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Mirrors to the Soul: Reflected Emotion in Art

When observing a piece of art, it is only natural that the viewer contemplates the thoughts and emotions of the subject that they are examining. However, the subject itself pondering its own emotions is a far more difficult essence to capture by the artist. Mirrors are thought of as merely reflecting one’s physical appearance, but through precise depictions of expression, far more can be unlocked. They reveal private moments between the subject and themselves, and only the subject decides what they wish to share with the intrusive eyes of the onlooker. Whether the outcome is the truth, a ruse, or an impenetrable mask, these mirrored moments exploit not only the subject’s thoughts but deepen the emotion evoked by the surveyor and divulge the personal backstories of the artists who create them.

Rockwell and the Mirrored Truth

While mirrors are often associated with vanity and self-admiration, American illustrator Norman Rockwell captures the other side of the coin with insecurity and criticism. In his 1954 illustration of Girl at Mirror, he paints a young girl at a turning point in her life. She is clad in a white slip dress, alluding to her innocence, yet the other symbol of innocence, her doll, has been thrown haphazardly to the side. At her feet lay various cosmetics, including lipstick and a brush. Their red color, associated with sexuality and passion, indicates that she is ready to shed her childhood and reach for the next chapter. On her lap is a picture of the movie star Jane Russell, who was at her peak popularity at the time of this painting. The girl’s hair is done up in a similar style to mimic the lauded star, yet the girl examines herself in the mirror with uncertainty. Her hands are clenched beneath her chin, a classic pose of doubt. Her forehead is furrowed, unsure if she possesses the beauty and mystique of the woman she is trying to emulate (King, 2016).

Figure 1: Girl at Mirror (Rockwell, 1954)

Rockwell’s previous 1933 work Going Out, seen in the cover photo, shows a possible backstory for this little girl’s angst. This piece shows a mother preening in anticipation of a night out, with not one but two mirrors at her disposal. The insecurity of Girl in Mirror is replaced with unabashed confidence, with perhaps a touch of narcissism. The woman’s daughter is thought to be a younger version of Girl in Mirror, as they share the same braided hair and red comb. The discarded doll appears to be antique, being passed down through female generations, just like the gender role which this girl is eager to fill (King, 2016). These gender archetypes were often depicted in Rockwell’s work, as 321 of his pieces were used for the beloved American magazine, The Saturday Evening Post. The Post required their cover art to be “not upsetting or controversial,” as their goal was to “not offend a single reader” (Aldana, 2003). While depicting stringent gender roles today would certainly offend more than a “single reader,” during the 1950s this was an extremely safe and accepted topic. Rockwell drew inspiration from his own childhood memories of summers in the upstate New York countryside, swimming and fishing with his brother and parents. Through his art, he said that he “was showing the America I know and observed to others who might not have noticed” (Aldana, 2003). Rockwell’s aim was to hold a mirror up to his audience, to reflect the quotidian life of the average American and depict the truth in the beautifully ordinary.

Manet and the Societal Mirror

Where Rockwell’s mirrors show the unvarnished truth, Édouard Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882) takes a masked approach to emotion. Unlike the child in Rockwell’s piece, the woman in Manet’s work does not have the luxury of appearing exactly how she feels. To better appreciate the emotions the artist wants to convey, it's necessary to have a deep understanding of the period and the circumstances surrounding the events of the painting. The scene takes place at the Folies-Bergère, a popular cabaret hall in Paris, France, that doubled as an upscale prostitution ring. During this time in Paris, mass consumption was popularized and this painting is riddled with symbols of entertainment, indulgence, and hedonism (Iskin, 1995). The focal point is the barmaid in the center, who is wearing a slimming black outfit that is a uniform specifically geared towards boosting sales, in every sense of the word (Iskin, 1995).

Figure 2: A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (Manet, 1882)

Her bar is littered with expensive champagne and liqueurs to fuel the evening’s debauchery, which is reflected in the mirror behind her. This mirror resembles one of the many glittering shop windows of Paris, alluding to the barmaid as not only a saleswoman but the product on sale herself (Iskin, 1995). An opulent chandelier hangs above the scene, and the tiny feet of a trapeze artist dangle in the upper left-hand corner. A mustachioed gentleman in a top hat inquires about her services, whether alcoholic, sexual, or both. In the mirrored reflection, the barmaid leans towards the man, ready to dutifully honor his request. However, the barmaid that the viewer sees head-on has an entirely different body language that leads one to doubt if this is a reflection of the same person. Her posture is stiff and straight, juxtaposing her reflection’s accommodating stance. Her face is drawn, with hints of annoyance and discomfort. She has rosy cheeks, yet it is not from the gentleman’s lewd request, but the strain of working in such a bustling and demanding environment. Her reflection is not showing the viewer the truth, but rather the role she must play. This role is highlighted by the trapeze artist, a reminder that everyone in the hall has a specific role they must fulfill (Lynne, 2018). In her case, “the male gazer yearns to see his desire reflected in the depicted women,” thus she must oblige through returned affection, however fake (Etheridge, 2016). Unlike Rockwell’s little girl, the woman in A Bar at the Folies-Bergère has mastered the art of masking her emotions, a crucial skill in her field.

An alternative angle suggests that Manet painted his own emotions in the face of the young barmaid. As an avid participant in this Parisienne lifestyle of luxury, his later years were fraught with health problems and paralysis on both legs, ironically the result of syphilis from his painted prostitute. A Bar at the Folies-Bergère was completed a year before his death and Manet perhaps chose to depict the kind of life that he will never again lead, as the next life was calling (Lynne, 2018).

Toulouse-Lautrec and the Art of Shrouded Emotion

As exemplified in A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, mirrors can only be windows to the soul if admission is granted. Toulouse-Lautrec's Woman Before a Mirror (1897) depicts a red-headed prostitute contemplating herself in front of a mirror, with her back to the surveyor. The rumpled bed sheets next to her, her black stockings, and her own nudity point to her profession. In the previously examined works, the eye is immediately drawn to the mirror and, thus, initiates the deciphering of the subject’s emotions in said mirror. In this oil on cardboard painting, the woman’s physical, not reflected, nude body is the focal point, which almost glows against the muted tones of dark browns and reds. Even the white of the sheets is painted with dull grays and blues, accentuating the woman’s pale skin. It is only after observing the rest of the painting that the viewer even realizes the subject is standing before a mirror, as that too uses subdued colors. Through Toulouse-Lautrec’s rough and imprecise brushstrokes, her expression is indiscernible, her facial features are barely even distinguishable (Etheridge, 2016). From the erect poise of her posture, she could be a proud woman unabashedly admiring her body. Alternatively, she could be negatively contemplating her life, limply holding a bedsheet while she explores the mental, not physical, of what is in the mirror. Nothing in this woman’s life is private –even the most intimate act– yet, her feelings remain her own, a most surprising revelation.

Figure 3: Woman Before a Mirror (Toulouse-Lautrec, 1897)

Considering an artist's intentions when observing a piece of art gives a new dimention to comprehension. Toulouse-Lautrec had an interest in female introspection, particularly one for marginalized groups. By depicting a prostitute in the midst of an intimate act entirely separate from the one she presumably just completed, the artist is showing society a humanizing side of a person formally reduced to her profession (Etheridge, 2016). In fact, Toulouse-Lautrec has omitted in the mirror the two main indicators of her profession: the black stockings and rumpled bed sheets. Without these identifiers, she is simply a woman in deep self-rumination. Quite the frequenter of brothels himself, Toulouse-Lautrec spent much time with these women. He befriended them in a way that doubtlessly led to his art's goal of bringing these working women a level of respect in society of which they had previously been denied (Ike, 2017).

One would expect a painting of a prostitute to be erotic, as the audience is shown almost a 360-degree view of the woman’s body simultaneously. However, this potential eroticism is diminished to practically none when the viewer realizes they are not privy to her thoughts (Etheridge, 2016). This incorporation of a mirror has the opposite effect as one would think, effectively shrouding instead of elucidating.

An artist’s decision to incorporate mirrors does not only reflect emotions to the audience, it forces the subject to confront these emotions themselves. There are many ways in which an artist can depict the inner thoughts of their subject, but mirrors add a layer of intense introspection that other pieces of art lack. This introspection does not always mean the naked truth, like in a moment of raw vulnerability seen in Rockwell’s Girl at Mirror. Mirrors are meant for the depicted-subject, not necessarily the spectator, as shown by the prostitute’s shrouded face in Toulouse-Lautrec’s Woman Before a Mirror. With this being said, the subject can warp their appearance to fool the prying spectator. Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère proves that just because one can see something, does not mean it is the truth. While the subject decides which emotions to share, deciding this realm of emotions is in the hands of the artist. In all three works, the artist’s own reflection of their life experiences shines through. Whether it reflects truth or lies, mirrors stimulate three minds: that of the subject, the surveyor, and the artist.

Bibliographical References

Aldana, M. (2003). How Norman Rockwell Became An Essential Part Of American Culture. Seton Hall University Dissertations and Theses (ETDs). Chapters 1 - 2, pp. 6-25. URL:

Etheridge, K. (2016). Dynamic reflections: mirrors in the poetic and visual culture of Paris from 1850 to 1900 [Ph.D. thesis]. University of Oxford. pp. 142-151. URL:

Ike, J. D. (2017). Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec: Disability and Art in Fin-de-Siècle Paris. The Journal of Humanities in Rehabilitation (JHR). Historical Perspectives in Art. Emory University. p. 5. URL:

Iskin, R. E. (1995). Selling, Seduction, and Soliciting the Eye: Manet's Bar at the Folies-Bergère. The Art Bulletin, 77(1), pp. 26-27. URL:

King, C. S. (2016). American queerer: Norman Rockwell and the art of queer feminist critique. Women's Studies in Communication, 39(2), pp. 157-176. URL:

Lynne, O. (2018). Objects of Desire, Subjects of Anxiety: Edouard Manet's A Bar at the Folies-Bergère and Paul Cezanne's The Eternal Feminine. The Psychoanalytic Review, 105(6), pp. 609-637. URL:

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Elena Miceli

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