The first thing to note about Vermeer’s remarkable image, The Art of Painting, is the tapestry that hangs along the left side of the painting. Notice how it has been drawn aside like a drape, and is also held back by a chair pushed up against it.
The effect of the drape is to reveal the scene in front of us, almost like a stage-set as the curtain is being lifted. The word for this technique is repoussoir: an object in a painting positioned in the foreground and to one side, serving to direct the viewer’s attention toward the main subject of the work.
In this painting, Vermeer’s use of the drape is emphatic: it successfully pulls us into the space beyond it, emphasising the depth of the room and encouraging us to feel as if we are peering in.
And since the brightest area of the painting — the thin triangle of white wall at the back of the room — sits directly behind the curtain, Vermeer has managed to accentuate the depth of the space and gently lead our gaze towards the female model, the central focus of the painting.
It’s possible to recognise Clio because of the objects she holds: the crown of laurel denotes the honour and glory of history, the trumpet stands for fame, and the thick book, possibly by a historian such as Herodotus or Thucydides, alludes to knowledge of the past.
These attributes match the description of Clio as given in Cesare Ripa’s 16th century book, Iconologia, which was a highly influential text that described how artists ought to represent myths and allegories through emblems and symbols.
So, the scene we are looking at is of an artist painting a portrait of a model dressed up as the muse of history.
On the table in front of the model, there is a mask, probably as a symbol of imitation, and therefore an attribute of Painting. When seen along with the other items on the table — the pieces of cloth, a folio, a piece of leather
— then it’s possible to see them as collective symbols of the Liberal Arts. That is, the natural sciences, social sciences, arts and humanities.
Beyond the curtain, the painting is made up of layers of activity. There is the near-edge of the table with coloured cloths hanging over the side; then, further forward, there is the artist at his easel; then there is the model stood at the far end of the table; and finally the wall with its huge map.
The purpose of these layers is to heighten the illusionistic impact of the painting. As the viewer, we are looking past the drape and into the room, inside of which a second painting is being made.
This layering effect actually takes us to the very subject of the work, built up from a subtle interplay of symbols and allusions that, together, suggest an allegory of painting itself.
The focal point of the painting is undoubtedly the model: a young woman wearing blue stood beside a window. The brilliance of Vermeer’s technique in capturing the effects of light is demonstrated here, by the way the glow from the window diffuses from the top-left corner of the painting without actually showing the window itself.
The model is laden with several items that suggest she is posing as an allegorical figure. She has a crown of laurel on her head, holds a trumpet in her right hand and a book in her left. Most likely she is dressed in the guise of Clio, the muse of history.
The muses were the goddesses of creative inspiration. Over time, their number was established as nine and each represented a sphere of influence over learning and arts.
The artist sits at his easel in the middle-ground of the painting. He has his back to us, so we see the same view as he does. We are also able to glimpse the painting he’s working on, and can see he has begun his work with the laurel crown.
By hiding the artist’s face, Vermeer has given him a universal quality. Notably, he is shown wearing expensive clothing, an elegant black doublet decorated with slits across the back and arms. My favourite detail is the pair of red stockings he is wearing, just visible beneath the seat of his stool.
What is going on here? What do these collections of objects and symbols amount to?
The blending of references suggests that Vermeer meant to link the virtues of painting to the flow of history. And Vermeer places the artist at the heart of this evaluation.
It’s important to remember that Vermeer lived at a time when the category of ‘history painting’ — which included subjects drawn from ancient Greek and Roman history, mythological, biblical and historical scenes — was widely considered the noblest form of painting.
Vermeer was not a history painter himself, but through this painting he is suggesting that artists are important transcribers of history. Moreover, art can be multi-faceted, can be layered, can describe and make reference, can present and perform — as evidenced in the very play of symbols within the work. In short, the Art of Painting is a celebration of the artist’s talents