Details of Vermeer's Painting Technique

Diana and her Companions, Johannes Vermeer
Diana and her Companions
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1653 - 1656
Oil on canvas, 98.5 x 105 cm.
Mauritshuis, The Hague

History Painting: Uncertain Beginnings

At the outset of his career, Vermeer cast himself primarily as a storyteller. While the great part of the young artist’s energies was directed at picturing the clue moment of his narrative through the forceful rendering of figures and their appropriateness of their dispositions, the environments in which the stories unfold were purposely minimized. Light is managed somewhat conventionally and, at times, it is incoherent from a strictly optical standpoint.

Some Vermeer scholars believe that the budding artist had intended the Diana and her Companions to serve as a passport to gain entrance to the lucrative Hague court where the Diana theme was much in vogue. If that was the case, it is not too difficult to understand why his appeal was left unanswered: the large painting, although extraordinarily interesting from an art historical point of view, is, at least by traditional 17th-century standards, a compositional disaster.

If the prime goal of 17th-century pictorial composition was to convey a given story in the clearest and most forceful manner,1 Vermeer has largely missed the mark since no one has yet been able to identify  the pictured scene in any moment in the  Ovid's Metamorphoses (book III, 138-252) which recounts the mythological event. Neither the abrupt entrance of Actaeon upon the scene nor Diana’s rash character are represented. Nor is there any trace of the bow and arrows and dead game which were the most common attributes of Diana’s prowess as a hunter. What we see is essentially an assembly of chaste, light-skinned young Dutch women who, according to art historians, have assumed poses that Vermeer had drawn from other Dutch pictures of the same subject.2

In Vermeer's composition, the heads of the foreground protagonists are positioned so that the faces are cast in a deep shadow making it impossible for the spectator to divine their emotions or character. The redundancy of lighting and pose—four out five of the figures bend their heads downwards in a frieze-like procession—reiterate the deeply melancholy mood for which the artist provides no psychological relief.3 The distribution of lights and darks creates a spotty compositional effect which runs counter to period recommendations to group lights and darks together in large, manageable masses

Perhaps the most visible compositional flaw of the Diana and her Companions is represented by the inordinate amount of light that inundates the subsidiary nude figure behind the principal group of nymphs. This nymph is painted so thickly and so boldly that it appears practically attached to goddess of hunt. By highlighting this anonymous figure, the viewer’s eye is drawn away from the action of the scene accomplishing little more than to showcase the young artist’s clumsy treatment of the drapery and the blocky anatomy of the figure whose back has more or less the same grace as that of the worn-out dog in the lower foreground.4

Incapable of movement, the background nymph has lost her way in both the three-dimensional space and the narrative logic of the picture.

  1. See: Paul Taylor, Taylor, Paul, "Vermeer, Lairesse and Composition," Hofstede de Groot-lezing, Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie, The Hague. 2010. and Paul Taylor, "Composition in Seventeenth-century Dutch Art Theory." Pictorial Composition from Medieval to Modern Art.  Ed. Paul Taylor and François Quiviger. London. 2001.
  2. The famous Italian Spinario, Rembrandt’s Bathsheba and Jacob Van Loo’s Diana and her Companions are the most commonly cited visual resources of Vermeer’s rendition.
  3. Vermeer may have provides some escape from the scene through a see-through landscape recommended strongly to history painters by Van Mander.
  4. Perhaps, Walter Liedtke’s description of this weakly painted  figure as a "loyal follower," of Diana, "strong and statuesque," would have found scarce consensus among Dutch art connoisseurs.
Diana and her Companions (detail), Johannes Vermeer
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