From the museum website
The exhibition “Contexts of the Permanent Collection 13” is devoted to a masterpiece of Baroque art: Rubens’ Venus and Cupid (cat. nº.1).
Rubens’ inspiration was a canvas by Titian which was lost during the 19th century but which previously belonged to the Spanish royal collection. It was copied by Rubens during his period at the Court of Madrid and is known through other surviving versions. The best, and the one considered closest to the lost version, is the oil in the National Gallery of Washington (cat. nº. 2). Having the two compositions displayed side by side allows us to examine the different interpretative and stylistic approaches of the two artists.?
At an early date Titian was interested in the subject of Venus, completing Giorgione’s masterpiece, The Sleeping Venus, now in the Dresden Museum. However, the closest precedent to his Venus in front of the Mirror is the famous Nude woman in front of a Mirror by Bellini. Bellini’s work, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, is the earliest iconographical linking between feminine beauty and the mirror. Bellini’s work is represented here by an old version from a private collection (cat. nº. 5).
Venus and the Mirror
In the Renaissance and Baroque periods, Venus in front of the mirror was the ideal subject through which artists could express their concepts of art, beauty and artistic creation. The senses, the role of sight as revealer of reality and beauty, and the superiority of painting over the other arts were concepts expressed through this iconography, which was also referred to in more or less specific terms in treaties on art and aesthetics during the period in question.
The iconographical role of the mirror is as important as that of Venus. It is used to multiply the viewpoints of objects and set up reflections and effects of light, allowing the artist to demonstrate his virtuoso skills. In addition, it is used as a moral allegory, reminding the viewer of the transient nature of beauty. It can also be an attribute of prudence, truth, vanity and luxury. Thus in the painting by Simon Vouet (cat. nº. 9) the mirror is a key attribute of the female figure who looks into it, symbolising Prudence. In the old copy on display here of a lost work by Georges de la Tour (cat. nº 10. 10), this mirror is transformed into a medium through which Mary Magdalen silently meditates on death. In Giovanni Girolamo’s Self-portrait (cat. nº. 6) the multiple reflection of the character created by various mirrors conveys the idea that painting is the most appropriate medium for representing nature from multiple viewpoints. The mirror in Hans von Aachen’s painting (cat. nº. 8) adds a comic note to feminine beauty; in Gerard ter Borch’s panel this is transformed into an intimate and everyday quality (cat. nº .7). With Annibale Carracci (cat. nº. 3) the approach is a classical one: Venus symbolises attraction, desire and contemplation while her gaze in the mirror is an allegory of the refinement and sophistication inherent in beauty. The Three Graces garlanding the goddess in this painting are associated with the mirror itself in a Roman example loaned from the North Carolina Museum (cat. nº. 4). This interest in the mirror survives into modern art. In Max Beckmann’s painting (cat. nº. 11) a modern Venus, albeit one inspired by archaic associations with Mars, is conceived in a manner diametrically opposite to the Renaissance and Baroque ideal.
Fernando Checa Cremades, Tiziano/Rubens: Venus ante el espejo. Contextos de la Colección permanente no. 13. Madrid, Fundación Colección Thyssen-Bornemisza, 2002. 96 pages. Illustrated in colour.