Diana and her Companions

(Diana en haar Nimfen)
c. 1653 - 1656
Oil on canvas
98.5 x 105 cm. (38 3/4 x 41 3/8 in.)
Mauritshuis, The Hague
there are 9 hotspots in the image below
Diana and her Companions, Johannes Vermeer

The Italianate subject and style of "Diana," with its size and comparatively conventional facture, have inspired general agreement that this 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.

Lawrence Gowing, Vermeer, 1952

Signiture of Johannes Vermeer on Diana and her Companions
this signature is no longer visible after overzealous restorations, but was still reproduced in the 1859 catalogue of the Mauritshuis

c. 1655-1656
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. Vermeer: The Complete Works, New York, 1997)

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

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 center. Weave emphasis and squashed cupping has 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 Wheelock)

literature

Johannes Vermeer's Diana and her Companion in its frame

  • [Dirksen, The Hague, before 1866; sold to Goldsmid];
  • Neville Davison Goldsmid, The Hague (1866-75);
  • 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.
  • Amsterdam 1945
    Weerzien der meesters. Rijksmuseum.
    22, no. 133.
  • Delft 1950
    Het koninklijke kabinet 'Het Mauritshuis' in het museum 'Het Prinsenhof' te Delft. Stedelijk Museum 'Het Prinsenhof'
    11, no. 26.
  • Milan 1951
    Mostra del Caravaggio e dei Caravaggeschi. Palazzo Reale.
    99, no. 187 and ill. 130.
  • Zurich 1953
    Hollander des 17. Fahrhunderts. Kunsthaus.
    72, no. 175 and ill. 27.
  • Milan 1954
    Mostra di pittura olandese del seicento. Palazzo Reale
    90, no. 175 and ill. 30.
  • Rome 1954
    Mostra di pittura olandese del seicento. Palazzo delle Esposizioni.
    90, no. 175 and ill. 30.
  • New York 1954
    Dutch Painting: The Golden Age. An Exhibition of Dutch Pictures of Seventeenth Century. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
    no. 6 and ill.
  • The Hague 1966
    In het licht van Vermeer. Mauritshuis.
    no. 1 and ill.
  • Paris 1966
    Dans la lumière de Vermeer. Musée de l'Orangerie.
    no. 1 and ill.
  • Tokyo 1968
    The Age of Rembrandt, Dutch Paintings and Drawings of the 17th Century. The 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 ills.
  • Tokyo 1984
    Dutch Painting of the Golden Age of Rembrandt. National Gallery of Art.
    108-109, no. 39 and ill.
  • Washington D.C. 1995
    Johannes Vermeer, National Gallery of Art
    96-101, no. 3 and ill.
  • The Hague 1996
    Johannes Vermeer. Royal Cabinet of Paintings Mauritshuis.
    96-101, no. 3 and ill.
  • New York 2001
    Vermeer and the Delft School. National Gallery. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
    359-362, no. 64 and ill.
  • London 2001
    Vermeer and the Delft School. National Gallery.
    (359-362, no. 64 and ill.
  • Tokyo 2008
    Vermeer and the Delft Style. Metropolitan Art Museum.
    168-170, no. 26 and ill.
  • The Hague 2010
    The Young Vermeer. Mauritshuis.
    26-29, no. 1 and ill.
  • Dresden 2010
    The Young Vermeer. Old Masters Picture Gallery.
  • Edinburgh 2011
    The Young Vermeer. National Gallery of Scotland.
    26-29, no. 1 and ill.
Johannes Vermeer's Diana and her Companions in scale

Apr 20, Cromwell routed the English parliament.

May 18, Carel Reyniersz, Governor-General of Netherlands and East Indies, dies.

Peter Stuyvesant, governor of New Netherlands, ordered a wall built to protect the Dutch settlers from the Indians. The wall gave New York’s Wall Street its name.

Admiral Tromp, Dutch hero, dies in a naval battle.

1653
vermeer's life

April 5, Johannes Vermeer registers his intentions to marry Catharina Bolnes, the youngest daughter of Maria Thins and Reynier Bolnes. The night before, the well known Delft painter Leonaert Bramer, friend of Vermeer's family, and Captain Melling state that Maria Thins had refused to give her consent in writing but states that "she would suffer the (marriage) banns be published and would tolerate it." Catharina is one year younger than Johannes. The young couple most likely went to live with Vermeer's family in the large inn bought by Vermeer's father called "Mechelen." Since Maria Thin's own marriage to Reynier Bones (when he was a prosperous brick maker) had been very troubled, she may have considered very closely the marriage of her daughter.

April 20, Johannes Vermeer and Catharina Bolnes get married in Schipluiden, a small village south of Delft about an hours walk away. The village was something of a Catholic enclave and the Jesuits were closely connected.

Maria Thins' house on the Oude Langendijk was a couple of doors away from a Jesuit "hidden church" and she had already been involved with the order in her native Gouda. She had been divorced from Reynier Bolnes and possessed a considerable wealth.

April 22, Vermeer and the elder painter Gerard Terborch sign a document in Delft. This document, uncovered by John Michael Montias, is the only known document that links Vermeer with any other painter.

December 29, Vermeer is registered as a member of the Guild of Saint Luke. He had been required like all other artist's to undergo a six year apprenticeship. He is unable to pay in full the entrance fee of six guilders.

dutch painting

Pieter de Hooch, the master of intimate interiors and courtyards scenes whose work is frequently associated with Vermeer's, arrives in Delft from Haarlem.

Gaspar van Wittel (d. 1736) is born in Amersfoort. In the late 1670s he moves to Italy where he becomes famous for his finely detailed views of Rome.

Willem Kalf produces sumptuously rich still lifes. He was one of the most celebrated of all sill-life painters. In 1642-46 he worked in Paris. On his return to the Netherlands he lived in Hoorn and then in 1653 settled in Amsterdam. His early works were modest kitchen and courtyard scenes, but he soon became the outstanding exponent of a type of still life in which fruit and precious objects - porcelain, oriental rugs, Venetian glass - are arranged in grand Baroque displays. His pictures have often been compared with those of Vermeer because of his masterly handling of texture and his ability to manipulate warm and cool colors (he frequently contrasts the reddish browns in a carpet with the yellow of a peeled lemon and the blue and white of porcelain).

Jacob van Ruisdael paints Schloss Bentheim.

Gerard Terborch paints The Dispatch.

Jan van Goyen paints View of the Rhine.

Simon de Vlieger dies. Vlieger mainly a painter of marine subjects was active in his native Rotterdam, Delft, and Amsterdam. One of the outstanding marine painters of his period, he moved from stormy subjects in the manner of Porcellis to serene and majestic images that influenced van de Capelle and Willem van de Velde the Younger. De Vlieger also painted a few landscapes and genre pictures.

european painting & architecture Francesco Borromini: S. Agnese in Agone, Rome. Initially Borromini worked as a stone mason under Carlo Maderno, the official architect to Saint Peter's. By 1620 he was drafting and designing. When Maderno died in 1629, Borromini joined the workshop of Bernini. Under Bernini he gained more experience as a draftsman and designer. In 1634 he began work as an independent architect with his reconstruction of the monastery and church of Saint Carlo Borromeo. Borromini's architecture "springs from the contrast between convention and freedom."
music

Sep 1, Johann Pachelbel, German organist and composer, was born. Pachelbel wrote both free works (toccatas, fantasies, fugues, etc.) and chorale settings. His development of the "cantus firmus" chorale is perhaps his greatest contribution. It consists of the chorale melody in long notes, one phrase at a time, each phrase preceded by fore-imitation in the accompanying voices. This compositional pattern influenced many other composers and eventually became a standard form.

Nov 26, Andreas Anton Schmelzer, composer, is born.

Arcangelo Corelli, Italian composer and violinist, is born. Corelli exercised a wide influence on his contemporaries and on the succeeding generation of composers. It was his skill on the new instrument known as the violin and his extensive and very popular concert tours throughout Europe which did the most to give that instrument its prominent place in music. It is probably correct to say that Corelli's popularity as a violinist was as great in his time as was Paganini's during the 19th century.

literature

Pierre Corneille retires from the theatre for six years.

John Evelyn buys Sayes Court, Deptford.

Izaak Walton, The Compleat Angler.

Arthur Wilson: The History of Great Britain, being the Life and Reign of King James I.

science & philosophy
history

February 2, New Amsterdam (later renamed New York)

March 14, Battle of Leghorn: A Dutch fleet defeats the English; the Dutch commander, Johan van Galen, later dies of his wounds.

April 20, Oliver Cromwell expels the Rump Parliament.

May 24, Ferdinand IV is elected King of the Romans.

June 12 - June 13, First Anglo-Dutch War - Battle of the Gabbard: The English navy defeats the Dutch fleet, which loses 17 ships.

The Taj Mahal mausoleum is completed.

1654
vermeer's life

Jan. 10, witnessed an act in which he sigsd as "Johannis Vermeer master painter" together with a certain captain named Lambertus Morleth. Two years earlier Vermeer's name had appeared with two captains as well as with his own uncle, Lieutenant Balthens. It is presumed that Vermeer had military acquaintances.

At the end of April Vermeer again signs as a witness for a debt acknowledgement by a carpenter to a food merchant.

Vermeer does not witness the baptism of Gertruy's (his sister) child in May. This was most likely due to the artist'sconversion to Catholicism upon his marriage. Even though he was condemned to a second-class citizenship in the Protestant-dominated Delft, there are signs of public esteem and was almost certainly not actively persecuted for his religious beliefs.

Delft, with a population of 25,000 to 30,000 had attained the peak of its artistic vitality.

A lost work (cited in a distinguished art collection) entitled Jupiter, Venus and Mercury was ascribed to Vermeer. The young and ambitious artist may have painted this mythological scene and his first extant work, Diana and her Companions, in order to appeal to the classical tastes in vogue at the rich aristocratic court in nearby The Hague.

By 1654-1655 Delft had attaines the peak of it artistic vitality. It was soon to disintegrate as many painters of the town left in search of more attractive prospects in larger, richer cities, such as Amsterdam. By the mid 1670s Vermeer was one of the few artists who had remained. Had it not been for strong personal reasons, Vermeer too may have moved to Amsterdam as Potter, De Witte, Van Aelst, and De Hooch had done

dutch painting

Jacob Vrel is born. Vrel's seemingly naïve style and his pictures' rarity even have prompted speculation that he was an amateur. Scholars most often link Vrel's manner to Delft artists such as Johannes Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch, but elements in his street scenes may indicate connections to Haarlem, Friesland, Flanders, or the lower Rhineland.

Oct 12, Rembrandt's most talented pupil Carel Fabritius, dies in October from wounds suffered in the explosion of the municipal powder magazine, which laid waste the northeastern side of Delft. Fabritius was at his easel painting. The gunpowder magazine which contained about 80,000 pounds of powder blew up "with such a horrible rush and force that the arches of heaven seemed to crack and burst."

Rembrandt painted a portrait of poet-businessman Jan Six and A Woman Bathing in a Stream.

After studying with Rembrandt, Nicholaes Maes returns to Dortrecht and specializes in intimate household scenes.

Jacob van Loo paints An Allegory of Venus and Cupid as Lady World and Homo Bulla.

October 12, The Delft Explosion destroys the city of Delft, killing painter Carel Fabritius.His home, studio, and most of his paintings were destroyed. In the same year he paints The Goldfinch which may have been a source of inspiration for Vermeer.

european painting & architecture Johann Amos Comenius publishes in Nuremberg first picture book for children, Orbis sensualium pictus.
music  
literature

Lady Dorothy Osborne plays the lead role in a country-house staging of Sir William Berkeley's tragicomedy The Lost Lady. While the London theatres remain closed, amateur theatricals continue at private houses in England. Like performances of courtly masques before 1642, many of these performances feature women, foreshadowing the acceptance of professional women performers in the early Restoration era.

Roger Boyle, 1st Earl of Orrery writes Parlhenissa, a novel.

John Milton: Defensio Secunda.

science & philosophy

Nov 23, Blaise Pascal, scientist and philosopher, underwent a mystical experience. He abandoned his scientific work and devoted himself to philosophy and theology. His two most famous works date from this period: the Lettres provinciales and the Pensées. He entered a hermitage at Port-Royal des Champs and never again published in his own name. He came up with the idea that believing in God is safer than not believing because it might gain one eternal life. He was a Jansenist, and rejected free will in favor of predestination.

De Circuli Magnitudine Inventa by Dutch mathematician-astronomer-physicist Christiaan Huygens, 25, attracts widespread attention.

history Jan 10, Russia’s Czar Alexander announced a war against Lithuania and Poland. which lasts until 1667.

Apr 12, England, Ireland and Scotland united.

Jun 7, Louis XIV is crowned King of France in Rheims.

Shah Jahan completes the Taj Mahal. Master builders, masons, calligraphers, etc. along with more than 20,000 laborers, worked for 22 years under orders of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan to complete the great mausoleum for the shah's beloved wife.
1655
vermeer's life

Dec. 14, "Sr. Johannes Reijnijersz. Vermeer master painter," and his wife "Juffr. Catharina Bolnes" appear before the notary Rota to guarantee a debt of 250 guilders that the artist's father had contracted. Both Vermeer and his wife sign the document. The appearance of the stylish "Sr." on the document is a secure sign of the artist's rise in social status.

dutch painting

c. 1656 Jacob van Ruisdael moves to Amsterdam.

Rembrandt paints Woman Bathing in a Stream and the Polish Rider.

Pieter de Hooch, who directly influences Vermeer, joins the guild of Saint Luke in Delft, two years after he had arrived from Haarlem. He will remain in Delft and produce his finest works until 1660.

c. 1658 Miendert Hobbema becomes an apprentice in Jacob van Ruisdael's Amsterdam studio. In the exercise of his craft Hobbema was patient beyond all conception. It is doubtful whether any one ever so completely mastered as he did the still life of woods and hedges, or mills and pools. Nor can we believe that he obtained this mastery otherwise than by constantly dwelling in the same neighbourhood, say in Guelders or on the Dutch Westphalian border, where day after day he might study the branching and foliage of trees and underwood embowering cottages and mills, under every variety of light, in every shade of transparency, in all changes produced by the seasons.

european painting & architecture

Luca Giordano develops a rich baroque vein deriving in particular from Rubens. He was nicknamed "Luca Fa Presto" (Luke work quickly) because of his prodigious speed of execution and huge output. He began in the circle of Ribera, but his style became much more colorful under the influence of such great decorative painters as Veronese, whose works he saw on his extensive travels. Indeed, he absorbed a host of influences and was said to be able to imitate other artists' styles with ease. His work was varied also in subject-matter, although he was primarily a religious and mythological painter. Soon after the death of Charles in 1700, Giordano, now wealthy, returned to Naples. He spent large sums in acts of munificence, and was particularly liberal to his poorer brother artists. One of his maxims was that the good painter is the one whom the public like, and that the public are attracted more by colour than by design. Giordano has been criticized as being a prolific trader of all styles, and master of none. He has been viewed as a proto-Tiepolo, reanimating that grand manner of Cortona in a style that would brighten with Tiepolo.

c. 1655 Murillo paints genre scenes in Seville, where, from 1658 to 1660, he was involved in the founding of the Academy of Art, sharing its direction, in 1660, with the architect, Francisco Herrera el Mozo. This was his period of greatest activity, and he received numerous important commissions, among them the altar piece for the Augustinian monastery, the paintings for Santa María la Blanca (completed in 1665), and others.

music Aug 13, Johann Christoph Denner, inventor of the clarinet, was born.
literature  
science & philosophy

Blaise Pascal: Lettres provinciales, against Jesuits

Mar 25, Christiaan Huygens discovered Titan, Saturn's largest satellite. Huygens was a great figure in the fields of research into mathematical physics, astronomy and optics, and among the founders of mechanics and optical physics. He made astronomical observations about the planets, of the nebula of Orion and of the Moon, all reported in Systema Saturnium.

Hooke publishes the Micrographia.

history

Pope Innocent X dies; Fabio Chigi becomes Pope Alexander VII.

Spinoza excommunicated

Apr 26, Dutch West Indies Co. denied Peter Stuyvesant's desire to exclude Jews from New Amsterdam.

Sep 26, Peter Stuyvesant recaptured Dutch Ft. Casimir from Swedish in Delaware.

The first slave auction was held in New Amsterdam (later NYC).

French society uses a clean plate for each new dish but Englishmen continue to dine off trenchers - wooden platters that give hearty eaters the name "trenchermen."

Rum from Jamaica is introduced into the Royal Navy to supplement beer, which goes sour after a few weeks at sea.

1656
vermeer's life

In Dec. Vermeer pays the remaining sum (1.5 guilders) of the master's fee in the Guild of Saint Luke that he was unable to pay in 1653.

Vermeer signs one of his first known paintings, The Procuress. The young artist seems to still be dependent on well established pictorial models and has not yet adverted the influence of the newer interior genre scenes of his contemporaries. This type of Caravaggesque scene was to be found in the collections of local connoisseurs.

By 1656 Maria Thin, Vermeer's mother-in-law had already advanced 300 guilders, a considerable sum, the Catharina and Johannes.

dutch painting

Rembrandt declared bankrupt; his possessions are put up for sale.

The immensely popular landscape painter Jan van Goyen (b. 1596), dies.

Gerrit van Honthorst (b. in Utrecht 1590) dies.

european painting & architecture

Academy of Painting in Rome founded.

Bernini: Piazza of Saint Peter's, Rome

Diego Velázquez paints Las Meninas, family of Philip IV

music Opening of first London opera house.
literature
science & philosophy

Oct 29, Edmund Halley, astronomer (Halley's Comet), was born. [see Nov 8]

Dec 14, Artificial pearls are first manufactured by M. Jacquin in Paris. They were made of gypsum pellets covered with fish scales.

Dutch mathematician Johan van Waveren Hudde, 28, anticipates the power-series for ln (1 + x) and the following year will do pioneering work on the use of space coordinates. Hudde promotes Cartesian geometry and philosophy in Holland; his discoveries (they will be called Hudde's rules) will presage the use of algorithms to solve problems of calculus.

history

Jan 8, Oldest surviving commercial newspaper began in Haarlem, Netherlands.

Dutch forces take the Sinhalese port of Colombo from the Portuguese.

Dutch East India Company shares plummet on the Amsterdam Exchange and many investors are ruined. Among them is painter Rembrandt van Rijn, now 50, who is declared bankrupt and whose possessions are put up for sale.

The Dutch in Ceylon make cinnamon a state monopoly but will not have complete control of the island's cinnamon until 1658. When prices fall too low, the Dutch will burn great quantities of the bark, and they will destroy groves of clove and nutmeg trees in the Moluccas, creating artificial scarcities that will force prices up, enriching the Dutch East India Company.

Vermeer began his career as a history painter and not as a painter of genre interiors for which he is renowned today. His first known works were 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, Jupiter, Venus and Mercury and Visit to the Tomb have not survived.

Although it is not known where or with whom Vermeer studied, it is certain that he received his training from a master well versed in history painting. There are no signs that he completed his apprenticeship in his native Delft: instead he probably studied in Amsterdam or nearby Utrecht. The accomplished, but elderly Abraham Bloemaert (1566-1651) is frequently cited as a possible candidate.

The princely court of The Hague, which is a little more than an hour walk from Delft, was a magnet for all ambitious Dutch history and portrait painters. A few of them, such as Michiel Jansz. van Mierevelt, had attained enormous financial success with works to suit a conservative, aristocratic vision of the world. Joachim von Sandrart wrote that he painted over 10,000 portraits.

A few years after he had terminated his apprenticeship, Vermeer unexpectedly changed artistic direction.

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 21 year old Vermeer may have wished to cater to the classical tastes of the nearby court at The Hague where the figure of Diana was in vogue. The Diana theme had been commissioned by such successful Dutch artists as Gerrit van Honthorst, Jacob van Campen and the Delft artist Christiaen Van Couwenbergh.

However, the 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 is unknown. 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 or that his patron-to-be Pieter van Ruijven had guided the budding artist towards a more "modern" approach.

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.

Vermeer must have been keenly aware of the debated hierarchical position of painting amongst the arts which had become a distinctive feature of aesthetic theory in the Italian Renaissance. In classical times painting did not enjoy the same status of the sister art poetry although in the often-quoted words of Horace (in Ars Poetica, 18BC) ut pictura poesis (as is painting, so is poetry). The foremost champion of the superiority 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 in which a painter could work in fine clothes whilst listening to music with the sweaty, noisy labor involved in sculpture. 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 Schilderboek, Karel van Mander, known as "the Dutch Vasari," first for his writings and second for his accomplishments as a painter, urged artists to display exemplary behavior so as 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 expressions of the human spirit. He encouraged painters to not waste time, get drunk or fight, not draw attention by living an immoral life and to attempt to frequent princes and learned people. 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 rendered.

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.

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 goddess of the hunt and an emblem of chastity, reposes at the end of the day with her nymphs. Vermeer chose to portray an unusual moment before the climax of the story when Actaeon, a young prince out hunting, inadvertently discovers the nude Diana and her companions. Diana attempts to avoid his stares by shielding her nakedness with the bodies of her attendant nymphs. She then splashes water at the head of Actaeon and hurls an imprecation at him. Incensed at Actaeon's lustful glances the goddess instantly turns the hunter into a stag. The helpless Actaeon fails to be recognized by his own hounds and is 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 on. However, by the mid-17th century Diana was represented only occasionally by Dutch artists.

Diana and Her Nymphs, Jacob van Loo

Diana and Her Nymphs
Jacob van Loo
1654
100 x 136 cm.
Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen

The Italianate subject and style of Vermeer's Diana, along with its imposing size and conventional facture, place this work among the very first efforts of the young artist. So atypical is the canvas that for many years it was attributed to Vermeer of Utrecht. Its signature had been altered to that of Nicholaes Maes but was later restored. Although the canvas is not well preserved and cannot be objectively judged, the anatomical rendering shows signs of uncertainty as might be expected from any young painter at grips with such a complicated and ambitious composition.

Most modern Vermeer experts have followed the German art historian Wilhelm von Bode who recognized the arrangement of the figures in a painting by Jacob van Loo, a classical painter from Amsterdam who had made inroads into the lucrative Hague court. In fact, it would seem that Vermeer was aware of more than one of Van Loo's versions of the subject. In particular, the background figures of Van Loo's 1648 Diana are strongly reminiscent in the poses, somber lighting and overall solemnity of Vermeer's composition. Vermeer may have drawn from other sources as well; in particular the Bathsheba by Rembrandt for the pose (inverted by Vermeer) of the seated Diana and her attendant as well as the moral weight of the picture. Since both sources are from artists working in Amsterdam, it has been suggested 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 his Christ in the House of Martha and Mary while others after. Perhaps the more sophisticated technique of the Christ is enough to determine that the Diana is the first of surviving works by Vermeer.

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 BC.
Marble, height: 2.01 m.
Musée du Louvre, Paris

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 had become 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 themselves to be participants of the Liberal Arts associated with philosophy and poetry and not merely artisans. Artists emphasized above all, harmony, proportion and balance in their compositions. They generally employed dense but smooth brushwork, positive coloring and the use of light to idealize and perfect form rather than reveal its temporary state. Non-realist technical virtuosity often predominated over sincere understanding of visual objectivity. Most history paintings were commissioned by patrons who furnished the artist with a subject derived from textual material. Thus, the task of the history painter was to represent to the best of his ability the cultural aspirations of the patron and not his own.

Dutch history painting drew its inspiration from many of the same writings and pictorial sources used by the venerable masters of the Italian Renaissance.

In any case, history painting did not constitute the highest percentage of artistic output in the Netherlands. By far the largest part came from genres that art writers classified as inferior: portraits, genre scenes, landscapes, and still lifes. This 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, some of the most successful Dutch classicists like Gerrit van Honthorst, Jan de Bray and Cesar van Everdingen have been profoundly reconsidered in modern times.

Bathsheba at her Bath, Rembrandt van Rijn

Bathsheba at her Bath
Rembrandt van Rijn
1654
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 van Rijn although there is no direct documentary evidence that supports this link. In his celebrated essays of 1886, Théophile Thoré, who is credited for having rediscovered the Delft master, wrote that the Procuress was "absolutament rembrandtesque." Many modern Vermeer authorities have concurred. Arthur K. Wheelock 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."

The most probable source of Vermeer's knowledge of Rembrandt's art was through Carel Fabritius, Rembrandt's most talented student who had briefly stayed in Delft when Vermeer was beginning to paint. He may have seen some of the mythological or classical themes done by Fabritius which are steeped in the somberness and solemnity of Rembrandt's historical themes.

Diana and her Companions (deigram), Johannes Vermeer

This work 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 felt by the observer but not consciously noticed lest it dominate the reading of the motif. In the present 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 well guarded and stopping the wayward eye from escaping the picture. Vermeer applied the circular composition to another early work, the Christ in the House of Martha and Mary.

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 1885, Victor de Stuers examined this 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.

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 (see left).

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. It was later discovered that it was Johannes Vermeer of Utrecht, an obscure landscapist, who was documented to have been in Rome in the mid-1650s and not his famous counterpart. Nonetheless, the knowledge of composition, broad execution and moral seriousness of his first canvases all show that Vermeer was keenly aware of the strengths of Italian painting. In particular, 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.

For young Dutch and Flemish artists, travel to Italy had become a rite of passage after the publication of Karel van Mander's Schilder-boeck in 1604. Often entailing a difficult and dangerous journey, young artists could spend years getting to Italy, 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, the so-called Uthrecht Caravaggists introduced a dramatically new style of painting, one that stressed the contrasts between light and dark, the quality for which Rembrandt was later to become so celebrated.

Vertumnus and Pomona, Abraham Bloemaert

Vertumnus and Pomona
Abraham Bloemaert
1620
Oil on canvas, 98 x 125 cm.
Private collection

Italian painting was also important to Utrecht painters who never crossed the Alps. One such man was Abraham Bloemaert, the father of the 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 varied oeuvre bears visible testimony to 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 in a distinctly Italianate style, his range of pictorial styles may have been wider than recognized. He was an eclectic, if not great artist, working for tapestry firms, designing and painting murals and ceilings, some of which are illusionistic in style. He crafted real fresco painting, which is a rare feat north of the Alps. A tapestry with a design after Bramer shows a surprising merry company scene complete with repoussoir tapestry which cannot but recall Vermeer's Officer and Laughing Girl.

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