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Venus at the mirror or Allegory of vanity?
From the Middle Ages onwards many artists, not only famous ones like Giorgione, Veronese, Titian, Rubens, Goya, Ingres or Manet,
increasingly turned their attention to images of Venus. In their approach of this great mythological subject, they also sharpen their
skills in the portrayal of the seductive beauty as well as the sexual attractiveness of the female body.
The painting represents a young, attractive woman, who looks at the viewer with a seductive smile and points to her reflection in a mirror.
Her physical appearance is so important to the narration of the painting that the painter decided to show us two views of her face.
Her mirror image, however, reflects only the vaguest suggestion of her face in profile. The neckline of her loosened white shirt is so low that
it exposes one of her nipples, inviting us to enjoy her youth and beauty. The velvet of the table cloth, the blue and yellow satin of her dress,
the white cotton of her blouse conveys a rich, sensual feeling.
The presence of gold and jewels on the table before her would suggest that, rather than Venus, the woman symbolizes the pleasure
of having precious possessions. This idea of Voluptuousness as one of the central concepts of this painting is confirmed by the scene in the b
ackground. The background painting on the back wall above the woman's head shows an erotic scene of two nude figures in a landscape.
It is taken from Ovid's Metamorphoses and features the blond, naked nymph Salmacis trying to embrace the objecting
Hermaphroditus. A rare physical beauty, Hermaphroditus was the son of the god Hermes and the goddess Aphrodite. On seeing him,
the nymph Salmacis falls instantly in love and longs to possess him. Salmacis symbolizes here the sensual seductress who eventually
succeeds in obtaining her priced possession. In this sense she is a perfect match for the young woman with the mirror, and quite possibly
Moreelse chose it for that reason.
The northern European painters of this period were looking for a new, more secular pictoral language, that by its moralizing
character simultaneously entertain and educate its spectators.
Whether Moreelse really meant that his painting should be interpreted in this way is difficult to determine. But certainly
it was intended as a warning against other dangers of voluptuousness and material wealth that offer uncontrolled romance,
lovemaking and evil of immorality.
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