February 2011

Titian, Mulvey, and Lacan

I’ve been on a Renaissance kick lately, haven’t I? For several weeks I have been wanting to write a post about Titian’s Venus with a Mirror (c. 1555, shown left). I think this painting is so interesting, especially because it can be applied to a few theories that are popular in art historical analysis.

I often feel a bit unsettled when looking at this painting, and it has to do with Venus’ mirror reflection. The reflection of Venus’ eye captures my attention the most. For one thing, only one eye is reflected in the mirror, causing goddess of love’s reflection to look a little bit like the Cyclops! Ha! The eye also seems to stare out of the picture plane towards the viewer (perhaps as a way to invite the viewer into the painting, as was suggested by Obridge in a comment for an earlier post of mine). This direct gaze makes the viewer extremely aware of his (the pronoun is intentional) voyeuristic gaze. (And although I don’t bring a “male gaze” to the painting, perhaps I feel unsettled because I’m a heterosexual woman; I don’t want to be accused as a voyeur while gazing at a female form!) One perceives that Venus is completely aware that her nude body is on display, since her reflected eye acknowledges the viewer’s presence.

But it’s not only the direct gaze in the reflection that captures my interest. It’s the fact that only part of Venus’ body is revealed in the reflection. Through the “cropping” of the mirror frame, Venus’ eye and shoulder become fetishized for the viewer. This reminds me so much of Laura Mulvey’s discussion of women in film. Mulvey discusses how the film camera crops and fetishizes the female form, particularly with camera close-ups on specific parts of the female body.1 It can be argued that Titian is doing the same thing, by having the mirror highlight certain parts of Venus’ body.

I wonder what psychoanalyst Lacan would say about Venus with a Mirror. Lacanian theory discusses how the mirror stage is the most important stage of development for a child (and the child’s ego) – it’s the point in which an infant recognizes himself/herself in the mirror.2 Lacan also is interested in the idea of the gaze, particularly how one develops awareness through looking.3 Given the usage of a mirror (and gaze!) in this painting, can anything be related to the mirror stage? Does the viewer feel compelled to recognize his own eye (and, perhaps by extension, his role as a spectator) when gazing at the reflected eye? Perhaps this is one reason that I feel a little unsettled; I am accustomed to seeing my own eye when I gaze at a mirror, and not the direct gaze of another person’s eye.

Lacan discusses how a young infant experiences elation during the mirror stage, for the child imagines the mirror image to be more complete and more perfect than the child experiences his own body. Obviously, the viewer can’t get a sense of completion and perfection in the mirror image that Titian has created, since Venus’ body is fragmented from the viewer’s perspective. The viewer expects to see (and anticipates that Venus also sees) a more complete reflection of the goddess in the mirror, but in actuality the more complete image of Venus (for the viewer, at least) is displayed on the left side of the canvas. Hence, I feel unsettled; the mirror has failed my expectations, yet paradoxically I am still given a “complete image” of Venus within the picture frame.

Does anyone else feel a bit unsettled by looking at this painting? Why or why not?

1 Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in Screen 16, no. 3 (Autumn, 1975): 21-22. I’ve written a little bit about Mulvey’s ideas in a previous post.

2 Ibid, 17. See also “Lacan: The Mirror Stage” for further information and resources.

3 Jacques Lacan, The Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (New York: W. W. Norton, 1981), 67-78.


The Inverted "T" Shape

Occasionally a student will ask me about why Rogier van der Weyden’s Deposition altarpiece (also called “Descent from the Cross, c. 1440, shown left) is formed in an unusual shape. Up until this point, I have always answered that the shape (which looks like an inverted “T”) was a traditional form for altarpieces in Northern Europe. Although this answer is true, I have recently learned that I could give a much more detailed response to my students. In a fascinating article, “The Inverted “T”-Shape in Early Netherlandish Altarpieces: Studies in the Relation between Painting and Sculpture,” scholar Lynn F. Jacobs explores some reasons for why this particular shape would have contained significance, meaning, and specific purpose. 1 I wanted to highlight some of her ideas here:

  • The inverted “T” could help to visually emphasize the most important scene in the altarpiece. Along these lines, the added vertical section could also accommodate particular narrative features (such as a cross, as is well demonstrated in van der Weyden’s Seven Sacraments altarpiece, c. 1445-50, shown right).2
  • The elevated section of the shape could have been used to suggest a type of hierarchy (in terms of sanctity). The more sanctified, holy persons appear in the most elevated section of the “T” altarpiece. This visual emphasis on sanctity is connected with the idea of heaven (since heaven is usually conceived as being a place “on high”). Jacobs points out that this connection with heaven is implicit in the “T” shape, simply by virtue of its form.3
  • The “T” shape could have symbolic associations with the church, since it also mimics the architectural cross section of a Gothic cathedral. (Notice how Seven Sacraments even places the figures within a cathedral setting, with the vertical section for the nave elevation and the smaller areas for the side aisles.) Jacobs even points out that some of these altarpieces seem to suggest the triple portal facade of a cathedral.4
  • Jacobs particularly stresses that the inverted “T” might have originated for practical reasons (and perhaps later took on these aforementioned symbolic associations). These altarpieces were used to define space during the celebration of the Mass. During this service, the priest elevates the Sacrament and holds it high in the air. Not only does the “T” shape altarpiece create “a backdrop to frame the display of the sanctified Host,” but the vertical stress of the shape ensures “a backdrop that could encompass this elevated gesture.”5 Since the elevation of the Sacrament had been an established part of the Mass service since the thirteenth century, this practical explanation seems extremely logical to me.

What suggestion do you particularly like? Do you have a favorite Netherlandish altarpiece that is formed in an inverted “T” shape?

1 Lynn F. Jacobs, “The Inverted “T”-Shape in Early Netherlandish Altarpieces: Studies in the Relation between Painting and Sculpture,” Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 54 Bd., H. 1 (1991): 33-65.
2 Ibid., 36.
3 Ibid., 48.
4 Ibid., 37.
5 Ibid., 45.

Renaissance Art and Conception!

I hope the title of my post grabbed your attention! I’ve been reading a terribly interesting book this afternoon: Picturing Women in Renaissance and Baroque Italy. This book includes a chapter by Caroline P. Murphy, a scholar on 16th century artist Lavinia Fontana.1 Murphy’s chapter discusses how art was used in conjunction with the conception and delivery of children, and it’s absolutely fascinating.

To introduce this aspect of her argument, Murphy mentions how people in early modern Europe were both “appalled and fascinated by the birth of monstrous children” (e.g. children with severe birth defects).2 It was believed in order to avoid the conception of a monstrous child, a woman should look at pictures of beautiful figures. In essence, this beautiful image was supposed to have “a positive morphological effect on the child in [the woman’s] womb.”3 Consequently, some pictures with beautiful figures were designed so that they could be placed over a bed or attached to the bedframe (since the bed was the place where sexual intercourse would take place). In addition, a pregnant woman would spend much of her time resting on the bed, and she would have additional opportunities to look at the beautiful figures (and positively affect the growth of the child).

So what constituted a “beautiful figure” in 16th century Bologna, the city in which Lavinia Fontana worked? You may be think that such figures were mythological, such as Venus or Cupid. Actually, due to the Counter-Reformation and promotion of religious imagery, it is more likely that women looked at images of Mary and the Christ Child. Murphy mentions a few Holy Family paintings by Lavinia Fontana which were probably bought for married couples, one being The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child (Boston Museum of Fine Arts).

However, I think there is one more painting by Fontana which should be added to Murphy’s discussion. Given Murphy’s emphasis on childbirth, I think it’s surprising that she did not discuss Fontana’s Holy Family with Saints Margaret and Francis (1578, shown right) in her article.* Not only do these beautiful figures fit with other Holy Family images that Murphy discusses, but this painting also includes a depiction of Saint Margaret: the patron saint of childbirth! (Saint Margaret is identified on the left, through her symbol of the dragon.)

Couldn’t this image have been a source of comfort to pregnant women at the time? Murphy mentions how some images of the Holy Family include St. Elizabeth; the inclusion of St. Elizabeth would have been comforting for a female viewer, particularly a woman who was attempting to get pregnant (since Elizabeth conceived in old age). Although this painting does not depict Elizabeth, I think this inclusion of St. Margaret in this painting would have served as a source of comfort too (and it seems to be an even more appropriate connection, given St. Margaret’s role and patronage!).

Interestingly, the Davis Museum and Cultural Center of Wellesly College (which has this painting on loan), does not make any mention of Murphy’s argument in their webpage for this painting (and their bibliography does not cite Murphy). I’m going to have to write them – I think they need to slightly modify their discussion of this painting!

*Update: the comments section for this post discusses Murphy’s reasoning for not including this painting in her argument.

1 Caroline P. Murphy, “Lavinia Fontana and the Female Life Cycle Experience,” in Picturing Women in Renaissance and Baroque Italy, edited by Geraldine A. Johnson and Sara F. Matthews Grieco (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 111-138.

2 Ibid., 120.

3 Ibid., 121.


"Watson and the Shark" by Copley

I want to write a blog post on Copley’s Watson and the Shark (1778, shown left) for my friend “e.” She has been a long-time reader of this blog, and due to some significant changes in her life, she won’t be able to get online and read blogs for some time. She particularly likes this painting, so I thought this post would be a fitting tribute to her.

This painting is interesting to me for several reasons. First of all, this painting is interesting because Copley probably had never seen a shark when he painted this scene!1 In fact, at least one contemporary critic sensed there was some inaccuracy in the way the shark was depicted, saying that the shark “bore no resemblance to any creature on earth.”2 I wouldn’t go that far (!) – but I don’t think that the shark is perfectly realistic.

In addition, the I think subject matter of this painting is interesting since it is based on an actual historical event. In 1749, a fourteen year old boy named Brook Watson was attacked by a shark while swimming in Havana Harbor. The shark struck twice, consuming Watson’s right foot and flesh from his right calf (notice in the painting that Watson’s right leg eerily disappears at the bottom of the canvas). Copley depicts the moment where Watson was saved by rescuers, just as the shark was rearing for a third strike. Watson’s leg was amputated just above the knee.

Watson managed with a wooden leg (as can be seen an etching of Watson created by Robert Dighton in 1803). He eventually became a successful merchant, and it is likely that he commissioned Copley to paint this scene for him, since Watson owned the painting at the time of his death.3 Honestly, I’m quite surprised that Watson wanted a have a painting which depicted such a traumatic event in his life! If I was ever attacked by a shark, I don’t know if I would want the event immortalized in oil and canvas!

This painting holds some significance art historically, since it depicts a real-life event in the tradition of “history paintings.” Typically, history paintings (which were considered to be the most important type of painting by artistic academies) consisted of biblical or mythological scenes. Copley breaks from the traditional representations of history paintings by depicting an obscure event from recent history.4 He even elevates this obscure event by depicting it on a grand-scale: the large canvas is approximately 5′ 7″ x 7′ 6″ (182.1 cm × 229.7 cm).

If you’re interested in learning a little bit more about Watson and the Shark, check out this mini-site that is maintained by the National Gallery of Art (Washington, DC).

1 For more examples of art that was created without the artist having seen the animal beforehand, see my prior post, “The artist had never seen a [insert animal] before.”

2 Louis P. Masur, “Reading Watson and the Shark,” in The New England Quarterly 67, no. 3 (Sept. 1994): 437.

3 Ibid., 434.

4 Ibid., 436-37.


Valentine’s Day Kisses

With Valentine’s Day around the corner, I thought people would like to look at Flavorwire’s article, “The 10 Best Art Kisses of All Time.” My two favorite pieces that are highlighted in the article are Rodin’s The Kiss (1889) and Brancusi’s The Kiss (1908 version found through link).

I would have also included Canova’s Cupid and Psyche (c. 1787-1793, see detail here) on the list. Even though technically the figures have just kissed or are about to kiss (depending on who you ask), it’s a much more beautiful sculpture than that horrid drawing by Picasso (listed as #9 in the article). Ugh.

Do you know of any other works of art which are appropriate for Valentine’s Day?

Happy Valentine’s Day!


Email Subscription



This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.