Saturday, 15 October 2011

The Mirror of Men’s Eyes Delights Me Less

There has been much talk of doppelgängers of late, as our spooky nights draw in, and to pitch into the ‘double your fun’ festivities I have a post about double-image and women in Victorian art. In fact, I have two of them.

I’ll start today with the feminine autoerotic tendency of narcissism, or ‘girls and glass’, if you prefer. Mirrors are everywhere in the Victorian psyche, and if there is not a pocket mirror to hand, then a glassy pool will suffice, and 9 times out of 10 there will be a self-absorbed girl gazing at herself. Maybe with a friend or two, as in Exhibit A...

The Mirror of Venus (1898) Edward Burne-Jones
 Yes, yes, yes, you are all very pretty. The women exist in a barren landscape, but they notice nothing but their own reflections and the goddess of Love who stands over them. The women, who are strikingly similar, reflect each other as well as themselves in and out of the glassy pool. Venus, having risen from water, infuses the substance with love, and the women all gaze with love back at themselves. At first the picture seems an aesthetic expression of colour and beauty, but it also reflects the Victorian artists’ obsession with the vanity of women.

A Bunch of Blue Ribbons (1862) E J Poynter
Vanity Auguste Toulmouche

Vanity, thy name is woman. Gosh, don’t we all love ourselves? Apparently I have nothing better to do but hang around in front of mirrors, wondering at my beauty. It’s a miracle I get anything done. Well, I don’t look like either of these, there is a little too much pouting, preening, and poufy dresses for my liking, hang on…

Nude Before a Mirror Henri Caro-Delvaille
That’s better. Snigger.  What was I saying? Oh yes, if you believe the hype, all women did was gaze at themselves in mirrors, filled with their own self-adoration. A part of these images was admiration of smashing looking girls who had every right to look at themselves naked (as long as we could all watch), but obviously a slice of it was mocking the weakness of women, so bedazzled by their own boobs that they couldn’t even get dressed. Even when they did get dressed, it didn’t stop them scooping up a handy mirror to continue the self-love.

Vanity Frank Cadogan Cowper
What she said...

Mmmm, Cowper loved the title so much he painted it twice, although I wouldn’t be so absorbed in my beauty if I had a cushion tied to my head. She is so damn into herself that she can’t resist taking a little peek even while apparently putting the mirror aside. There is definitely a link between women’s vanity and the underlying original sin, either obvious or hinted. Very few images of women and mirrors are without judgement on the subject, and sometimes the judgement is harsh.

Lady Lilith (1867-8) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Obviously, the utter absorption in loving yourself does rather cut out others, and so you can see how vanity got such a bad name, but women’s vanity seems to be specifically targeted and noted. Lilith did without Adam, Rossetti showing her engrossed by her own beauty and her long gorgeous hair. The image of a woman captivated by her own reflection gives the impression of two women, identical, staring at each other, their movements, or lack of them, in perfect unison. This gave rise to a notion that women were twin-souls to themselves, a single being of two identical halves that resembled a whole. The mirror did not reflect the woman but provided a device to show the truth of the matter. This twin-soul being was at once a thing of weakness and power, so complete within herself that she needed no man to see her, as she saw herself utterly. When Arthur Symons wrote ‘The mirror of men’s eyes delights me less, O mirror, than the friend I find in thee’, his female narrator was speaking of her twin-soul staring back at her from her mirror. She needed no man to see her as beautiful, or felt that no man’s assurance of her beauty would ever be as convincing as her own. That’s all very well, but as Victorian society dictated you couldn’t marry your mirror, you would have to make do with the mirror of a man’s eyes. Some thought this would mean a sort of death for the woman, to be torn from her twin-soul, separated from the reflected vision, now hidden inside her husband’s mind. A neat illustration of this phenomenon would be ‘The Lady of Shalott’ who perished the moment her eyes left the mirror and settled on a man.

I am half sick of shadows said the Lady of Shalott (1916) J W Waterhouse
There is no question of the state of things in Rossetti’s mind. In his description of the True Woman from The House of Life, he says ‘Passion in her is a glass facing his fire, where the bright bliss is mirrored and the heat returned.’ The proper reflection of a woman was her husband’s eye and if another gazed upon her with desire, she should not accept their reflection of her as it would turn her to ice. I have two words for Rossetti – ‘Jane’ and ‘Morris’.

There was of course a subject much painted in the 19th century in which it was male narcissism that came under scrutiny, and that is obviously Echo and Narcissus. But is the subject as straight forward as the woman as victim of male vanity?

Echo and Narcissus (1902) J W Waterhouse
The poet Armand Silvestre felt strongly that Narcissus should have been Narcissa, as women knew how to use a mirror properly. If Narcissus had been a girl, he would have scooped up some water and carried it with him, therefore being able to lead a normal life and revell in his beauty. Hence the invention of the hand mirror. Genius.

The Mysterious Water (1912) Ernest Bieler
However, within the myth of Echo lies another source of woman as a creature of reflection, possibly the pinnacle of the idea. Echo has no personality, she is an uncontrolled reflection of others. She has lost her man to his own vanity, but she has no reflection in his eyes so she seeks to reflect all other things with sound. Echo is at once the reductive conclusion and the antithesis of the woman myth. Echo is so obsessed with reflection that she seeks it in everything, becoming the world’s promiscuous, passive double. She is the perfect Victorian wife, there just to reflect and respond in her husband’s words. However, she completely contradicts the idea of woman as self-absorbed auto-erotic self-sufficiency, finding her completion in herself. Echo is doomed to eternal incompletion due to the folly of her lover.

Girl with a Mirror John William Godward
But is it a paradox? Not necessarily so, if you consider that beauty was a quality that woman aspired to, and cultivated in their attraction of a husband. The continual cultivation of attraction, the endless absorption in the mirror, in truth was less about self-love, but more often than not about being ‘worthy’ of the attention of a man, and finally being able to look away from the mirror.

See you tomorrow for twins and double-portraits...


  1. Fascinating Kirsty but I think there is a lot more to mirrors; Alice and even the witch in Cinderella. Great pictures again. Look forward to part II.

  2. I know, I know, so many mirrors. The more I wrote, the more I feared I was digging myself an endless trench and we'd all be here until Christmas. It's very odd how obsessed the Victorians were by girls in front of mirrors, it seemed to tap into so much fear and wonder for them.

  3. I thought this was an interesting reflection (groan):

    I wonder why Victorian mirrors were covered or draped when mourning. I think I read somewhere that a small rip was made in clothing to negate vanity at this time. The whole subject is absolutely fascinating.

  4. A mirror does make it easier to see what you are doing with your hair and the funny thing is that I usually think of mirrors as a way to look at what is wrong with you and not what is right. But the Victorians did not have retin-a or botox or any of those anti wrinkle products. I am always looking at myself critically, wondering what new sign of age I will find. When I was young, I was only concerned with acne. The thought of just staring at myself like my old cockatiel used to do with his little mirror never entered my mind, although he was awfully cute with orange cheeks.

  5. Thank you Lisa, and yes, I agree, my glances in the mirror are rarely met with sighs of joy. I remember looking in the mirror as a child and wondering what I would like like as an adult, but now I wonder why I didn't look in the mirror with delight when I was young. It's a complicated relationship to be sure...

  6. Still love this post. And in going back over it, I think the girl in A Bunch of Blue Ribbons is giving herself a bit more of an assessing eye than the other examples here. She looks to me like she's actively using the mirror to adjust her appearance, rather than passively admiring it. It's a startling contrast.

  7. There's been an awful lot written about the figure of the double in the fin-de-siecle but personally I like to think of it in terms of "the crisis of the subject" - as in the acceptance or resistance in the face of the vanishing of the discreet, continuous and substantial self (but there certainly are plenty of other ways to look at it!).
    What I find interesting in the case you picked (mirrors) is that the double is "reified", mediated through an object rather than through dream/madness/apparitions etc. This seems to capture well the aestheticist ambivalence towards the rising tides of consumerism!


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx