Painting By Mirrors Causes Us To Reflect At The National Gallery

Reflections, The National Gallery ★★★☆☆

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 50 months ago

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Painting By Mirrors Causes Us To Reflect At The National Gallery Reflections, The National Gallery 3
A youth relates a tale to some enraptured ladies. © Tate, London

A man and his wife hold hands inside their home. In the distance is a mirror, and it's just possible to see a couple entering the room in the reflection, even though that's where the painter should be. This is  Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini portrait — one of the earliest oil paintings, and one of the most famous paintings in The National Gallery's collection. The depiction of a domestic interior, portrayal of depth and light were unprecedented at the time it was created.

But it's the mirror that matters in this show, as reflection is the theme of the gallery's latest exhibition. It includes how reflection influenced the use of mirrored surfaces in the painting of the Pre-Raphaelites who came much later than van Eyck.

The famous Arnolfini portrait itself. © The National Gallery, London

We see a William Orpen portrait where the painter at work can be seen in the mirror. There's a Pre-Raphaelite beauty arching as she poses in front of a window, the stained glass ensuring the painting is oozing with colour — it's completely over the top, and that's what the Pre-Raphaelites were so great at.

A wonderfully overblown painting by John Everett Millais. © Tate, London

The walls of the exhibition have been adorned with convex mirrors from the Victorian era so we can see some of the tools used by painters when capturing reflections. It's a clever way of making this show a lot more accessible.

Mark Gertler creates a self-portrait while observing himself in a mirror. © Leeds Museums and Galleries

Where this show starts to fall apart is the use of tenuous links to bring all the work together, drawing threads between all the works and expounding on how they inspired one another. The loose theme of reflections was a good one to base an exhibition on, but there's a lot of over-reaching to connect the dots between 15th century painting and the Pre-Raphaelites.

The inclusion of photography is a bit of a stretch in this show. Wilson Centre for Photography © Photo courtesy the owner

Photographs have also been included, dating from the time the Arnolfini portrait first entered The National Gallery's collection. While the advent of photography did influence the Pre-Raphaelites, it does feel like the exhibition has strayed too far from the central theme of reflections with their inclusion.

Burne-Jones was another of the pre-eminent Pre-Raphaelites. © Tate, London

Criticisms acknowledged, the show does contain some great works and the changing colours of the walls to reflect different styles of interiors is subtle and fitting. The general theme of Reflections, while muddled at times, does lead to some fascinating insights on how reflections have been incorporated into paintings over the ages.

Reflections: Van Eyck & the Pre-Raphaelites is on at The National Gallery until 2 April 2018. Tickets are from £8 for adults.

Last Updated 15 October 2017