Critical Assessments: Diana and her Companions

Diana and her Companions

c. 1653–1656
Oil on canvas
98.5 x 105 cm. (38 3/4 x 41 3/8 in.)
Mauritshuis, The Hague
Vermeer: The Complete Works, Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.

Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.

Vermeer; The Complete Works
1997, p.12

In this evocative mythological painting, Diana sits with her companions near the edge of a dark and impenetrable forest. As evening falls she gazes unseeingly into the distance while one of her companions kneels before her, attending to her feet. The quiet and somber mood is unusual for depictions of this fleet-footed goddess, who, when not shown hunting with bow and arrow is often bathing with her nymphs splashing water upon Actaeon to transform him into a deer, or confronting the pregnant Callisto.

Vermeer has given Diana only one attribute, the crescent moon, that identifies her as goddess of the night. This role, symbolically associated with death, is central to Vermeer's artistic intention other pictorial elements reinforcing this theme are the thistle and geranium, symbols of earthily sorrow, and foot-washing, which in Christian traditions alludes to purification, humility, and approaching death. Probably because of this thematic connection Vermeer adapted the pose of Diana from Rembrandt's Bathsheba (below right), 1654, where the Old Testament heroine sits contemplating the weighty implications of David's letter. Vermeer may have conceived his painting in response to a personal loss, perhaps the untimely death of Carel Fabritius in the powderhouse explosion of 1654.

Vermeer, Lawrence Gowing

Lawrence Gowing

Vermeer
London, 1950, pp. 93–96

The Italianate subject and style of the Diana, with its size and comparatively conventional facture, have inspired general agreement that it is a very early picture, perhaps the first by the painter that we have. In the case of Vermeer such indications are not always reliable. Certainly there is something in the picture, and particularly in the explanatory use of tone, which distinguishes it from the three pictures which have just been considered (Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, The Procuress, A Girl Asleep). The light falls gently and broadly across the form, making the subtlest modulation precisely apparent yet preserving most completely the unity of the whole. This comprehensive breadth is hardly approached again by Vermeer until the time of the conversation pieces. Some distance must lie between it and the bare tonal differentiation of The Procuress or the heavy flourish of The House of Mary and Martha. The point is clearer in photographs than when we are confronted with the polychromatic richness of the original. Perhaps it was the painter's intention to fabricate a conventional Italianate and especially, as Dr. De Vries has suggested, Venetian colour scheme. There is none the less much in the colour of the Diana, particularly in the combination of orange-pink and yellow, which points toward the early genre pictures. It seems that the dress of the attendant who dries Diana's feet, and perhaps the model who wears it, are the same which appear in the Girl Asleep. The two works may well date from the same phase. Possibly Diana and her Companions represents the culmination of Vermeer's wider ambitions. It shares the fundamental uncertainty of style in all the early pictures. The head of Martha, that of the standing nymph and the mirror in The Music Lesson tell the story of its resolution, and the development of the painter's surprising independence.

The picture was for a time ascribed to Vermeer of Utrecht. The signature was once altered to that of Nicolaes Maes; it is now completely obscured. Writers on the Diana have followed Bode in recognizing that the arrangement is based on a rendering by Jacob van Loo at Berlin. It seems that Vermeer was in fact familiar with more than one of the artist's versions of the subject; the attendant here whose cloak falls across her back, baring her shoulder, is a direct quotation from a picture which is now at Copenhagen. This is not the whole of the debt. The motif of Vermeer's chief figure has no analogy in either work and it can hardly be by chance that a precise parallel to it, even to the memorable fall of light upon the head, appears in a third picture by Jacob van Loo, a genre piece of a Young Couple in a Chamber. A Delft picture which has points of resemblance to the Diana, a mutilated canvas called The Minuet, was evidently suggested by the same work. It provides a further indication that even the more remote of Vermeer's sources were equally available to other members of his circle.

There were other currents to confirm Vermeer's choice of subject. In 1654 Rembrandt designed just such a pose and action for his Bathsheba (lower right). It appears that the Diana had some influence on the later treatment of such subjects. The picture was a link between the Italianism of the first half of the century and that of the decline; no doubt its example contributed something to the arrangement of the little Venus of Frans van Mieris, one of the first of the mythological panels which became a staple product of the family. From Vermeer's own world the Italianate and pastoral style was now cast out. It does not appear again until, according to the habit of condensation which is typical of his thought, similar figures in the manner of Jacob van Loo are seen at last extending their elegant limbs in the Finding of Moses which appears behind the Beit Letter Writer, a picture hanging on the wall.

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, Jan Steen
Christ in the House of Martha and Mary
Jan Steen
106 x 89 cm.
Private collection, Nimegen
Erasmus Quellinus, Christ in the House of martha and Mary
Christ in the House of Martha and Mary
Erasmus Quellinus
c. 1645
Oil on canvas, 173 x 243 cm.
Musée des Beaux Arts, Valenciennes
Bathsheba, Rembrandt van Rijn
Bathsheba

Rembrandt van Rijn
1654
Oil on canvas, 142 cm × 142 cm.
Louvre, Paris
Daina and her Nymphs, Jacob van LooDiana with her Nymphs
Jacob van Loo
1648
Oil on canvas, 136.8 x 170.6 cm.
Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Gemäldegalerie
Diana and her Nymphs, Jacob van Loo
Diana and her Nymphs
Jacob van Loo
c. 1650
Oil on canvas, 162 x 199 cm.
Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, Brunswick
Vermeer and His Milieu: A Web of Social History

John Michael Montias

Vermeer and His Milieu: A Web of Social History
1989, pp. 144–145

The episode in Ovid's Metamorphoses depicted in Diana and Her Companions occurs just before the climax of the story. The nymphs are resting in a bosquet near a spring. Some are beginning to undress the goddess or to throw water at her feet. Suddenly Acteon, hunting with his dogs, discovers the sacred group. Diana attempts to avoid his stares at her nakedness by shielding herself with the bodies of her attendant nymphs. She then splashes water at the head of Acteon and hurls an imprecation at him. Through her divine power, he is at once metamorphosed into a stag. Later the unhappy youth is devoured by his own dogs. The moral of Ovid's tale: the voyeur has received the punishment he deserved.

Between the dog and Diana in Vermeer's painting, a conspicuous thistle is outlined against the more brightly lit side of a large rock. The prickly plant traditionally symbolizes the male element, as in Frans Hal's famous marriage portrait in Haarlem. It is absent in Van Loo's painting. The thistle suggests the impending presence of Acteon, the protagonist of the scene. The idea of hinting at the nearby presence of a protagonist will often recur in Vermeer's mature art. In this particular case, the formal absence of Acteon from the scene contributes to the mysterious aura of the painting, in contrast to the earlier tradition of representing Acteon spying on the goddess and her nymphs or happening upon them.