In the Frame: Parmigianino's Self-Portrait


Mannerist artist Parmigianino and his self-portrait on a convex mirror.

Parmigianino , Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, 1524

Parmigianino, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, 1524

With the invention of mirror, one of the finest examples of self-portrait paintings leads us to Parmigianino.

According to the 16th Century art biographer Vasari, Parmigianino's Self-Portrait on a convex mirror was originally created as a gift for Pope Clement VII. Parmigianino hoped that presenting a piece of his artwork to the Pope would prove how talented he was. Ultimately, he was unsuccessful in his attempt to gain commissions from the Vatican, but even by then, his portrait was greatly acknowledged. 

The self-portrait portrays a surprisingly well-dressed, angelic young man with sweet features and an elongated arm. Some sources claim that Parmigianino painted this image when he was 21, but its undertones of teenage promiscuity mixed with aristocracy suggest that he might have been even younger.

Similar Caravaggio's famous 'Medusa' portrait, both portraits are created on a convex surface with brilliant, artistic effect.

Caravaggio uses this surface to emphasise the menace of the mythical gorgon, Medusa, by simultaneously attracting and deflecting the viewer’s gaze. Parmigianino, on the other hand, uses his own, direct stare to captivate spectators. It is therefore the artist’s own identity that draws viewers to his deceptively mirrored reflection.

The portrait’s most striking feature is the unusually curved hand displayed so prominently at its forefront. This detail is perhaps the biggest clue that the painting is actually of Parmigianino’s reflection in a convex mirror. Once viewers realise this fact, they might feel as though they, themselves, are looking into the mirror in which the artist is reflected.

In other words, they see what he sees.

Parmigianino takes his viewers on a journey with him, exploring his own identity alongside creative artistic perspectives and illusionary techniques. The result is a convincing imitation of a reflection in an actual, convex mirror. Although viewers can tell the difference between illusion and reality, they can also appreciate the multi-layered identities -of material, illusion and artist- the painting contains.

Caravaggio, The Medusa, 1597

Caravaggio, The Medusa, 1597

 On an another note, it is hardly surprising that Parmigianino chose to express his artistic vision by painting his reflection on a convex, half-globe of wood, because he was reportedly fascinated by distortion. He enjoyed investigating how convex mirrors changed reflections in his everyday life, as well as with a paintbrush.

John Ashbery’s poem ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’ complements the painting it is named after. It also complements Parmigianino’s own story, attempting to explore his identity through a different form of art:

The right hand

Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer

And swerving easily away, as though to protect

What it advertises.
— John Ashbery