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 (fig. 1), 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 (fig. 2), 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.
What lends the scene Vermeer has chosen to depict its sense of stillness, as in many of his subsequent paintings, is that the figures are either motionless or poised in the process of carrying out an action that can be sustained with grace and ease. The attendant nymph touches or gently upholds Diana's foot without effort or tension. In Van Loo's painting, the young nymph next to Diana raises her hand in an unsustainable pose. The nymph in the left background touching her own foot is also immobilized in an awkward stance, his weight resting on one of his front paws, appears tense; Vermeer's dog, sitting on his haunches, is hieratically calm.
John Michael Montias
Vermeer and His Milieu: A Web of Social History, Princeton, 1989, p. 143
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 (fig. 3). It seems that Vermeer was in fact familiar with more than one of the artist's versions of the subject (fig. 4); 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 (fig. 5). 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. 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.
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 (fig. 6) 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.
The story of Diana and Actaeon in Ovid's Metamorphoses tells of Acteon, a famed hunter trained by the centaur (half human, half horse) Chiron, who happened by chance upon the goddess and her nymphs while they were pacifically bathing in a forest after a hunt. Outraged, the goddess ensures that Actaeon would never tell what he has seen by transforming him into a stag who is then brutally devoured by his own hounds, who were unable to recognize ther master. After the hounds killed him, they went back to Chiron to search their master as they could no longer find him. The theme was very popular throughout the Renaissance and the Baroque, and was interpreted in a great variety of manners, no few of which were barely veiled exploitations of the story's explicit abundance of female nudity. Among the of the most important works featuring Diana is by the Italian Renaissance painter Titian, Diana and Actaeon (National Gallery, London).
Vermeer chose to portray the story of Diana in an unusual moment: before, and not during, the climax of the story when Actaeon inadvertently discovered the nude Diana and her companions. Titian, instead, chose the most dramatic moment,highlightingh the very moment in which Actaeon stumbles upon Diana and her bathing nymphs. In Titian’s painting, Actaeon appears to be surprised and feel guilty, while Diana (second from the right being bathed and guarded by her nymphs) shows embarrassment and fear rather than open hostility. This painting underlines the contrast in reactions of the goddess and Actaeon. On the one hand, Diana is justly concerned for both her safety and her virtuous reputation. On the other hand, Actaeon has done nothing to warrant such a cruel fate. This conundrum brings to mind if the cause of the event was mere chance or malevolent intent, and on to whom should carry the most blame. In the Metamorphoses Ovid compared the reasons for his own exile with Actaeon's unintentional error.
Titian's Diana is part of a series of seven famous canvases, the "poesies," depicting mythological scenes painted for Philip II of Spain (after Maximilian II, Holy Roman Emperor had declined Titian's offer to paint them for him).
The work remained in the Spanish royal collection until 1704, when King Philip V gave it to the French ambassador. It was soon acquired by Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, nephew of Louis XIV, and Regent of France during the minority of Louis XV, for his collection, one of the finest ever assembled. After the French Revolution, the Orleans collection was sold to a Brussels dealer by Louis Philippe II, Duke of Orléans in 1791, two years before he was guillotined. This dealer then exhibited many pictures from the collection (including the Titians) in London.