Lines and Colors art blog

Eye Candy for Today: Parmigianino’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror

Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror; Francesco Mazzola, called Parmigianino
Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror; Francesco Mazzola, called Parmigianino

Oil on curved wooden panel, roughly 9 inches (24 cm) in diameter (without frame). Link is to zoomable version on the Google Art Project; there is a downloadable file on Wikimedia Commons; the original is in the Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, which also has both zoomable and downloadable versions.

There are plenty of precedents for the use of curved mirrors in art, as well as their use in self-portraiture, but this strikingly intimate and true to life self-portrait by the 16th century painter Parmigianino is notable for its simultaneous strength and delicacy, and for the fact that Parmigianino painted it on a convex wooden block, further adding to the illusion that the painting itself was a convex mirror.

The effect of the convex surface is difficult to see in straight-on photographs, but I found a couple of examples from the side of the painting hanging in place on Flickr, here and here. You can also see it in this video about the painting from the Khan Academy.

This was a painting that the young, 21-year-old Parmigianino intended to be an example of his skill as a painter, to be used to showcase his abilities to potential clients.

The artist presented it, along with two other small works, to Pope Clement VI in an effort to gain commissions from the Vatican. Though it didn’t accomplish that goal, it did help cement Parmigianino’s reputation in general as an exceptional painter.

The painting was mentioned in Giorgio Vasari’s seminal book of artist biographies, Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. The painting was also the inspiration for a noted poem and collection by contemporary poet John Ashbery.

Many of Parmigianino’s paintings have a kind of trademark styleization, a graceful elongation of figures, but this self-portrait is directly observed with an almost hypnotic sense of accuracy, including the optical distortion of the artist’s hand due to its proximity to the mirror.

I find it interesting to compare this to another iconic portrait in a curved reflecting surface, M.C. Escher’s Hand with Reflecting Sphere.