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.

  • heidenkind says:

    What an interesting painting! I'm not familiar with this Titian at all, but you're right, it's very unsettling. It almost reminds me of The Picture of Dorian Grey because there's such a difference between the two images–in the painting, Venus looks cool and young and sensuous and perfect, but in the mirror she looks older and harried, almost trapped. And the reflection of the putti's hand on her arm is really uncanny.

    Do you think Titian used a real woman as a model and she's seeing her future in the glass?

  • Benjamin (Ben) says:

    How fun to be mentioned in this!(For those who don't know, @Obridge is my twitter alter-ego.)

    Is part of the unsettling quality of her gaze to do with the fact that it's not entirely clear whether she's looking in our direction or just at herself? I feel myself oscillating between these possibilities–feeling that she's looking at me, but thinking that she's probably looking at herself. (If that makes any sense.)

    I also love the inclusion of cupid's quiver–the geometries of sight and archery are connected, right? We're pierced by love's gaze. Cupid shoots but is often blind-folded, etc. etc.

    I'm going to drag your renaissance discussion into the nineteenth-century again(!), by mentioning another painting in the National Gallery–Cassatt's Mother and Child. See: http://www.nga.gov/collection/gallery/gg23/gg23-41.html This always feels like a variation on Titian's theme, although I've no idea whether Cassatt would have known the work, or not. Still, it rather nicely puts the mirror (stage!) into the hands of a child. And there's something about the connection between the sunflower and the hand mirror that introduces the idea of turning (towards the sun, towards another's gaze). These are also games of sight: visual flirtations and amusements. And the child uses the mirror to learn about the relationship between visual discontinuity and object continuity.

    Turning also seems to play an important role in the Titian. Her body is orientated towards us, as though she might more naturally be facing us, but is instead looking at us (and/or herself) in the mirror.

  • GermyB says:

    I feel like there are two things that are unsettling to me about this.

    1. The geometry of the mirror and it's reflection feels off – it doesn't feel clear to me that that's what I'd actually see if it were a real mirror.

    2. I agree with heidenkind – Venus' eye in the mirror looks distressed – like it's not the same tranquil, calm eye we see in her profile.

  • Margarida Elias says:

    I also feel unsettled, but I'm not sure why. The idea of the eye looking at me through the mirror is in fact disturbing. I liked you conection between this painting and the cinema, which I find very interesting.
    I think that what is more unsettling is, in fact, that Venus is almost naked, very distant, not looking at the spectator directly but through the mirror, which makes us feel like voyeurs.

  • Dr. F says:


    Maybe it's my advanced years but I am not unsettled by this painting. Titian depicted Venus in the guise of a Venetian courtesan with full figure, elaborate hairdo, and fur-lined robe.

    The painting reminds me of Lorenzo Lotto's Venus in NY's Met where the Cupid urinates through the wreath.

    Did Titian use a live model? I recall reading that he did not like to work in Rome because of the lack of prostitutes to pose. Venice had thousands to choose from.


  • H Niyazi says:

    The last person I encountered that was unsettled by Titian was Mark Twain, whom vehemently denounced the Urbino Venus as pornographic!

    I think we need to be careful layering our modern perceptions onto a work made long before these perceptions were expressed.

    Titian's piece is an expression of the classical tradition of Venus Pudica(Modest Venus), the covering of the single breast an inconographical constant since Ancient Greek sculpture. Titian is indeed clever adding the mirror as a device to accentuate this modesty.

    It's interesting to note the differences between this Pudica variant and the more brazen Venus of Urbino. I daresay the differences in modesty are a result of the target audience, namely the patron – rather than Titian contemplating the social theory implications of his work.

    I'm going to avoid the Michael Fried-esque temptation of dragging everything into the 19thC and suggest a more valid avenue of exploration would be the later Baroque variations on this theme by Rubens and Velazquez, neither of which have a Pudica element.

    Kind Regards

  • P. M. Doolan says:

    Great post. Fascinating. I agree with Heidenkind, the eye that looks at us is weirdly different than the eyes that gaze into the mirror.

  • M says:

    Thanks for the comments, everyone. Heidenkind and GermyB bring up interesting points about how the reflection looks a little bit different in the mirror – I agree. I also think that we are unsettled because we can't tell where exactly Venus is looking (which goes along with what Ben said).

    I think Ben meant to leave a link for this Mary Cassatt painting (correct me if I'm wrong, Ben). You're completely right: this painting has a really great reference to Lacan's mirror stage! I also liked your discussion of the sunflower and turning toward the sun. (I have to admit, the sunflower has always looked like a huge breast to me, and I'm glad to think about the flower in a different way now!)

    More comments for others later, but I have to run…

  • M says:

    Margarida, thanks for your comment! I agree, this painting makes the viewer feel like a voyeur.

    Dr. F, I'm glad that you don't find the painting to be unsettling (I wanted to hear at least one person give a different reaction, especially because I rather doubt Titian intended the painting to be unsettling.)

    I don't know if Titian used a live model for this painting – what a good question! I haven't found any information on that topic, but if I come across something, I will let you know (and post the findings here, for others to see). I did learn, though, from this site that this canvas remained in Titian's studio until his death. I'm not sure if he had difficulty with selling the painting (e.g. pleasing a patron) or if he kept the painting for personal reasons – perhaps the work was a personal favorite. The site also mentions that this painting is "universally recognized to be entirely the product of Titian's hand alone without contributions from other painters working in his studio."

    H Niyazi, I'm glad that you brought up the Venus pudica reference in this painting. Titian's Venus of Urbino also references the Venus pudica tradition, since she covers her hand with her genitalia, but she definitely is more "brazen" than the one in Venus with a Mirror. (It was interesting to read that Twain was offended by that work – I wasn't aware of that!) I wonder if Urbino Venus' brazenness has to do with her gaze: Venus of Urbino stares directly at the viewer, while the other Venus looks at the viewer indirectly (with the help of a mirror).

  • Benjamin (Ben) says:

    Yep, sorry for leaving the wrong link, and thanks for adding the correct one.

    Something about his tone always makes me wonder whether Twain was really offended by the Venus of Urbino. I've also thought it was mostly theatrical and vaguely comic–mock outrage.

    I'm not a huge fan of Lacan or Lacanian readings, but vaguely recall that he was fascinated by Holbein's the Ambassadors and also seemed conversant with Renaissance theories of perspective. (See his "The Line and the Light" essay.)

  • H Niyazi says:

    @M – it is true – the gaze made all the difference in tipping opinions against The Venus of Urbino! Giorgione's Dresden 'Sleeping Venus' is identically posed in this respect, but as her eyes are closed, it never generated the same ire as Titian's piece!

    I have done a supplememtal to this post, for those interested in exploring the meaning of the work to Titian and his contemporaries, and an interesting pattern observed in his use of models:

    Titian: Mirrors, Courtesans and the Queen of Cyprus

    Kind Regards

  • Rebekah says:

    Cherubs, those knowing babies, always make me uncomfortable in paintings. And this is absolutely no exception, with that ropey musculature on the cherub grossly contrasted with the flabby baby hand, holding the mirror for the voluptuous Venus. Crreeeepy.

  • M says:

    Ben, your comment made me do a little bit more research on the Mark Twain quote. I found a post which discusses the quote in length, and that author also feels like Twain is describing the Venus of Urbino in order to make a certain point – in this case, that artists can "get away" with more than writers.

    And yes, I do remember Lacan's mention of Holbein's painting. The psychoanalyst seemed rather interested in art.

    Rebekah, I totally understand what you're saying about the cherubs. They seem different from other representations of cherubs, too: perhaps they're a bit to large? I also think that the wings on the cherub in the foreground are not incorporated well with the figure. Maybe a little more foreshortening would help…

  • H Niyazi says:

    @Rebekah – it is important to note that as babies and children were notoriously hard to make sit still, artists depicting these Putti often used to employ dwarves as models – thus the more adult musculature often shown in their depiction.

    Speaking of an unnerving dwarf – there is a famous double sided Bronzino portrait of Morgante the dwarf that served as a Medici jester – a piece I had the dubious pleasure of seeing in person when in Florence. It was somewhat creepy. More info and pic here

    Kind Regards

  • AdmGln says:

    What disturbs me? The cherub's wing is on its bicep instead of on its shoulder blade. It just seems off and makes me shudder.

  • M says:

    Hasan, thanks for including that information. I've seen images of dwarves before, but not that specific one by Bronzino. The strategically-placed moth in the painting is a little disturbing too, at least when one glances at the painting for the first time!

    AdmGln, I completely agree! Ha!

  • Benjamin (Ben) says:

    M–Right, there's the debate about representation (word & image) going on in the Twain passage. I think perhaps there's also a sense that he's perhaps making fun of Puritanical responses to the art of Catholic Europe. Exploring these differences is a thread running through a lot of 19th- and early 20th-C English-language writing about Italy. Think of Henry James and EM Forster.

  • Jacob Freeze says:

    Fans of Laura Mulvey may want to check out my 42-foot inflatable Monument to the Memory of Laura Mulvey, now in the process of installation on the front quad at Exeter College, Oxford, opposite the Bodleian Library.

  • Michael Robinson says:

    Posted at Vimeo (? 3/14/2011)

    Entire documentary, in French with sub-titles, "Jacques Lacan Parle" based round film extracts of a seminar delivered 13 October 1972 @ Catholic University of Louvin. Apparently any film of Lcain in action is of some rarity.

    I am afraid I have never taken the man seriously. Reading transcripts etc. lead me to accept the man at his own self description: as a psychotic narcissist, one more concerned with creating a cultus than with communication. The film provides some evidence for others to make their own judgments.

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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.