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Except for a discreet crescent moon on her forehead and a hunting dog, Vermeer ignored most of the objects which were conventionally associated with the goddess Diana. Vermeer's dog, however, is scarcely comparable to the dashing hounds portrayed in Diana paintings of the time, and so it was probably intended to convey the more mundane connotation of faithfulness. This connotation would relate it to the right-hand background figure identified as Callisto who, instead, in Ovid's recount of the story had betrayed Diana's trust and attempted to hide her pregnancy to avoid being cast out of the goddess' company. Vermeer included, but later painted out, a dog in the later A Maid Asleep, perhaps, originally intended as a symbol of fidelity.
A simple detail such as the lone thistle illustrates how tricky it has been for scholars to interpret the symbolic content of a 17th-century painting.
Walter Liedtke suggested that the thistle symbolizes self-denial and the hard but noble path of life citing a detail of Frans Hals' famous Married Couple in the Garden, in which an exceptionally large thistle occupies the lower right-hand corner of the composition. Supporting evidence is provided by the title print of Jacob Cats' Houwelyck (Marriage) of 1652 which reads, "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, for John Michael Montias, the thistle plant indicates the male element alluding in Vermeer's work to the impending presence of Actaeon, the protagonist of the story. "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 Actaeon from the scene contributes to the mysterious aura of the painting, in contrast to the earlier tradition of representing Actaeon spying on the goddess and her nymphs or happening upon them." Differently, Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. points out that the thistle is a traditional symbol of earthly sorrow and tribulation which is of Christian, rather than mythological origins. God condemned Adam for his disobedience: "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). Consequentially, "Vermeer may have included this plant as a symbolic element precisely because he wanted to fuse mythological and Christian traditions."
The thistle also symbolized labor, which, in Calvinist ethics, had already gained considerable currency in the Netherlands. It was also an ancient Celtic symbol of nobility of character as well as of birth.
The brass water basin contains water and a cloth with which one of the nymphs washes Diana's feet after the day's hunt. The basin had Christian overtones of the cleansing of the soul although it was also associated with death. It is, perhaps, the only detail in the painting which shows an interest in rendering texture, which at the time was a virtual obsession among Dutch painters.
The 1999–2000 restoration of the present work revealed important alterations which have occurred over time and have modified Vermeer's original pictorial concept. It was discovered that the conventional blue sky, well known through reproductions, is not original, but 19th-century. Experts had no difficulty in determining that the passage was not by Vermeer's hand because it contained two pigments that were unavailable when Vermeer was active; Prussian blue, invented in 1704, and chrome green, invented about 1840. However, the task of restoring the false sky presented an extra challenge because the blue paint could not be removed without damaging the underlying paint layer. The restoration team decided that the best approach was to overpaint the whole sky with a dark neutral tone that would match the color and type of paint found in the modeling of the trees, which they considered integral.
It was also discovered that canvas has been also been trimmed along the left-hand side after it left the artist's studio. The kneeling figure to the right once fit almost entirely within the composition.
Based on Ovid's description in the Metamorphoses (Book II, 401–503), this figure, with downcast eyes, has been identified as Callisto, who feared that her pregnancy would be discovered by the virgin goddess Diana. After she was discovered, Callisto was banished and transformed into a bear. The great shaggy creature wandered through the forest confused and frightened. One day she came across her son, Arcas. Overjoyed, Callisto sprang forward to embrace him. The boy did not know she was his mother and raised his hunting spear to strike. Zeus, looking down from the heavens, was moved by pity and before the youth could do any harm snatched them both up and transformed them into stars. Callisto became known as the Great Bear, or Ursa Major, and her son as Little Bear, or Ursa Minor. Callisto's buttoned-up 16th-century dress distinguishes her from the other nymphs who are clad in looser attire, more in keeping with the history painting mode.
Vermeer's portrayal of Diana is highly unusual for the time. The figure of Diana, the virgin goddess of hunting who personifies chastity, can only be identified by a small crescent moon on her forehead. She sports neither bow and arrow nor dead game to signal her formidable ability as a huntress. Vermeer has presented both Diana and her entourage clothed rather than nude, as they conventionally appeared in paintings of this theme. Diana stands absorbed in meditative calm without a trace of her feared temper.
According to the art historian Celeste Brusati, the young Vermeer may have intended to put himself and his viewers into Actaeon's place as illicit beholders. Lest we fail to note that substitution, Vermeer has included subtle reminders of Actaeon's tragic fate in the form of the dog gazing at a thistle, a traditional symbol of transience.
Like that of the great Amsterdam master Rembrandt, Vermeer's treatment of the female figure is full of tenderness and sympathy, traits that would become a hallmark of Vermeer's art. The cut of the satin garment seems to suggest contemporary fashion and its color may even anticipate Vermeer's life-long fascination with the yellow, which he later repeated when painting the voguish, fur-trimmed morning jackets typical of his interior scenes. Art critics hold that the sweeping brushwork of Dian's gown is reminiscent of Venetian Renaissance painting, although its clumsy handling clearly suggests the young painter's less than expert command of the brush. Nonetheless, a certain broadness of modeling and brushwork would always distinguish Vermeer from the fijnschilderen (fine painters), whose themes, compositions and techniques would later influence the painter. Even though Vermeer's mature paintings are far more descriptive and detailed than the present Diana, he never attempted to compete with the truly microscopic attention to detail that characterized that school.
Vermeer chose to cast his only surviving mythological painting in a pseudo-antique atmosphere by elongating Diana's dress and wrapping the back of the turned figure with a piece of anonymous orange drapery. It was a common practice for history painters to draw on costumes painted in the past. The painter and art writer Karel van Mander recommended the prints of Lucas van Leyden as an excellent resource for historic costumes. Dutch costume expert Marieke van Winkel observes 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 one from another, so that in Italy the great masters of our own time have been able to profit greatly from his works in that they have borrowed from them and applied things in their own works, with occasional small variations."
In 1670, Willem Goeree advised artists to make themselves familiar with old costumes and to acquire knowledge of "antique" clothes and ornaments such as turbans, caps, bonnets and arms. The great Rembrandt was known to have kept a sizable collection of exotic clothes and accessories for his history paintings.
Of the four Nymphs, only Callisto in the upper right can be identified by name. Curiously, Vermeer chose to portray three of them fully clad since painters had enthusiastically exploited the theme to explore for its potentially erotic content.
It is hard to dismiss the feeling that the young Vermeer was not entirely comfortable with nudity and had we not known that the upper left-hand figure with the back to the viewer was a nymph, it would have been difficult to determine her sex.
Vermeer chose to cast his only mythological painting in a pseudo-antique light by elongating Diana's dress and by wrapping the back of the turned figure with a piece of anonymous orange drapery.
Titian's Diana and Callisto, probably the most noted interpretation of the theme, could not have been directly seen by the young artist but prints of it circulated throughout Europe.
It was not uncommon to draw on costumes painted in the past for inspiration. Painter and art writer Karel van Mander recommended the prints of Lucas van Leyden as an excellent resource for historic costumes. Dutch costume expert Marieke van Winkel observes 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 one from another, so that in Italy the great masters of our own time have been able to profit greatly from his works in that they have borrowed from them and applied things in their own works, with occasional small variations."
In 1670, Willem Goeree advised artists to make themselves familiar with old costumes and habits and to acquire knowledge of "antique" clothes and ornaments such as turbans, caps, bonnets and arms. In particular, the great Rembrandt went to great lengths to attain authenticity of historical detail and is known to have kept an extraordinary collection of exotic clothes and accessories.
The pose of the kneeling nymph strongly recalls a figure in the composition of the same theme by Jacob van Loo. By the middle of the 17th century, Van Loo had made a name for himself in Amsterdam and elsewhere. In 1649, Constantijn Huygens, the legendary art connoisseur and secretary to the stadtholder Frederick Hendrik, added Van Loo's name to a list of artists under consideration for decorating the prestigious newly constructed Huis ten Bosch palace near The Hague. Van Loo's artistic standing is further demonstrated by his mention alongside Rembrandt and Govert Flinck in a poem written by Jan Vos in 1654.
Vermeer lived a forty-minute walk from The Hague, and was no doubt familiar with the classical style painting in vogue with the noble court which resided there.
The crudity of the background foliage does nothing to dispel the suspicion of youthful incompetence unless the young Vermeer had somehow drawn inspiration from the minor landscape painter Jacob van Geel. Van Geel was eclipsed by the renowned landscape painters Adam Pynaker, Egbert van der Poel and Paulus Potter, who were all working in Delft at one time or another. The idiosyncratic Van Geel painted eerie landscapes which feature a few wanderers seemingly lost among menacing masses of trees twisted trunks. However, any comparison between Vermeer and Van Geel must be taken lightly since there is no documented contact between the two painters. Van Geel came to Delft in 1682 and stayed until 1633, only one year after Vermeer's birth.
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
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., The Public and the Private in the Age of Vermeer, London, 1997
Walter Liedtke, Vermeer: The Complete Paintings, New York, 2008
Wayne Franits, Vermeer, 2015
(Click here to access a complete study of the dates of Vermeer's paintings).
The support is a 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, which includes chalk, lead white, umber, and a little charcoal black, extends from the edges of the original canvas on all sides. Over the whole painting, except possibly in the sky, extends a thin, transparent reddish brown layer, which is employed in most half-tones and shadows.
The composition was first outlined with dark brown brushwork, some of which is visible as pentimenti in the skirt and foot of the woman washing Diana's foot. All the shadows were first blocked in with a dark paint that is especially evident in the flesh tones of Diana and her seated companions. Smalt is present in all the pale flesh tones, mixtures containing white, and the foliage. Vermeer used the handle of the brush to scratch hairs on the dog's ear.
The paint surface is abraded. Vertical lines of paint loss are evident to the left of the center. Weave emphasis and squashed cupping have resulted from the lining process.
* 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.)
(Click here to access all of Vermeer's paintings in their frames).
(Click here to access a complete, sortable list of the exhibitions of Vermeer's paintings).
(Click here to access all of Vermeer's paintings in scale).
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.
Although it is not known where or with whom Vermeer studied, he probably received his training from a master well-versed in history painting. There is no evidence that he completed his apprenticeship in his native Delft. John Michael Montias believes he may have studied in Amsterdam or nearby Utrecht. The accomplished, but elderly Abraham Bloemaert (1566–1651), who lived and worked in Utrecht, was sometimes cited as a possible candidate.
Vermeer may have painted this work in the hopes of gaining access to the princely court of The Hague, which was a magnet for all ambitious Dutch history and portrait painters and a little more than a forty-minute walk from Delft. A few painters active in The Hague, such as Michiel Jansz. van Mierevelt, had attained 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 terminated his apprenticeship, Vermeer unexpectedly changed artistic direction and began to paint in the stylish "modern" mode of contemporary life, which was deprecated by prevailing classical art theory.
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 compositonal 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. Perhaps, as Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. pointed out, 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 or that his patron-to-be Pieter van Ruijven had guided the budding artist towards a more "modern" approach.
The young Vermeer must have been keenly aware of the debate about the hierarchical position of painting amongst the arts (il paragone), which had become a distinctive feature 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 "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, its 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 then "Dutch Vasari" for his writings and accomplishments as a painter, urged artists to maintain exemplary behavior in order 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 wrong in their belief that Northern painters could not paint human figures. In any case, the Diana reveals that Vermeer was an ambitious painter who would not be content to humbly exercise his craft as the great part of Dutch painters did.
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.
Today, art historians generally place Vermeer's Diana among the very first efforts of the young artist. However, due to its mythological subject matter, Italianate style and conventional facture, it had been previously attributed to Jan Vermeer van Utrecht (1630-c. 1696). At one time, the work's signature had been altered to that of Nicholaes Maes. Although the canvas is not well preserved and cannot be objectively judged, the rendering of anatomy and drapery disclose clear signs of technical uncertainty, as might be expected from a young painter at grips with such a complicated and ambitious composition.
Most modern Vermeer experts have followed the German art historian Wilhelm von Bode (1845–1929), who recognized a very similar arrangement of the figures in a work of the same theme by Jacob van Loo, a classical painter from Amsterdam who had made inroads into the lucrative Hague court. In fact, it would seem that the young Vermeer was aware of more than one of Van Loo's various versions of the subject. In particular, the poses of background figures of Van Loo's 1648 Diana are strongly reminiscent of those of the figures, as well as the somber lighting and the prevailing solemnity of Vermeer's composition. Vermeer may have drawn from other sources as well, in particular from Rembrandt's Bathsheba, for the pose of the seated Diana and her attendant (inverted by Vermeer), as well as the somber mood and moral weight of the picture. Since both Van Loo and Rembrandt were working in Amsterdam, it has been advanced that Vermeer spent some time there to accrue his knowledge of painting from two of the most reputable artists of the time.
Some Vermeer writers place the Diana immediately before Christ in the House of Martha and Mary while others, some time after. Perhaps the more sophisticated technique of the Christ is enough to prove that the Diana is the first of surviving works by Vermeer.
Vermeer's Diana is a characteristic example of istoria, or history painting. History painting, which represents biblical, mythological or historical subjects, usually on grand scale, originated in Italy and became the dominant form of painting throughout Europe.
The goal of history painting was to instruct the mind and elevate the human spirit. History painters believed they were not merely artisans, but participants of the Liberal, rather than Mechanical, Arts. Above all, history painters emphasized harmony, proportion and balance in their compositions. They employed dense but smooth brushwork and positive color to idealize and perfect form rather than to reveal its temporary state. Most history paintings were commissioned by the church or well-to-do patrons who furnished the artist with a subject derived from textual material such as the Bible or classical mythology, although great historical events were also appropriate. Thus, the task of the history painter was essentially to represent to the best of his ability the cultural aspirations of the patron, rather than his own.
Dutch history painting drew inspiration from many of the same writings and sources used by the masters of the Italian Renaissance.
Notwithstanding its theoretical superiority, history painting did not constitute the highest percentage of artistic output in the Netherlands. It was, in fact, easily outstripped in number by those genres that contemporary art theoreticians classified as inferior: portrait painting, genre scenes, landscape and, lowest of all, still life. The proliferation of the "lower" categories of painting was undoubtedly a consequence of the transformation of painting into a commodity.
A number of Dutch history painters prospered in Vermeer's time, including the great Rembrandt van Rijn. However, although many of the most successful Dutch classicists of the period, such as Gerrit van Honthorst, Jan de Bray and Cesar van Everdingen, had been forgotten in favor of genre painters, they began to receive the attention they deserved in the second half of the 20th century by savvy art professionals, although the public still remains barely aware of their work.
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.
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 compositions were employed not only to manipulate the viewer's optical experience but to convey the idea of unity, balance, repose and wholeness, considered cardinal values of true painting. 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.
In 1885, Victor de Stuers examined the present painting's signature, which then read "NMaes." De Stuers 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.
De Stuers' supposition was confirmed by restorer Z. L.van den Berg a few years later. Ironically, in the 1895 catalogue raisonné of the Mauritshuis, the painting was attributed to Jan Vermeer of Utrecht, a nondescript contemporary of Vermeer.
The real Vermeer signature is now only dimly visible.
Early art historians believed that Vermeer, like other 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. Often entailing a difficult and dangerous journey, young 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. The attraction of the Antique and the High Renaissance was irresistible.
In the early 17th century, a group of Utrecht painters who had traveled to Rome fell under the spell of the work of Caravaggio and his followers. 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.
Italian painting was also important to Utrecht painters who never crossed the Alps. One such painter was Abraham Bloemaert, the father of the so-called Utrecht School, in whose huge workshop many painters were trained. But because some of these artists traveled to Italy, returning to pass on their learning to their master, Bloemaert's variegated oeuvre bears visible testimony of a succession of Italian influences. His fame extended so far that even the great Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens visited him in Utrecht.
Another painter with strong connections to Italy was the principal artist of Delft, Leonaert Bramer, a Catholic and close friend of the Vermeer family. Bramer is documented in Italy from 1614 to before 1628. Although Bramer is principally credited for a series of bizarre Biblical nocturnal scenes executed in a distinctly Italianate style, his range of pictorial styles may have been wider than recognized. He worked for tapestry firms, designing and painting murals and ceilings, some of which are strongly illusionistic in style. He is said to have produced true fresco paintings, a rare feat north of the Alps. A tapestry with a design after Bramer shows a "merry company" scene complete with a repoussoir tapestry that recalls Vermeer's Officer and Laughing Girl.
Rondeau from the Incidental Music for The Fairy Queen [512 KB]
Orchestra of the Accademia Monteverdiana. Denis Stevens. http://www.baroquecds.com/10Web.html