03 June 2013

ArtOdysseys: Vermeer's 'The Art of Painting'

Johannes Vermeer's 'The Art of Painting' completed c. 1662—1665. Photo: WikiMedia.org.
Johannes Vermeer's "The Art of Painting" completed c. 1662—1665. Photo: WikiMedia.org.

Welcome to the June ArtSmart Roundtable! We're a group of travel bloggers who seek out experiences in art while traveling around the world and then share them with you. Each month, we focus on one art subject and this month's topic is "painting." With that, I decided to revisit the Dutch masters, specifically a painting from the 17th century by Johannes Vermeer, "The Art of Painting," completed c. 1662—1665. I invite you in for a closer look at this Dutch masterpiece and at the end of this article, be sure to check out my fellow roundtable members' contributions.

Ever since my visit to the Mauritshuis Royal Picture Gallery in The Hague and my up-close-and-personal encounters with "The Girl with a Pearl Earring," "Winter Ice" and "View of Delft" to name a few, I have wanted to learn more about northern European art so it's no surprise that I selected Vermeer once again and his work.

Vermeer's "The Art of Painting" was painted in oil on a canvas measuring 47 1/4" tall by 39 3/8" wide. While some scholars believe this piece is a self portrait of Vermeer in his studio as evidenced by the long hair that hangs below his beret, most are convinced that the artist would have never painted a portrait of himself without at least a glimpse of his face. So we are left to believe that this is a random artist from an earlier time working in his studio.

At first glance, Vermeer invites us into the studio by drawing back the drapes to reveal the master and model hard at work. The drapes not only provide a decorative element as well as an invitation to peek into this artist's studio, they establish perspective within the painting—a "repoussoir" as it's commonly referred to in art circles. Oftentimes, painters use this technique to introduce depth and multiple planes within their work and Vermeer accomplishes this masterfully with not only the repoussoir but with aid of a camera obscura of which I will get to later in this post.

Upon viewing "The Art of Painting," our attention is immediately drawn to the artist who is costumed in attire more commonly worn decades earlier. This was an intentional move by Vermeer because he wanted to establish an affiliation with earlier Dutch masters!

Upon closer inspection, Vermeer reveals very little about the artist's technique except for the fact that he employs a mahlstick to steady his hand. Photo: WikiMedia.org.
Upon closer inspection, Vermeer reveals very little about the artist's technique except for the fact that he employs a mahlstick to steady his hand. Photo: WikiMedia.org.

Vermeer was careful never to reveal his technique in his works and "The Art of Painting" is no exception. Notice how we don't see much of the artist's tools or canvas. The only object that Vermeer reveals is a mahlstick, a 17th-century standard device that the artist holds in one hand while resting the other upon it to keep it steady as he applies the paints.

In addition, look carefully at the canvas and note that the only painted subject matter we see is the laurel wreath. As you may or may not know, northern European artists typically started their paintings by applying darker colors first and then building up the highlights as he or she progressed through the work. The canvas pictured here shows no darker background colors and thus another deliberate attempt to conceal his technique.

Close-up view of 'Clio,' the muse of history is depicted exactly as she is described in 'Iconologia,' an invaluable tool for artists during the 16th and 17th centuries. Photo: WikiMedia.org.
Close-up view of "Clio," the muse of history is depicted exactly as she is described in "Iconologia," an invaluable tool for artists during the 16th and 17th centuries. Photo: WikiMedia.org.

Looking beyond the artist, our eye is drawn to his subject, Clio, the muse of history instantly recognized by her history book; a laurel wreath upon her head, symbolic of eternal life; and her trumpet which signifies the fame that an artist strives to achieve. Clio is portrayed here exactly as she is described in Cesare Ripa's "Iconologia," an iconographical book that many artists referenced throughout the 16th and 17th centuries.

Vermeer believed that visual arts owed much to history evidenced by the appearance of Clio as well as the classical mask that lies on the table. Photo: WikiMedia.org.
Vermeer believed that visual arts owed much to history evidenced by the appearance of Clio as well as the classical mask that lies on the table. Photo: WikiMedia.org.

Why Clio and the added emphasis on history? Vermeer believed that the visual arts owed much to history from the classics to present day. This premise is further supported by the curious mask on top of the table in front of Clio, which in itself, evokes much debate about its existence here. While many theories prevail, most historians believe it's either symbolic of the artist's classical training in drawing objects from antiquity; or Apollo, the god of light—an essential ingredient in all paintings. Vermeer may have illustrated this concept by the lighted triangle section of the back wall that appears to be shining onto Apollo's face. Personally, I tend to believe the former.


Close-up view of chandelier and the double-headed eagle at the top—symbolic of the Habsburg Empire that controlled the Burgundy region (Southern Netherlands & Belgium). Photo: WikiMedia.org.
Close-up view of chandelier and the double-headed eagle at the top—symbolic of the Habsburg Empire that controlled the Burgundy region (Southern Netherlands & Belgium). Photo: WikiMedia.org.

Looking beyond the main subjects and their inherent symbology, much more exists throughout this painting. Looking at the chandelier, we see the double-headed eagle residing at the top, a symbol of the Habsburg Empire that controlled the Burgundy region (Southern Netherlands & Belgium) during the 15th and 16th centuries. Also, the map hanging on the wall, due north is to the right, shows a united Burgundy region before the split between the northern Dutch provinces and the southern Hapsburg provinces which eventually became the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. Vermeer alludes to its impending divide with an accentuated crease in the center.

Close-up map detail shows a united Burgundy region before the split between The Netherlands and Belgium.  Note the crease in the center symbolic of the impending divide. Photo: WikiMedia.org.
Close-up map detail shows a united Burgundy region before the split between The Netherlands and Belgium. Note the crease in the center symbolic of the impending divide. Photo: WikiMedia.org.

As I mentioned above, Vermeer uses various techniques to convey depth in "The Art of Painting" but the most fascinating and one of the reasons I selected this painting is due to the fact that this painting shares a common bond with modern-day photography! How? Most art historians would agree that Vermeer undoubtedly used a "camera obscura," a precursor to today's photographic camera, to aid him in establishing depth within this piece as well as other works. More specifically, Vermeer established "depth of field" in which objects in the foreground or background are shown in or out of focus. You can see depth of field illustrated in just about any photograph in which the main subject appears in focus while the surrounding sections appear  blurred. It's often applied intentionally by photographers to add an artistic aesthetic to the look of the picture. Although the effect is difficult to see in these reproductions, he nonetheless employed a camera obscura as evidenced in the slightly out-of-focus folded drapery hanging above the chair in the foreground in the picture below.

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I hope you enjoyed this glimpse into Vermeer's "The Art of Painting." If you wish to get up close and personal with this masterpiece, it's now part of the Kunsthistorishes Museum Collection in Vienna, Austria.

If you can't make it to Vienna, then visit this WikiPedia image and click anywhere to really zoom in on the work.

ArtSmart Rountable:

12 comments:

  1. Terrific choice and post, Jeff! LOVE Vermeer. Thanks for all the details you posted. The detail of the artist's back, with all the ribbons and their shadows, shows Vermeer's technical abilities in all their brilliance.

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    1. Hi there Lesley and thank you for all those wonderful compliments! I agree with you about his technical mastery and I could have written a dissertation on this one piece...I mean look at lighting in this painting. It's magnificent the way it dances upon the chandelier, models the mask of Antiquity, the softness of Clio's skin, the folds in the drapery...WOW! Thank you for stopping by to share your thoughts!

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  2. Well done. You've described it beautifully.
    That's one skill I found extremely helpful when unfamiliar with the artists history and or meaning/backstory of the painting. Breaking down in terms of foreground, what's revealed to us and what is skillfully hidden can reveal a whole lot about the meaning in itself.

    Murissa

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    1. Thank you so much Murissa for your kind words! I wanted to explain all the symbology in this painting and the use of the camera obscura as well. I truly found that most fascinating. Thank you for stopping by to share your thoughts!

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  3. Love this painting! Dutch art always appeals to me with its combination of technique and detail. The fact that the map tapestry actually shows an inscription embroidered along the border, the brads on the chair cushion...all tiny details that aren't vital to the scene but just add more depth and highlight his skill.

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    1. Hi there Erin! I couldn't agree with you more!!! The details are extraordinary and I don't know what it is about Dutch art, but since my visit to the Netherlands last year, I have fallen in love!! Thank you so much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!

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  4. Love Vermeer, I went to a storytelling class once and they brought in his work and I was enamored right from the start!

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    1. Hi there my friend and thank you so much for stopping by! I too love Vermeer and even more so after seeing his work up close and personal in Amsterdam!! Your storytelling class sounds enchanting!

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  5. Fascinating article. Well done. I love when I can learn! The camera obscura part is fascinating and a bit surprising.

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    1. Hi there Jim and thank you so much for stopping by and for your kind words!! I too was surprised when I learned about the camera obscura, indeed fascinating!

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  6. Hi Jeff, I very much enjoyed your site and your observations about the work of Vermeer.
    You may like to have a look at my website www.printedlight.co.uk.
    I am a painter and have recently done some experiments on the practical use of the camera obscura. I have found a simple method by which images from projections can be transferred to a canvas, correcting the orientation in the process.
    My paper 'Perception to Paint' has recently been published, and is available to download on my site. I'd be interested to hear what you think.

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    1. Hi there Jane and thank you so much for stopping by and sharing all of that helpful information. I will be sure to check out your site and paper as well. I am very curious!! Thanks again.

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Thank you for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!