Peter Paul Rubens: Venus at a mirror

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Venus at a mirror (1615), painting showing Venus Effect by Peter Paul Rubens

Venus at a mirror (1615), oil painting on panel by Peter Paul Rubens, 98 cm x 124 cm, collection of the Prince of Liechtenstein, Vaduz, Liechtenstein

The oil painting titled ‘Venus at the Mirror’ (1615) by Peter Paul Rubens shows the Roman goddess Venus with her traditionally blond hair, but in the usual style of Rubens paintings showing her as a fat, rounded, but ideal figure. She is sitting with her back facing the viewer and her face only partially visible, but her face in all its glory can be viewed on the mirror held for her by her son, Cupid. The other notable human figure in the picture is that of a black servant or maid, painted in a style reminiscent of African black women slaves usually shown in harems by artists of Orientalism.

Though not human, the mirror in this painting plays the role of a central character. There are many paintings that depict the subjects looking at mirrors and appreciating their beauty, as can be seen in other paintings of even Venus. While, the purpose of the mirror is to look at her own face, in this painting, the mirror is used to reflect the facial image of Venus to the viewer. As you can see, she is looking straight at you, and not at herself. Also, it is rather impossible for Cupid to hold the mirror for Venus at the angle and elevation so as to make such view possible. Logically, it is ridiculous, but very common in art, photography, and even in movies and we have become ‘psychologically’ used to it.

Also, it is not that the artist is unaware of it. But the mirror is knowingly placed that way to create what has become known as the ‘Venus Effect’, and it refers not only to Venus or other women but the effect is applicable to all, to all situations in which such an effect is consciously or unconsciously created.

The Venus Effect, a psychological perception, can be observed in paintings such as Diego Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus, Titian’s Venus with a mirror, and many other works of other artists. Viewers of such paintings assume that Venus is admiring her own reflection in the mirror. However, since the viewer sees her face in the mirror, Venus is actually looking at the reflection of the painter, viewer or whoever is looking at her mirror image.

In Titian’s ‘Venus with a mirror (1555) the goddess is looking at a mirror held for her by Cupid, and the reflection of her face is very clear and sharp, and it focuses on you, not at her. In the Rokeby Venus (1647-1651) by Diego Velázquez, Venus gazes into a mirror held by Cupid, and outward at the viewer. But her image is blurred and reveals only a vague reflection of her facial features, and the image of the head is much larger than the actual size, whereas it should have been smaller than the actual size.

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