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The Art of Painting

A self-portrait, a realistic representation of an artistís studio of the time, or an allegory on painting Ė which of these best describes the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeerís exquisite painting, often called The Art of Painting, but also referred to as The Artist in His Studio or Allegory of Painting?

Painted in the late 1660s, The Art of Painting was evidently one of the Dutch painterís own favorites, based upon the fact that it remained in his possession until his death. That it was not sold by his widow even though she was left in financial difficulty but was instead given to her mother, indicates that the painting was felt to be valuable by her as well.

An oil painting executed on canvas, The Art of Painting measures approximately 4 feet x 3 feet. Through the use of a heavy drapery that has been pulled aside, the viewer is allowed to see what seems to be an intimate scene of an artist at work and his subject. In the foreground, the artist sits with his back to the audience as he paints a picture of a woman who stands before a gigantic wall hanging of a map of the Netherlands. The woman is wearing what appears to be a crown of laurel and holds a book and an instrument similar to a trombone or trumpet. On the table to the painterís left is a mask. Above this scene hangs a chandelier decorated with a two-headed eagle, which curiously contains no candles.

Could this scene have portrayed Vermeer himself or at the least be a realistic portrayal of an artistís studio in seventeenth century Holland? Examination of the details of the painting show that either conclusion is unlikely, although at least one element rings true. The costume of the artist reveals that it is a bit too elegant to be worn in the studio, where heavily-staining oil paints were not only used but often prepared. It is also doubtful that the scene was actually painted as shown since the trumpet held by the woman would not have fit on the canvas on which the artist is painting. Lastly, there is no evidence of the artist's paints or turpentine nearby or even a worktable. Not even a selection of brushes is shown. There is, however, one element of the painting that is definitely realistic but that is particular to Vermeer himself and not his contemporaries: the act of painting directly from life. During this time period, most painters composed sketches of their models from life and united them in a composition within the studio. It seems likely then that The Art of Painting is an idealized portrayal of a painterís studio Ė a scene created to portray the creation of art but in form more pleasing than reality. There are, however, other details in the painting that demand an explanation.

Since the woman, as a model for the painting, is not dressed in traditional garb of the time, further examination of her costume and the objects she is holding seems warranted. Come to find out, the woman is apparently Clio, the Muse of History, based on a description in a sixteenth century book called Iconologia, often used by painters of the time. So now the possibility that The Art of Painting is an allegory seems possible. As a matter of fact, many experts believe that the work of art is an allegory of painting, hence the alternate title of the painting. The presence of the Muse of History and the map on the wall perhaps allude to the significance of great works of art in history or even the desire of the painter to be famous in his own country as portrayed on the wall-hanging. The muse could also represent history as an inspiration for art. At the time the painting was created, the Netherlands was still largely dominated by the Spanish Hapsburgs, the symbol of which is the two-headed eagle depicted on the chandelier. Some experts have suggested that the absence of the candles in the chandelier indicate the weakness of the Hapsburg rule. In addition, it is suggested that the mask on the table symbolizes art since it is a form of imitation. Others think that the mask is a death mask that represents the ineffectivity of the Hapsburg ruler. The position of the map on the wall and the portions of it that are concealed by other objects in the scene are significant to some art experts and the emptiness of the canvas on which the artist is painting indicates the newness of democratic rule in portions of the Netherlands.

Although an examination of the painting seems to provide evidence that the painting was created as an allegory that includes an idealization of the painterís studio, of course it will most likely never be known exactly what the artist had in mind. The fact that this work of art is a masterpiece of technical skill and beauty is perhaps the only thing that can said with certainty about The Art of Painting.

Click here to see a large image of The Art of Painting.

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Diana Blake is a professional artist and art history enthusiast. Her fascination with art history began when she encountered European art firsthand during several trips abroad as a young adult. As she began to compose a portfolio for her own art career, she called upon what she had seen in Europe and extended her knowledge to other styles of art through profuse reading and exhaustive research. As a result, Diana has written more than one hundred articles in which she delves into a variety of art history topics and she has compiled a list of links that she believes to be invaluable for art history enthusiasts. In addition, she also reviews books and movies on the topic of art history and has assembled an extensive list of online stores that sell books, movies and gift items related to art history.
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