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The Complete Interactive Vermeer Catalogue

The textual material contained in the Essential Vermeer Interactive Catalogue would fill a hefty-sized book, and is enhanced by more than 1,000 corollary images. In order to use the catalogue most advantageously:

1. Slowly scroll your mouse over the painting to a point of particular interest. Relative information and images will slide into the box located to the right of the painting. To hold and scroll the slide-in information, single click on area of interest. To release the slide-in information, single-click on the painting again and continue exploring.

2. To access Special Topics and Fact Sheet information and accessory images, single-click any list item. To release slide-in information, click on any list item and continue exploring.

Diana's hound

Diana and her Companions (detail), Johannes Vermeer

Vermeer's work features no hints of a hunt. The dog appears more like a faithful companion than a hunting hound. There are no bows, arrows, or captured game in sight. Additionally, the refreshing brook mentioned by Ovid is missing. It would be illogical for the maid to cleanse Diana's feet if they were on the verge of taking a bath.

Apart from a discreet crescent moon on her forehead and a hunting dog, Vermeer chose to omit many of the conventional objects typically associated with the goddess Diana. However, Vermeer's depiction of a dog differs significantly from the lively hounds commonly found in contemporary Diana paintings. It's likely that this dog was meant to symbolize the more commonplace notion of faithfulness. This symbolism could connect it to the background figure on the right, identified as Callisto, who, in Ovid's rendition of the story, had breached Diana's trust. Callisto attempted to conceal her pregnancy to avoid being expelled from the goddess's company. In a later work, A Maid Asleep, Vermeer initially included a dog, possibly intended as a symbol of fidelity, but later painted it out.

A lone thistle

A seemingly simple detail, like the solitary thistle, highlights the complexity scholars face when interpreting the symbolic meaning within a 17th-century painting.

Wedding Portrait of Isaac Abrahamsz. Massa and Beatrix van der Laan
Frans Hals
Oil on canvas, 140 x 166.5 cm.
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Walter Liedtke proposed that the thistle signifies self-denial and the arduous yet noble journey of life. He points to a specific element in Frans Hals' renowned Wedding Portrait of Isaac Abrahamsz. Massa and Beatrix van der Laan: a notably large thistle occupies the lower right corner of the composition. Supporting this interpretation is the title print of Jacob Cats' Houwelyck (Marriage) from 1652, which states, "The couple in the engraving, accompanied by faithful hounds, have taken the narrow and prickly path once chosen by Hercules at the Crossroads of Virtue and Vice."

On the other hand, John Michael Montias suggests that the thistle plant alludes to the male element, foreshadowing the presence of Actaeon, the story's protagonist. Montias explains, "The concept of subtly hinting at the nearby presence of a protagonist recurs frequently in Vermeer's mature art. In this particular instance, Actaeon's formal absence from the scene contributes to the painting's mysterious ambiance, deviating from the traditional depiction of Actaeon spying on the goddess and her nymphs or stumbling upon them."

In contrast, Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. notes that the thistle carries traditional symbolism of earthly sorrow and tribulation, rooted in Christian rather than mythological origins. He refers to the biblical passage: "Cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow thou shall eat it for all the days of thy life; thorns and thistles shall bring it forth to thee." (Genesis 3:17-18). Consequently, Wheelock suggests, "Vermeer may have incorporated this plant as a symbolic element to meld mythological and Christian traditions."

Additionally, the thistle also represents labor, a concept already significant within Calvinist ethics in the Netherlands. It further stands as an ancient Celtic symbol of nobility of character and birth.

Brass water basin

Diana and her Companions (detail), Johannes Vermeer

At the feet of Ovid's "virgin goddess," Diana, brass basin and cloth are discreetly positioned. These are utilized by one of the nymphs to wash Diana's feet after the day's hunt, evoking the same motif seen in Counter-Reformation paintings of the Lamentation and the Descent from the Cross. Diana's modest attire and the presence of a brass basin and white cloth at her feet hint at qualities of chastity and purity. However, these virtues are balanced by a prevailing sense of solemnity that aligns more with Christian traditions than with mythological ones. In the 17th century, parallels between mythological and biblical narratives were often drawn, and Vermeer may have aimed to merge them within this painting. In Christian practice, the act of foot-washing signifies not only purification but also humility and the approach of death. The respectful manner in which Diana's companion tends to her feet recalls instances such as Mary Magdalene bathing Christ's feet with her tears and Christ's act of washing his disciples' feet during the Last Supper. The presence of the thistle is yet another element that can be interpreted through these lenses. The notions of purity and fidelity is consonant with the artist's Christian, and perhaps even Catholic, marriage, which took place two or three years before he created the Diana.

Interestingly, the portrayal of the basin might be among the earliest instances in Vermeer's oeuvre that exhibits a distinct focus on rendering texture—a fascination commonly shared by many Dutch painters of that period and one that would continue to be a hallmark of the artist's output.

Missing sky

Diana and her Companions, Johannes Vermeer

Vermeer’s picture was apparently considered too dark at some point and a bright sky was added. The restoration carried out in 1999–2000 on the current piece revealed significant alterations that had taken place over time, thereby altering Vermeer's original artistic concept. Notably, the widely recognized conventional blue sky, prevalent in reproductions, was proven to be a later addition from the 19th century. Experts encountered no difficulty in ascertaining that this passage was not executed by Vermeer, as it contained two pigments unavailable during his active period: Prussian blue, invented in 1704, and chrome green, introduced around 1840. However, the task of rectifying the false sky posed an additional challenge due to the risk of harming the underlying paint layer if the blue paint were removed. Consequently, the restoration team opted to apply a dark neutral tone over the entire sky, matching the color and paint type present in the modeling of the trees, which they deemed was integral.

A classical theme

Constelaasion of the Great Bear

Drawing from Ovid's depiction in the Metamorphoses (Book II, 401–503), this figure, with eyes cast downward, has been identified as Callisto less than a decade ago by Walter Liedtke, who observed that when the picture included a daytime sky to the right prior to its restoration in 1999-2000, the withdrawn woman blended in with the shadowy trees and seemed little more than a marker of receding space. Following conservation treatment, the same figure has become much more prominent, and conspicuous in her heavy costume (a sixteenth-century version of the antique), her guarded pose and downcast expression, whose buttoned-up 16th-century dress from the sets her apart from the other nymphs, adorned in looser garments more aligned with the style of history painting.

After her discovery, Callisto faced exile and a transformation into a bear. This imposing, shaggy creature wandered the bewildering forest, consumed by fear. On a certain day, she chanced upon her own son, Arcas. Filled with joy, Callisto lunged to embrace him. Unfortunately, the boy, unaware of her identity, raised his hunting spear to strike. Gazing down from the heavens, Zeus was stirred by compassion. Swiftly, before any harm could befall them, he seized them both and transformed them into stars. Subsequently, Callisto earned the name Great Bear, or Ursa Major, while her son became known as Little Bear, or Ursa Minor. As Dutch commentators unkindly explained in books and in inscriptions on dozens of prints, even the unwilling loss of virtue is akin to behaving like an animal, and the sin will inevitably be revealed.

Recent analysis has demonstrated that the head of the figure was initially in a more upright, frontal position with her eyes visible, more similar to the figure in the background of a work by Jacob Van Loo, which had strongly influenced the Diana of Vermeer. Vermeer subsequently altered her posture and expression this, to further enhance the painting’s deeply introverted atmosphere .Furthermore, it was also found that the canvas had also been trimmed along the left-hand side after leaving the artist's studio. The kneeling figure on the right originally occupied a substantially larger portion of the composition.

An unusual Diana

Diana and her Companions (detail), Johannes Vermeer

Vermeer's portrayal of Diana is highly unconventional for its time. The figure of Diana, the virgin goddess of hunting who embodies chastity, can only be identified by a small crescent moon on her forehead. She is devoid of the customary bow and arrow or the presence of slain game, which typically signify her formidable hunting prowess. Vermeer presents both Diana and her retinue clothed, a departure from the customary nudity in depictions of this theme. Diana stands in a state of tranquil contemplation, exuding an absence of her feared temper.

As posited by art historian Celeste Brusati, the young Vermeer may have sought to position himself and his viewers as clandestine observers in Actaeon's place. Not to overlook this substitution, Vermeer subtly embeds reminders of Actaeon's tragic destiny, such as the dog fixated on a thistle, a traditional symbol of impermanence.

Vermeer's treatment of the female form, akin to the great Amsterdam master Rembrandt's approach, brims with tenderness and empathy. These attributes would subsequently become distinctive features of Vermeer's art. The cut of the satin garment hints at contemporary fashion, and its color potentially foreshadows Vermeer's lifelong fascination with the color yellow—an affinity he later echoed when painting the fashionable fur-trimmed morning jackets characteristic of his interior scenes. Art critics assert that the sweeping brushwork of Diana's gown bears semblance to Venetian Renaissance painting, although its somewhat clumsy execution clearly reveals the young painter's still-developing mastery of the brush. Nevertheless, a certain breadth in modeling and brushwork would perpetually set Vermeer apart from the fijnschilderen (fine painters) whose themes, compositions and techniques would eventually influence him. Even though Vermeer's mature paintings surpass the present portrayal of Diana in terms of description and detail, he never attempted to rival the truly microscopic attention to detail emblematic of that school.

Diana in painting

Diana and Actaeon, Titian

Diana and Actaeon
Oil on canvas, 185 x 202 cm.
National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh

Vermeer opted to infuse his sole surviving mythological painting with a pseudo-antique ambiance, accomplishing this by lengthening Diana's dress and enveloping the back of the turned figure with a piece of unattributed orange drapery. This practice of referring to costumes depicted in earlier artworks was a prevalent approach among history painters. The painter and art writer Karel van Mander recommended the prints of Lucas van Leyden as an exceptional resource for historical attire. Dutch costume expert Marieke van Winkel notes that, "In these, as with all his other prints, one sees pleasant variations of faces and costumes after the old styles: hats, caps and headdresses which, for the most part, differ from one another, enabling the great masters of our time to draw significant influence from his works, borrowing and adapting elements with occasional minor deviations."

In 1670, the painter and art writer Willem Goeree urged artists to acquaint themselves with traditional attire and acquire knowledge of "antique" clothing and ornaments like turbans, caps, bonnets and weaponry. The esteemed Rembrandt was renowned for maintaining an extensive collection of exotic clothing and accessories to be employed in his historical paintings.

Diana's nymphs

Diana and Her Nymphs, Jacob van Loo

Diana and Her Nymphs
Jacob van Loo
Oil on canvas, 47 x 37 cm.
Private collection

Of the four Nymphs, only Callisto in the upper right can be identified by name. Interestingly, Vermeer chose to depict three of them fully clad, while historically, painters had eagerly explored the theme for its potential erotic content.

It's hard to ignore the sense that the young Vermeer wasn't entirely at ease with nudity. If we hadn't known that the upper left-hand figure, with her back to the viewer, was a nymph, determining her gender would have been challenging.

Vermeer opted to infuse his sole mythological painting with a pseudo-antique ambiance by lengthening Diana's dress and draping the back of the turned figure with an anonymous piece of orange fabric.

Though the young artist likely had not directly view Titian's Diana and Callisto, probably the most renowned interpretation of the theme, prints of it circulated widely throughout Europe.

The practice of drawing inspiration from costumes depicted in past works was commonplace. Painter and art writer Karel van Mander recommended the prints of Lucas van Leyden as an exceptional resource for historical attire. Dutch costume expert Marieke van Winkel observes, "In these, as with all his other prints, one sees pleasant variations of faces and costumes after the old styles: hats, caps and headdresses which, for the most part, differ from one another, enabling the great masters of our time to draw significant influence from his works, borrowing and adapting elements with occasional minor deviations."

In 1670, Willem Goeree, a Dutch artist, engraver, writer and scholar better known for instructional books on art and design., advised artists to acquaint themselves with old costumes and customs, and to gain knowledge of "antique" clothing and ornaments such as turbans, caps, bonnets and arms. Particularly, the esteemed Rembrandt went to great lengths to achieve historical detail authenticity and is known to have maintained an exceptional collection of exotic clothing and accessories.


The posture of the kneeling nymph strongly echoes a figure found in the composition of the same theme by Jacob van Loo, one of Rubens' most successful pupils. By the mid-17th century, Van Loo had established a reputation for himself in both Amsterdam and other locales. In 1649, Constantijn Huygens, the renowned art connoisseur and secretary to the stadtholder Frederick Hendrik, included Van Loo's name on a list of artists being considered for adorning the prestigious newly erected Huis ten Bosch palace near The Hague. Van Loo's artistic stature is further underscored by his mention alongside Rembrandt and Govert Flinck in a poem penned by Jan Vos in 1654.

Diana with her Nymphs, Jacob van Loo

Diana with her Nymphs (detail)
Jacob van Loo
Oil on canvas, 136.8 x 170.6 cm.
Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie

Vermeer resided a mere forty-minute walk away from The Hague, and it's likely he was well-acquainted with the prevailing classical style of painting favored by the esteemed court residing there.

Youthful incompetence?

The rudimentary quality of the background foliage does little to dispel the notion of youthful inexperience, unless the young Vermeer somehow found inspiration in the works of the minor landscape painter Jacob van Geel. Van Geel's prominence was overshadowed by renowned landscape artists such as Adam Pynaker, Egbert van der Poel and Paulus Potter, all of whom were active in Delft at various times. Van Geel's distinct style involved creating eerie landscapes populated by a few wanderers seemingly adrift amidst foreboding clusters of twisted tree trunks. However, any comparison between Vermeer and Van Geel should be approached with caution, as there is no documented evidence of direct interaction between the two artists. It's worth noting that Van Geel arrived in Delft in 1682 and departed in 1633, merely a year after Vermeer's birth.

Wooded Landscape, Van Geel

Wooded Landscape Jacob Jacobsz van Geel
c. 1633
Oil on panel, 49 x 73.9 cm.
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The signature

Signiture of Johannes Vermeer on Diana and her Companions

This signature is no longer visible after overzealous cleaning but was still reproduced in the 1859 catalogue of the Mauritshuis

(Click here) to access a complete study of Vermeer's signatures.


Albert Blankert, Vermeer: 1632–1675, 1975

c. 1655–1656
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., The Public and the Private in the Age of Vermeer, London, 1997

c. 1653–1654
Walter Liedtke, Vermeer: The Complete Paintings, New York, 2008

c. 1653–1654
Wayne Franits, Vermeer, 2015

c. 1655–1656
Pieter Roelofs & Gregor Weber, VERMEER, Amsterdam, 2023

(Click here to access a complete study of the dates of Vermeer's paintings).

Technical description

The support is plain-weave linen with a thread count of 14.3 x 10 per cm². The tacking edges have been largely removed. Cusping is present on three sides, but not on the edge, which has been cut down. The support has a glue/paste lining. An off-white ground, including chalk, lead white, umber and a touch of charcoal black, extends from the edges of the original canvas on all sides. Throughout the painting, except possibly in the sky, extends a thin, transparent reddish-brown layer, which is utilized in most half-tones and shadows.

The composition was initially outlined with dark brown brushwork, some of which remains visible as pentimenti in the skirt and foot of the woman washing Diana's foot. All the shadows were initially filled in with a dark paint, notably noticeable in the flesh tones of Diana and her seated companions. Smalt is present in all pale flesh tones, as well as in mixtures containing white and foliage. Vermeer used the brush handle to scratch hair-like details on the dog's ear.

The paint surface has experienced abrasion. Vertical lines of paint loss are apparent to the left of the center. Weave emphasis and slight cupping have resulted from the lining process.

from: Johannes Vermeer (exh. cat., National Gallery of Art and Royal Cabinet of Paintings Mauritshuis - Washington and The Hague, 1995, edited by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.)

The painting in its frame

(Click here to access all of Vermeer's paintings in their frames).

Johannes Vermeer's Diana and her Companion in its frame


  • [Dirksen, The Hague, before 1866; sold to Goldsmid];
  • Neville Davison Goldsmid, The Hague (1866–1875);
  • his widow, Eliza Garey, The Hague and Paris (1875–76;
  • Goldsmid-sale, Paris, 4 May, 1876, no. 68 (purchased by Victor de Stuers on behalf of The Netherlands, for fl. 10,000 as by Nicolaes Maes);
  • 1876 to Koninklijk Kabinet van Schilderijen Mauritshuis, The Hague (inv. 406).


  • London 1929
    Exhibition of Dutch Art, 1450–1900
    Royal Academy of Arts
    148, no. 313, as "Diana at her Toilet"
  • Amsterdam 1945
    Weerzien der meesters
    22, no. 133
  • Delft November–April, 1950
    Het koninklijke kabinet 'Het Mauritshuis' in het museum 'Het Prinsenhof' te Delft
    Stedelijk Museum 'Het Prinsenhof'
    11, no. 26
  • Milan April–June, 1951
    Mostra del Caravaggio e dei Caravaggeschi
    Palazzo Reale
    99, no. 187 and ill. 130
  • Zurich 1953
    Hollander des 17. Fahrhunderts
    72, no. 170 and ill. 27
  • Milan February 25–April 25, 1954
    Mostra di pittura olandese del seicento
    Palazzo Reale
    no. 175 and ill. no. 30, as "La toletta di Diana"
  • Rome January 4–February 14, 1954
    Mostra di pittura olandese del seicento
    Palazzo delle Esposizioni
    no. 175 and ill. no. 30, as "La toletta di Diana"
  • New York January 4–February 14, 1954
    Dutch Painting: The Golden Age. An Exhibition of Dutch Pictures of Seventeenth Century
    The Metropolitan Museum of Art
    no. 6 and ill.
  • Toronto 1954–1955
    Dutch Painting: The Golden Age. An Exhibition of Dutch Pictures of Seventeenth Century
    Art Gallery of Toronto
    plate #VI, between pages xx and xxi
  • Toledo (OH) January 2–February 13, 1955
    Dutch Painting: The Golden Age. An Exhibition of Dutch Pictures of Seventeenth Century
    Toledo Museum of Art
    plate #VI, between pages xx and xxi
  • Oslo October 9–December 6, 1959
    Fra Rembrandt til Vermeer
    no. 83
  • The Hague June 25–September 5, 1966
    In het licht van Vermeer
    no. 1 and ill.
  • Paris September 24–November 28, 1966
    Dans la lumière de Vermeer
    Musée de l'Orangerie
    no. 1 and ill.
  • Tokyo October 19–December 22, 1968
    The Age of Rembrandt, Dutch Paintings and Drawings of the 17th Century
    National Museum of Western Art
    no. 69 and ill.
  • Kyoto January 12–March 2, 1968
    The Age of Rembrandt, Dutch Paintings and Drawings of the 17th Century
    National Museum of Western Art
    no. 69 and ill.
  • Washington D.C. 1980
    Gods, Saints and Heroes: Dutch Paintings in the Age of Rembrandt
    National Gallery of Art
    41, 210–211, no. 54 and ill.
  • Detroit February 16–April 19, 1980
    Gods, Saints and Heroes: Dutch Paintings in the Age of Rembrandt
    National Gallery of Art
    210–211 no. 54, and ill.
  • Amsterdam May 18–July 19, 1981
    Gods, Saints and Heroes: Dutch Paintings in the Age of Rembrandt
    National Gallery of Art
    210–211, no. 54 and ill.
  • Tokyo 1984
    Dutch Painting of the Golden Age of Rembrandt
    National Gallery of Art
    108–109, no.39 and ill.
  • Washington D.C. November 12, 1995–February 11, 1996
    Johannes Vermeer
    National Galley of Art
    96–101, no. 3 and ill.
  • The Hague 1996
    Johannes Vermeer
    Royal Cabinet of Paintings Mauritshuis
    96–101, no. 3 and ill.
  • Frankfurt February 9–April 30, 2000
    Dutch Classicism in Seventeenth-Century Painting
    Städelsches Kunstinstitut in Frankfurt
  • Rotterdam September 15, 1999–January 19, 2000
    Dutch Classicism in Seventeenth-Cetnury Painting
    Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen
  • New York March 8–May 27, 2001
    Vermeer and the Delft School
    Metropolitan Museum of Art
    359–362, no. 64 and ill.
  • London June 20–September, 2001
    Vermeer and the Delft School
    National Gallery
    359–362, no. 64 and ill.
  • Tokyo August 2–December 14, 2008
    Vermeer and the Delft Style
    Metropolitan Art Museum
    168–170, no. 26 and ill.
  • The Hague May 12–August 22, 2010
    The Young Vermeer
    26–29, no. 1 and ill.
  • Dresden September 3–December 28, 2010
    The Young Vermeer
    Old Masters Picture Gallery
    26–29, no. 1 and ill.
  • Edinburgh December 8, 2010–February, 2011
    The Young Vermeer
    National Gallery of Scotland
    26–29, no. 1 and ill.
  • Tokyo June 30–September 17, 2012
    Masterpieces from the Royal Picture Gallery
    Tokyo Art Museum
  • The Hague October 7, 2021–January 9, 2022
    Facelifts & Makeovers
    Mauritshuis, The Hague
  • Amsterdam February 10– June 4, 2023
    no. 3 and ill.

(Click here to access a complete, sortable list of the exhibitions of Vermeer's paintings).

The painting in scale

(Click here to access all of Vermeer's paintings in scale).

Johannes Vermeer's Diana and her Companions in scale

Vermeer's training & early career

Vermeer began his career as a history painter, and not as a painter of the genre interiors for which he is renowned today. His first known works were the Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, taken from a biblical narrative and Diana and her Companions, drawn from Greek mythology. Two other history paintings by his hand have not survived: Jupiter, Venus and Mercury and A Visit to the Tomb.

The Adoration of the Magi
Abraham Bloemaert
il on canvas, 193.7 x 168.8 cm.
Centraalmuseum, Utrecht

Although it is not known where or with whom Vermeer studied, he likely received his training from a master well-versed in history painting. There is no evidence that he completed his apprenticeship in his native Delft. The available information regarding Vermeer's apprenticeship is remarkably limited. Various possibilities proposed. Leonaert Bramer's name frequently emerges due to documented interactions with Vermeer, including a sworn statement co-signed by Bramer and Digna Baltens, which gains relevance in later discussions regarding Maria Thins' consent for her daughter Catharina's marriage to Vermeer. However, a closer examination of their artistic works does not convincingly support the notion of a master-pupil relationship. John Michael Montias mused that he may have studied in Amsterdam or nearby Utrecht. The accomplished but elderly Abraham Bloemaert, who lived and worked in Utrecht, was sometimes mentioned as a possible candidate, although there are no stylistic points of contact. between Vermeer's early works and those of Bloemaert. However, it is known that Vermeer's well-to-do mother-in-law, Maria Thins, had personal connections with Utrecht and had discreetly assembled an art collection featuring works of at least one well-known Utrecht-based artist, Dirk van Baburen.

A Young Man in a Fur Cap and a Cuirass (probably a self portrait)
Carel Fabritius
Oil on canvas, 70.5 × 61.5 cm.
National Gallery, London

Another contender, often mentioned in the nineteenth century, is Carel Fabritius, who introduced Rembrandt's teachings to Delft during the early 1650s. While similarities in their treatment of light and color as a formative element exist, Fabritius' delayed admission to the Guild of Saint Luke in October 1652 renders him an unlikely master within the stipulated period of Vermeer's apprenticeship. Although Fabritius arrived in Delft in 1650, the norm dictated that painters could not take on apprentices before official registration. Evert van Aelst also emerges as a candidate due to documented familial links, but the disparity between his still lifes and Vermeer's history paintings weakens the case for a mentorship. Gerard ter Borch, known for co-signing a legal document with Vermeer shortly after the latter's wedding, likely had limited influence during the early period, even though his impact becomes clearer toward the late 1650s.

It's plausible that Vermeer visited Amsterdam, easily accessible from Delft via horse-drawn water-coach, a day's journey at minimal cost. Naturally, Vermeer would have sought to immerse himself in the artistic richness of the town and acquaint himself with contemporary trends.

Vermeer may have painted this work with the hope of gaining access to the princely court of The Hague, a magnet for all ambitious Dutch history and portrait painters, located just a little more than a forty-minute walk from Delft. A few painters active in The Hague, such as Michiel Jansz. van Mierevelt, had achieved enormous financial success with works tailored to suit the conservative, aristocratic vision of the court. Joachim von Sandrart wrote that Van Mierevelt painted over 10,000 portraits, although many of them were collaborative works.

A few years after he had completed his apprenticeship, Vermeer unexpectedly shifted artistic direction and began to paint in the stylish "modern" mode of contemporary life, a style deprecated by prevailing classical art theorists.

Vermeer & 17th-century Dutch art theory

Diana Resting after the Hunt with Shepherdesses and Greyhounds, Gerrit van Honthorst

Diana Resting after the Hunt
with Shepherdesses and Greyhounds,

Gerrit van Honthorst
Oil on canvas, 97 x 160 cm.
Private collection

Although scholars have pondered the choice of such an apparently unusual subject, the twenty-one-year-old Vermeer may have wished to cater to the classical tastes of the nearby Hague court where the figure of Diana was much in vogue. There, large-scale paintings of Diana had been commissioned by such successful Dutch artists as Gerrit van Honthorst, Jacob van Campen and the Delft artist Christiaen Van Couwenbergh. However, the compositional solutions they devised were drastically different from those elaborated during the same period in Italy and France or even in neighboring Flanders. The historical verisimilitude of settings, costumes and facial expressions, all rigidly codified in the Italian and French academies, were approached much less dogmatically in the Netherlands.

Why Vermeer abandoned the path of history painting soon after the first works is unknown. As Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. suggests, perhaps he came to realize that although he was a talented painter of biblical and mythological scenes, his true genius lay in his ability to convey a comparable sense of dignity and purpose in images drawn from daily life. More banally, it cannot be ruled out that the support he expected as a history painter did not materialize

As Gregor Weber points out, "Vermeer was not the only one to change his career path. Several of his most accomplished contemporaries initiated their career as history painters only to become specialists in other fields: the landscape painters Nicolaes Berchem, Aelbert Cuyp and Paulus Potter, as well as the genre painter, Gabriel Metsu. Such shifts were probably always influenced by a variety of factors, from economics to taste and from artistic skills to personal preferences. We have to assume the same for Vermeer’s step around 1656. Shortly after he painted The Procuress, Vermeer’s relationship with the collectors and his possible patrons, Pieter Claesz van Ruijven and his wife, Maria de Knuijt began and may guided the budding artist towards a more "modern" approach..

Vermeer had met the successful Gerard ter Borch in 1653, who painted tranquil interiors from the early 1650s. Also in Delft, Pieter de Hooch specialized in domestic scenes around 1654–1655. This clearly reflects a demand for genre pieces that probably much exceeded that for large history paintings. Moreover, Vermeer’s increasing interest in light and optics was probably encouraged by a network of like-minded individuals, also in Delft’s scholarly and scientific community. Finally, it has been observed that this shift played to Vermeer’s strength, which ‘lay more in stillness than in movement’, in other words, more in the introvert, serene domestic scenes than the inherently extrovert narratives. Vermeer’s transition from early to mature works has been described as a gradual development. Indeed, some defining elements of Vermeer’s mature work, namely his interest in the physical and spiritual qualities of light and its effects and the introvert character of his scenes, can be traced in his four early paintings to different degrees. However, the painter’s journey of the first three years as a master painter is most remarkable. It was a brief but intense period of trying and searching, leading from depicting a biblical story to a brothel scene. There should be no doubt that around 1656 Vermeer took a fairly radical decision, to abandon history painting and large formats. It is a tempting thought that Vermeer followed not only the market and his own inclination but ultimately Christ’s message: choosing the contemplative over the active, embarking on a journey of exploring the sacred in the profane."

Vermeer & 17th-century Dutch art theory

Portrait of Karel van Mander

Portrait of Karel van Mander from his book
Schilder-boeck (Painter book), written in
Mannerist Dutch and published in Haarlem
in 1604 by Passchier van Wesbusch.

The young Vermeer must have been keenly aware of the debate about the hierarchical position of painting among the arts (il paragone), which had become a distinctive issue of aesthetic theory in the Italian Renaissance. In classical times, painting did not enjoy the same status as the sister art poetry, although Horace famously wrote, "ut pictura poesis" which means "as is painting, so is poetry" (Ars Poetica, 18 B.C.).

The foremost champion of the art of painting was Leonardo da Vinci, who regarded it as a more intellectual art than sculpture. He wrote that "the sculptor's work entails greater physical effort and the painter's greater mental effort," and he contrasted the way a painter could work in fine clothes while listening to music with the sweaty, noisy labor involved in sculpture. On the other hand, partisans of sculpture praised its grandeur, permanence and the fact that it could show a figure in three dimensions, whereas a painting offered only two.

In his influential Het Schilder-Boeck (1604), Karel van Mander, known as the "Dutch Vasari" for his writings and accomplishments as a painter, urged artists to maintain exemplary behavior to elevate the social status of their profession. He believed that since painting required training and imagination, it should be considered on par with literature or philosophy, which by many was considered the highest expression of the human spirit. He encouraged painters not to waste time, get drunk or fight, or draw attention by living an immoral life, but to frequent princes and learned people whenever possible. However, Van Mander never believed that artists should blindly follow nature: he thought they should perfect it, and not merely represent what they saw, no matter how accurately and skillfully done.

Although the young Vermeer must have sided with Leonardo's position regarding the superiority of painting over sculpture, when he painted his Diana, he may have had in mind Van Mander's advice to show Italians how wrong they were in their belief that Northern painters could not paint human figures. In any case, despite the painting's abbundant techncial lacunae, the Diana reveals that the young sVermeer was an ambitious painter who would not be content to humbly exercise his craft as the great part of Dutch painters did.

The Diana theme

Ovid as imagined in the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

Ovid as imagined in the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

The subject of Vermeer's only surviving mythological scene is drawn from Ovid's Metamorphoses (Book III, 138–252), in which Diana, the Greek goddess of the hunt and an emblem of chastity, rests at the end of the day with her nymphs. Vermeer chose to portray an unusual moment before, and not during, the climax of the story when Actaeon, a young prince out hunting, inadvertently discovered the nude Diana and her companions. Diana attempted to avoid his stares by shielding her nakedness with the bodies of her attendant nymphs. She then splashed water at the head of Actaeon and hurled an imprecation at him. Incensed at Actaeon's lustful glances, the goddess transformed the unfortunate hunter into a stag. The helpless Actaeon was not recognized by his own hounds and was torn to pieces.

Ovid's Metamorphoses was a source of motifs for painters who delighted in portraying the exotic and violent stories from the Renaissance period onward. However, by the mid-17th century, Diana was represented only occasionally by Dutch artists.

Contemporary precedents, Jacob van Loo

Diana and Her Nymphs, Jacob van Loo

Diana and Her Nymphs
Jacob van Loo
100 x 136 cm.
Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen

Today, art historians generally position Vermeer's Diana as one of the earliest endeavors of the young artist. However, owing to its mythological subject, Italianate style and relatively conventional execution, it was previously attributed to Jan Vermeer van Utrecht (1630-c. 1696). At one point, the painting's signature even underwent alteration to that of Nicholaes Maes. While the canvas's distraught state of conservation hinders objective assessment, the depiction of anatomy and drapery reveals glaring traces of technical uncertainty, as expected from a fledgling painter grappling with such a complex and ambitious composition.

Diana and her Nymphs
Jacob van Loo
c. 1650
Oil on canvas, 162 x 199 cm.
Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, Brunswick

Many contemporary Vermeer scholars have followed the lead of German art historian Wilhelm von Bode, who identified a remarkably similar arrangement of figures in a work of the same theme by Jacob van Loo, a classical painter from Amsterdam who had gained influence in the lucrative Hague court. It appears that the young Vermeer was familiar with more than one version of Van Loo's rendering of the subject. Notably, the poses of the background figures in Van Loo's 1648 Diana strongly echo those in Vermeer's composition, along with the somber lighting and prevailing solemnity. Vermeer might have drawn inspiration from other sources as well, including Rembrandt's Bathsheba, for the seated pose of Diana and her attendant (inverted by Vermeer), as well as the somber atmosphere and ethical weight of the painting. Given that both Van Loo and Rembrandt were active in Amsterdam, it's plausible that Vermeer spent some time there, learning from two of the most respected artists of his era.

Various Vermeer scholars position the Diana immediately before Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, while others suggest it was painted sometime after. It's possible that the more refined technique evident in Christ is sufficient evidence to establish Diana as Vermeer's earliest surviving work.

Vermeer & istoria (history painting)

Artemis the huntress, Roman copy of Greek statue

Artemis the huntress, called "Diana of Versailles"
Roman copy of Greek statue
Attributed to Leochares c. 325 B.C.
Marble, height: 2.01 m.
Musée du Louvre, Paris

Vermeer's Diana serves as a quintessential illustration of istoria, or history painting. Originating in Italy and spreading throughout Europe, history painting is characterized by its depiction of biblical, mythological, or historical subjects, often on a grand scale.

The objective of history painting was to edify the intellect and elevate the human spirit. Practitioners of this genre considered themselves not merely craftsmen, but participants in the Liberal Arts, as opposed to the Mechanical. Above all, they stressed harmony, proportion and equilibrium in their compositions. Employing meticulous yet fluid brushwork and vibrant color, they aimed to idealize and perfect forms rather than capture their temporary conditions and fleeting nature. Typically commissioned by churches or affluent patrons, history paintings were founded on textual sources such as the Bible or classical mythology, occasionally encompassing significant historical events. Consequently, the task of the history painter was essentially to embody the cultural aspirations of the patron, rather than personal expression.

Dutch history painting drew inspiration from many of the same writings and sources that had guided the Italian Renaissance masters.

Notwithstanding its theoretical prominence, history painting did not represent the largest portion of artistic output in the Netherlands. Instead, it was easily outnumbered by genres categorized as less esteemed by contemporary art theorists: portraiture, genre scenes, landscapes and, at the lowest tier, still life. The proliferation of these "lesser" categories was largely due to painting's transition into a commodified form.

During Vermeer's era, numerous Dutch history painters flourished, including the renowned Rembrandt van Rijn. Yet, even though many of the era's accomplished Dutch classicists like Jan de Bray and Cesar van Everdingen had faded into obscurity compared to genre painters, the latter half of the 20th century witnessed their rightful reevaluation by astute art professionals. Despite this, their work remains relatively unknown to the general public.

Rembrandt's influence on Vermeer

Bathsheba at her Bath, Rembrandt van Rijn

Bathsheba at her Bath
Rembrandt van Rijn
Oil on canvas, 142 x 142 cm.
Musée du Louvre, Paris

Since the origin of modern Vermeer studies, a few of the artist's early works have been linked to Rembrandt although there is no direct evidence in regards. In his celebrated essays of 1886, Thoré-Bûrger, who is credited for having rediscovered Vermeer, wrote that Vermeer's Procuress is "absolutament rembrandtesque." Many modern Vermeer authorities have concurred. Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. wrote, "Diana's somber mood and her pose, as well as that of her kneeling attendant, are so similar in content and feeling to Rembrandt's Bathsheba of 1634 that it seems highly probably that Vermeer knew this work firsthand."

Vermeer may have known Rembrandt's art via Carel Fabritius, the Amsterdam master's most talented apprentice who had briefly stayed in Delft when Vermeer was beginning to paint.

A circular composition?

Diana and her Companions (deigram), Johannes Vermeer

The present work probably displays Vermeer's familiarity with one of the most successful pictorial tools for organizing complex images: the circular composition. A true circular composition does not make use of circular objects but those which, combined by the artist, create a circular structure.

circular composition can help centralize the viewer's focus, drawing their gaze inward. This can be particularly effective when an artist wants to emphasize a central theme or subject. Circles have deep symbolic significance in many cultures and can represent ideas like unity, wholeness, infinity, and eternity. By using a circular composition, artists can tap into these cultural and symbolic resonances. Many natural elements and phenomena, from the sun and moon to flowers and eyes, are circular. Artists might use circular compositions to resonate with or replicate these natural forms.

Thus, circular compositions can guide the viewer's eye in a cyclical movement, creating a rhythm within the artwork. This can be used to generate a dynamic rather than static feeling. Like any device, the circular composition must not be overdone. It should be subliminally intuited by the observer but not consciously noticed lest it dominate the illusionist reading of the motif. In Vermeer's Diana, the bodies and limbs of the figures form a graceful, gentle circle.

In classical painting, much of a painter's attention was given to keeping edges of the composition well guarded and impeding the wayward eye from escaping out of the picture's perimeters. Vermeer may have applied the circular composition to another early work, the Christ in the House of Martha and Mary.

A forged signature

Singing Couple, Ascribed to Jan Vermeer van Utrecht

Singing Couple
Ascribed to Jan Vermeer van Utrecht
Oil on canvas, 79 x 63.5 cm.
Museum Kunst Palast, Düsseldorf

In May 1876, the Diana, then incorrectly assigned to Rembrandt's pupil Nicolaes Maes, was put on sale at a Parisian auction of the Goldsmid Collection. Victor de Stuers, Advisor for the Arts at the Ministry of Internal Affairs and renowned advocate for the preservation of Dutch cultural patrimony, traveled to Paris to do the bidding on behalf of the Mauritshuis. However, De Stuers not only purchased the three paintings recommended by the Mauritshuis director J. K. J. de Jonge but nine others, including the "Nicolaes Maes." De Jonge was not pleased with these additional purchases, particularly the Maes, writing: "however attractive the colors of this painting by N. Maes, it has lost many of its original qualities, even in the contours of the figures. It was therefore far too expensive, at 10,000 francs, to have been bought."

In 1885, De Stuers re-examined the painting's signature, which then read "NMaes," and realized that the letters "NM" were created from the remains of an underlying signature that included the letters "IVM." He concluded that the painting was by Johannes Vermeer of Delft. Evidently, the original signature had been altered by someone who thought that the painting would sell better if it bore the name of the illustrious Nicolaes Maes.

Nonetheless, the stylistic disparity between this piece and Vermeer's flagship View of Delft, displayed in the same room, raised doubts for some years about their common authorship. In 1892, further analysis by Abraham Bredius, then director of the Mauritshuis, was only partially convinced of the painting's Vermeer authorship, and noting the strong Italian influences in the painting, attributed it to Jan Vermeer of Utrecht, a nondescript contemporary of Vermeer active in the 1660s. The 1898 Mauritshuis catalogue still credited Utrecht Vermeer with Diana and Her Companions while acknowledging previous associations with "Maes and by some to the Delft Vermeer."

The real Vermeer signature is now only dimly visible.

Vermeer in Italy?

Early art historians believed that Vermeer, like a number of Dutch artists of the time, had spent some years training in Italy. However, it was later discovered that it was the obscure landscapist Johannes Vermeer of Utrecht whose presence in Rome was documented in the mid-1650s, and not his famous counterpart. Nonetheless, the knowledge of composition, broad execution and moral seriousness of his first compositions show that the young Vermeer was keenly aware of the strengths of Italian painting. In fact, some historians believe his art is indebted, albeit indirectly, to the most debated Italian artist of the time, Caravaggio, for the strong chiaroscural lighting of his early pictures.

After the publication of Karel van Mander's Het Schilder-Boeck in 1604, a trip to Italy had become a rite of passage for aspiring Dutch and Flemish painters. The attraction of the Antique and the High Renaissance was irresistible. Often entailing a difficult and dangerous journey, the young Dutch artists could spend years getting to Italy, often using their artistic talents to pay their way. Many never made it all the way to Italy, and some of those who arrived never attempted the trip back. Those who returned had a profound impact on the development of Dutch art and artists, and the study of classical sculpture, architecture and the techniques of the Italian Masters became an integral part of their artistic education.

Once returned to Utrecht, they introduced a dramatically new style of painting, stressing the contrasts between light and dark, a quality for which Rembrandt was later to become so celebrated.

Vertumnus and Pomona, Abraham Bloemaert

Vertumnus and Pomona
Abraham Bloemaert
Oil on canvas, 98 x 125 cm.
Private collection

Italian painting also wielded a significant influence over Utrecht painters who remained within their homeland's borders. A prominent figure among them was Abraham Bloemaert, regarded as the patriarch of the so-called Utrecht School, an artistic milieu that nurtured numerous disciples. While not all of these artists embarked on the journey to Italy, those who did absorbed Italian artistic principles and returned to pass on their newfound knowledge to their mentor, Bloemaert. Consequently, Bloemaert's diverse body of work bears evident traces of successive Italian influences. His renown reached such heights that even the illustrious Flemish master, Peter Paul Rubens, paid a visit to his Utrecht studio.

Leonaert Bramer, a leading artist in Delft, also maintained profound ties to Italy. A Catholic and close confidant of the Vermeer family, Bramer's documented presence in Italy spans from 1614 to before 1628. While he is primarily acclaimed for a series of enigmatic Biblical nocturnal scenes executed in a distinctly Italianate manner, it's conceivable that his range of pictorial styles extended beyond what has been traditionally acknowledged. His professional pursuits encompassed collaborations with tapestry workshops, involving the design and execution of murals and ceilings, some of which demonstrated a strong illusionistic flair. Notably, he is attributed with creating true fresco paintings, an exceptional accomplishment north of the Alps. A tapestry featuring a design by Bramer portrays a "merry company" scene, complete with a repoussoir tapestry element is reminiscent of Vermeer's Officer and Laughing Girl.

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