezia, it’s a Borgia family affair.

In Holman Hunt’s “Dolce far Niente” the subject seems to be looking toward us, but her curved mirror, rather dark and hard to see in this case, shows she’s actually looking into the crackling fire, not confronting us but daydreaming, just as the title – “the pleasure of doing nothing” – implies.

It wasn’t just painters: convex mirrors became a Victorian middle-class craze. Rossetti himself had 24 mirrors, 10 of them convex; one is hanging in the exhibition.

The mirrors came in particularly handy when painting “The Lady of Shallot”, the doomed woman in Tennyson’s poem who, under a curse, must never look out the window, and so has to admire the view in a mirror. One day she spots Sir Lancelot riding by and singing “Tirra lirra”, and is so intrigued that she turns to watch him directly. In J.W. Waterhouse’s painting, we see him safely enough through the mirror, but the Lady has turned toward us, and the window, signing her death warrant.

Even when the mirrors were big and flat, they could still bring more into the painting than could normally be seen from a single angle. In “The Awakening Conscience”, Holman Hunt shows a fallen woman suddenly seeing the error of her ways, apparently prompted by the tune her lover plays on the piano, and rising from his lap with a light in her eyes. Again, she’s looking toward the viewer; but again, a mirror on the far wall shows us what she sees: not the tangled web of wool on the floor, or the discarded glove (doubtless her own intended fate) but the spring trees in the garden beyond, promising renewal.

The exhibition looks beyond the Brotherhood to 20th-century artists such as Mark Gertler, who paints a self portrait in a convex mirror – as van Eyck had also done, though he was just a small, silhouetted spectator in his. It wanders even further off-topic to discuss the influence of Velazquez’s “Las Meninas”, on the grounds that it also has a mirror.

None of this is to say that the Brotherhood’s busy, backward-looking canvases could ever be mistaken for van Eyck’s calm, contemporary portrait of a bourgeois Italian couple in Bruges. But it does shine a light on the intriguing, unexpected ways in which painters get their ideas.

Reflections is at the National Gallery until 2 April 2018. £10 weekdays, £12 weekends, £2 discount for booking online.