Cracking the Mirror: Self-Representation in Literature and Art

Article excerpt

What else can you call painting but a similar embracing with art of what is presented on the surface of the water in the fountain?

Leon Battista Alberti on a painting of Narcissus, De Pictura (1435)

ARE MIRRORS the fountains of art? Before the invention of photography in the 1840s, the only way an artist could produce a recognizable likeness of himself was to paint his own reflection, "embracing [it] with art," as Alberti said. The act of doing so could be called the ground level of self-representation. In a 1648 etching by Rembrandt, for instance, the 42-year-old artist draws what he presumably sees in the mirror before him. Unadorned by any of the finery we so often see in his other self-portraits, uncoloured by any of their flamboyance or dramatic flair, he sits at his table by a window practising his craft as an etcher of pictures such as this. Here, writes H. Perry Chapman, an authority on Rembrandt's self-portraits, "he radically redefine[s] his self." Abandoning "the role of gentleman-virtuoso," he portrays himself

  as an artist in the studio, autonomous in his professional identity.
  ... No longer play-acting, he sits at a table drawing probably with
  an etcher's needle on a plate. No longer elegantly costumed, he wears
  his mundane studio smock and a prosaic, middle-class hat, which
  brings to mind the 'freedom hat' widely used as a symbol of Dutch
  liberty in political allegories of the independence of the
  Netherlands. ... In 1648 the Treaty of Munster finally ended the war
  with Spain, bringing official recognition to Dutch independence ...

Chapman's point is well taken. Rembrandt's simple hat and smock reinforce the authenticity of the picture as a window on a particular time of Rembrandt's life, at a crucial year in Dutch history, and on a particular moment of his working day: even the hour can be approximately gauged from the angle of the light slanting through the window. "This is just what the mirror reflected," writes Halla Beloff, a psychologist.


  He is not dressed for an exotic never-land. The window places him
  mundanely in his house. The work is openly revealed, and so, we feel,
  is the artist. ... What we see is a serious craftsman, indeed hard at
  work, a frown of concentration between his eyes. He examines himself.
  He is not interested in manipulating our view of him; he is not
  interested in us. ... This is how he was ... (2)

Relatively speaking, Chapman and Beloff are right. In the 1648 etching, Rembrandt represents his working life far more realistically than he does in Self-Portrait with Saskia (1634), where he poses as an overdressed playboy. On the other hand, one suspects, this painting more faithfully captures the spirit of Rembrandt's shirking life, the mood of gaiety and abandon with which he might well have celebrated his new marriage--especially at a time when his growing success gave him the means to do so. But leaving aside such speculation, does the etching give us exactly what the mirror reflected, as Beloff claims? The answer is no, not unless its reflections came only in black and white. In this respect, at least, the flagrantly theatrical painting is more realistic. If we resist that idea, it is only or chiefly because we associate the tonal sobriety of the print with understatement, with restraint, and therefore with honesty--the uncoloured truth. But how much truth does a black-and-white etching tell about a coloured reflection? How well does Rembrandt's rich chiaroscuro and delicate cross-hatching duplicate it? This is just one of the many questions raised by the claim that any picture perfectly duplicates what the artist saw when he or she created it--in the mirror or anywhere else.

When Beloff claims that Rembrandt's etching is "just what the mirror reflected," we have absolutely no way of verifying this claim, no independent access to that mirror and not even any guarantee that he was looking at one. …