Jan Vermeer: The Art of Painting (c. 1667): Visual Techniques vs Formal Analysis
Jan Vermeer’s painting, The Art of Painting (c. 1667), functions on multiple levels: this piece reveals historical context for the art of painting, and operates as a visually important perspective piece.
At first glance, Jan Vermeer’s piece, The Art of Painting, presents a lifelike view into a studio wherein a portrait artist is in the process of painting a beautiful young woman holding a golden trumpet. A colorful curtain or tapestry, drawn to the side in the left foreground of the painting hangs behind a chair, as if revealing to the viewer the scene inside the studio. My eyes can’t help but immediately wander along the edges of the painting then ultimately settle on the woman in the center, the subject of the painting within the painting. Vermeer’s techniques in perspective allow viewers such as myself to become fully immersed in the experience of the piece. In this essay, I will draw from the works of Celeste Brusati to help analyze the technical aspects of Vermeer’s art, such as perspective. Additionally, I will look at The Art of Painting as an intellectual work that tells Vermeer’s story about painting during the Dutch Golden Ages.
In her analysis of perspective use in Dutch Art during the Golden Age, Celeste Brusati discusses Vermeer’s techniques in his painting, Love Letter. Vermeer uses the same methods in The Art of Painting and Love Letter, in both pieces the viewer takes on the role of an unseen witness peering in from behind a curtain. Brusati explains that, in Love Letter, “the picture’s quasi-covert through-view is theatrically staged, framed by a tapestry curtain pulled aside and draped over a chair strewn with sheet music to reveal the scene in the adjacent room” (Brusati, 928). Furthermore, in both paintings the floor tiles are configured at an angle, in a way that leads the eye towards the center of the room. I find the fact that Vermeer uses this curtain and tile technique in more than one of his paintings particularly interesting. Additionally, the source of light used to highlight both paintings comes from behind these tapestries. Nevertheless, Brusati doesn’t delve much into the use of curtains as a common theme throughout Vermeer’s art. On the other hand, in “A Worldly Art: The Dutch Republic 1585-1718”, Mariet Westermann claims that, “[the tapestry] marks the border between the viewer’s universe and a more coolly tinted, harmonious pictorial world” (Westermann, 169). Westermann raises an interesting proposition, that the viewer’s universe exists separately from that of Vermeer’s subjects.
Looking more closely at Vermeer’s subjects in The Art of Painting, particularly in light of Westermann’s claim, I can see the painting may act as an allegory about painting in the Netherlands during the seventeenth century. Westermann explains that “painting ‘history’ was art’s highest challenge” and Vermeer’s painting embodies Netherlandish history, tradition, and the influence of Clio, the Greek muse of history (Westerman, 169). The largest object in Vermeer’s The Art of Painting consists of a map of the seventeen provinces united before the Dutch secession, which reflects the relevance of Dutch political history.
The woman posing for the portrait carries a trumpet and dons accessories shared by Clio, the Greek muse of History: “the wreath signals the honor she brings, the trumpet the fame she confers” (Westermann, 169). Depicting a famous figure in Greek history, the Greek Muse of History nonetheless, shows how ancient mythological and religious stories traveled throughout the Netherlands and remained a relevant part of cultural society.
Furthermore, the painter’s actual use of a muse “in one sense embodies the seduction of the eye that painting was said to perpetuate” (Westermann, 169). Although I would not classify The Art of Painting as a self portrait, I can see how the portrait that takes place within this painting reinforces the role of theatricality in seventeenth century Dutch Portraiture. Hanneke Gootenboer discusses the role of theatricality in portraiture and how the portraits reveal an internal and external concept of self. Specifically, she examines, “how theatricality in portraiture allows a particular exposition of the sitter through which a sense of self is constructed” (Gootenboer, 323). The use of a female posing for an artistic portrait of a Greek Muse (sister goddess) suggests that Dutch men – artists in particular – viewed women as such seductresses. Additionally, the painting may suggest that women willingly wore costumes and posed for male artists. Interestingly enough, the outfit that the painter wears within The Art of Painting resembles a whimsical costume from an earlier century.
Is it possible that Vermeer may have been paying homage to artists from the past or that he is trying to mock the realism of the painting? While I find Gootenboer’s analyses of the exposition of the self in portrait art interesting, I find myself asking more open ended questions that I’m not sure are possible to answer without directly hearing from the artist. For example, how am I supposed to know with certainty that the muse in the Art of Painting is in fact supposed to represent Clio, the Greek Goddess? Is it possible that this model was Vermeer’s daughter or wife, instead? Perhaps Vermeer painted the painter in a fantastical outfit because he saw artists as jesters, or he saw himself as extraordinary? I believe that Brusati and Westermann’s analysis of artistic techniques can help clarify the historical context of art, by providing a comparative basis for perspective techniques.
Brusati, Celeste. “Perspectives in Flux: Viewing Dutch Pictures in Real Time.” Art History, vol. 35, no. 5, Blackwell Publishing Ltd, Nov. 2012, pp. 908–33, doi:10.1111/j. 1467-8365.2012.00930.x.
Grootenboer, Hanneke. “How to Become a Picture: Theatricality as Strategy in Seventeenth- Century Dutch Portraits.” Art History, vol. 33, Blackwell Publishers Ltd., Apr. 2010.
Westermann, Mariët. A Worldly Art : the Dutch Republic, 1585-1718 . 2nd reprinted ed., Yale University Press, 2007.