Allegory of Painting by Vermeer. An artist’s studio in the middle of the seventeenth century that almost looks like a photograph. Everything gives the idea of being true. Yet it is not the story of an episode, nor the description of a particular artist’s studio. It is about the glorification of painting. I am Clelia and today we discover Johannes Vermeer’s Allegory of Painting.
Allegory of Painting by Vermeer | What does it mean?
At first glance this work is so realistic that it really looks like a photo: from the heavy curtains on the left to the crumpled map in the background to the chandelier hanging from the roof. But of course it’s not. It is rather an allegory, i.e. simply the personification of an abstract concept.
How do we understand this? From the elements that Vermeer inserts. The main clue is the painter at work and the way he is dressed: a rather uncomfortable suit for everyday painting. An elegant dress with some fashionable touches of the time, such as the orange stocking. In front of him the model, perhaps his daughter dressed as Clio, the muse of history, whose trumpet will proclaim the fame of the painter.
And indeed, this was the case for Vermeer, who has now become one of the most famous painters in the world, despite the fact that only about thirty of his paintings have come down to us. However, his work is not immediately recognized, probably due to the high quantity of work by Dutch artists of his time, what a modern gallerist would probably call market saturation.
Théophile Thoré and the discovery of Vermeer’s works
Everything changes for Vermeer two hundred years after his death, in 1860. His work is rediscovered and his works stand out from those of his contemporaries. All this thanks to a French writer and art critic Théophile Thoré who in love with his works begins to look for them everywhere around the world managing to identify about two thirds of the Vermeers we know today.
And the Allegory of Painting among these has a special place, not only in art but for Vermeer himself. The story goes that it was created following the somewhat unsuccessful visit of a French explorer to Delft. In fact, in his diary the explorer tells of having passed by Vermeer’s studio on 11 August 1663. Unfortunately, no painting is on display here, so he is forced to go to the local baker who owns one of the artist’s works in order to see it. Vermeer a bit burned by the situation then decides to create some works to keep in his studio. Among these, the allegory of painting certainly has a particular meaning for Vermeer who probably created it as a demonstration of his skills and the importance of his work.
Allegory of Painting by Vermeer | Details
The seated painter
The figure of the painter has often been described as a self-portrait. In fact, we have no way of telling, because we only see him from behind and he reveals very little of his physical appearance. Incidentally, there are no undeniably authentic portraits of Vermeer to compare with. However, the figure perhaps reflects Vermeer’s working methods eg the habit of sitting in front of the easel rather than standing. And that of using a stick with a padded end on which the artist can fix the hand holding the brush when he is painting very detailed passages and wants to be particularly precise. And right now the detail he’s creating is the laurel wreath that the model in front of him is wearing.
The muse Clio in Vermeer’s Allegory of Painting
is posing as a muse. You can recognize it by the objects it carries with it. In fact, she wears the typical clothes usually associated with Clio, goddess of creativity and inspiration. Musa daughter of Zeus and Mnemosyne, her name comes from κλείω which in Greek means “to make famous”. Same root as the verb “cluere” from which Clelia.
But returning to our history muse in Vermeer, we recognize her thanks to several symbols. The laurel wreath symbolizes glory, the trumpet represents fame, and the book signifies remaining known in history. But why did Vermeer choose these objects? And how do artists of this period throughout Europe use the same symbology in representations like this? is simple. Many of them consult an actual manual. An essay written in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries by an Italian scholar Cesare Ripa. A text that even Vermeer probably knows thanks to a Dutch translation that many artists of the period have in their studios.
The Plaster Mask
On the table in front of the woman posing as Clio is a plaster mask. While it may be interpreted as a mere object of study, a mask can have various meanings and associations in art. In this context, it is almost certainly meant to symbolize imitation. “Iconologia” the text by Cesare Ripa in fact speaks of the mask as one of the attributes of the personification of painting.
The curtains and the composition
But these symbols are not the only elements common to other works of the period that Vermeer uses.in their representations of interiors curtains very heavyThe curtain acts as a backdrop giving us the feeling of perspective and depth of space. And also, it helps to create a sense of intimacy as if we were peeking into a private world. This genre of decoration also offers painters the opportunity to showcase their skills in representing complex textures. And no one is better at this than Vermeer, who conveys the heaviness of the fabric very convincingly.
Among other things, most of the time the curtains in the works are drawn to let the light enter from the window and Vermeer himself has also used this element in his other works.
The checkered floor and perspective
Another element of the work that visually helps us to have an impression of depth in the room is the checkered floor found in many of Vermeer’s paintings. Probably one of the floors in his house has this floor and he uses it as a model.
But how does he make this floor so straight? About a dozen of Vermeer’s paintings have pin marks (usually only visible on X-rays) at the vanishing point of the perspective scheme, indicating that Vermeer stretched a string along the canvas from this point to help him create the motif accurately. floor.
The chandelier and the camera obscura
Vermeer is truly a careful artist who knows his stuff. There are no known drawings by him and it is likely that just like the painter portraying here he too draws directly onto the prepared canvas rather than making preliminary sketches on paper. And he almost certainly uses a device called a camera obscura.
It is an apparatus that works on the same principle as a camera, but which projects the image of a scene onto a drawing or painting surface. Many scholars have speculated that Vermeer uses it because of the effect on the chandelier overhead. An interesting object for the double-headed eagle, symbol of the Habsburg Holy Roman Empire, representing the former rulers of the Netherlands.
Map of Holland
is also hung on the wall next to it map. is a map of Holland published in 1636. It may be a patriotic allusion to the history of Vermeer’s country, the Dutch Republic, which is shown to the right of the central crease.
The story of Vermeer’s life
And as far as we know, Vermeer spent his entire life in the city of Delft, in the Netherlands. A city which at that time, in the middle of the seventeenth century, was the fourth largest in the Dutch Republic and an important commercial and cultural centre.
Not much is known about his personal life, but he is probably a highly respected artist by his colleagues of the period, so much so that he was twice elected Governor of the Guild of Painters.
He also works as an art dealer, but has serious difficulties supporting his family. So much so that when he dies he leaves his wife and eleven children with incredible debts. All this not because his art is not fully appreciated but probably because of the crisis in the sale of works of art caused by the wars between Holland, France and England.
Allegory of Painting by Vermeer | The history of Vermeer’s Allegory of Painting in the Dissius collection
But despite his debts Vermeer never parted with his Allegory of Painting and even after his death it seems that the work is still in the family collection inherited from his wife. And the history of the work from the artist’s studio to the Museum of Art History in Vienna, where it is today is really interesting. It is known that the debt-ridden widow of the artist is forced to sell it. For more than a century we don’t know what happened to it, it disappears. It is assumed that it was inherited by the greatest collector of Vermeer’s works Jacob Dissius, a printer who at his death owned 21 works by the artist that went to auction. Among other things, only 15 of these are recognized as currently existing so who knows what happened to the other 6.
The Czernin family and the Hitler collection The
fact is, however, that the work reappears in 1813 when it is bought by an Austrian aristocrat: the Count Czernin, but not like a Vermeer. Like the work of another Dutch artist Pieter de Hooch. Which should be absurd given that Vermeer’s signature is present in the painting. But apparently given that at the time the works of Pieter de Hooch have a higher value, someone forges the work and applies a fake signature.
It remained in the Czernin family collection for years and years, until it passed into the hands of Hitler. This story of Hitler’s collection, which might sound similar to that of Klimt’s portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer that I have spoken of so many times, but it is not. After the war, the Czernin family would like to get back what they think is rightfully theirs. After all, the work has just been found in a salt mine and brought back to Austria, but it turns out that the family voluntarily sold the work to Hitler and it was not confiscated, so the case is closed and the work ends up in the Vienna Museum.
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One of the greatest surrealist artists of the 20th century has created a tribute work of the Allegory of painting. Salvador Dalì in fact created in 1934 “The ghost of Vermeer of Delft that can be used as a table”. For a long time it was thought that the painter from behind is Vermeer himself and Dalì represents him kneeling with one of the two legs so long as to become a table. You can recognize him by his clothes. Some elements of Vermeer’s work completely change places in Dali’s. For example one of the shoes on the right or the stick that becomes a crutch.
Nor is this the only work by Dali that tells of his admiration for the Dutch painter. He has made many, some like this one completely surrealist and others closer to the original.
And if you liked this story take a look at the videos on my Youtube so you don’t miss the next videos on the most interesting works of art in history. I also suggest you read my piece on the Wanderer on the sea of fog or the one on the 20 works that have made the history of the last 20 years.