The famous paintings of Johannes (Jan) Vermeer (1632 – 1675) are now internationally lauded, earning him a place with Hals and Rembrandt as one of the greatest Dutch painters. During his lifetime, though, Vermeer was obscure.
Although British painter Sir Joshua Reynolds called Vermeer’s Kitchen Maid one of the greatest paintings in Holland during his visit in the latter half of the 18th century, mention of Vermeer remained rare until he was ‘re-discovered’ in the mid 1850s, largely by the French critic Thore-Burger. His praise was concise when he asserted what many still believe today,
“Vermeer’s most remarkable trait… is the quality of his light.”
There are no known preliminary drawings or sketches associated with any of the known 36 Vermeer paintings. Most historians believe he used a camera obscura (Latin for darkened or veiled camera), a darkened box or booth in which a pinhole functioned as a lens to project images. Use of this camera coincided with contemporary Dutch innovations in the field of optics, like magnifying glasses, telescopes and microscopes. Clearly, Vermeer was a pioneer in the science of color, as he deftly shows in The Allegory of Painting, known also as The Artist’s Studio.
One of the most beloved Vermeer paintings, The Allegory of Painting was one of the few works Vermeer never sold; in later years it was confiscated by Hitler for his personal dwelling.
Allegory is rich with commentary about 17th century life and the status of painters, like these observations:
- The artist at his easel might be Vermeer, but his clothing is from an earlier century. Perhaps Vermeer is intimating a connection between his own artwork and historically famous painters. The painted mask may reinforce this point if it is interpreted as a symbol of imitation, an objective of 17th century Dutch painters.
- Vermeer’s arm rests on a mahlstick, a resting prop for an artist’s hand when painting fine, minute detail. He is painting Clio, the muse of History, who is identified by what she carries and wears. Her laurel crown symbolizes eternal honor and glory – perhaps the artist’s personal wishes – while her trumpet indicates that the painter’s fame is attainable and will be recorded by history.
- The ancient map behind Clio relates a major event in the Netherlands’ history. Its northern provinces earned independence from Spain with the Treaty of Munster in 1648; these northern Protestant provinces lie to the right of the major crease, while to its left are the Catholic provinces still under the social and political control of the Hapsburgs, the Spanish royal family.
Some art historians speculate that the mask is a death mask, rather baldly hinting at the death of painting in the Hapsburg provinces.
- Symbolism in the chandelier overhead isn’t so ambiguous: it is adorned with the two-headed eagle, a symbol of the Hapsburgs, but is not functional without candles. Vermeer is suggesting that the influence of the Spanish royal family is on the decline.
Perhaps, too, the chandelier is a reminder of the new found freedom of painters in the northern provinces – in celebrating their new republic, painters are branching out beyond the religious and history paintings mandated by the Catholic Hapsburgs.
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