Scholars believe that Vermeer’s Art of Painting addressed a number of weighty issues which regarded both the art of painting and the fine arts in general. One of them was the so-called paragone, or the comparison of the arts.
In the past, there was an enduring and impassioned debate concerning the hierarchical status of the various arts. In the Quattrocento, Italy was the battleground on which painters, still handicapped by the classical prejudice against manual labor, fought to establish their art on the higher tier of the Liberal Arts. Practicing painters, in fact, were then relegated among artisans and craftsmen. The rivalries between painting and poetry and painting and sculpture were particularly intense although in the course of the Renaissance the kinship between painting and poetry became commonplace so much that they were considered sister arts by some.
By Vermeer’s time, the debate still inflamed and had been extended to science as well. It was argued that doctors and astronomers can know the visible world through the use of their use of acquired skills, but artists can not only comprehend the natural world, they can replicate it. The painter’s art embraces and recreates the entire visible world, or as in the words of painter and art theorist Samuel van Hoogstraten, “the Art of Painting is a science for representing all the ideas or notions that visible nature in its entirety can produce, and for deceiving the eye with outline and colour.”
Deception as we know, was at the heart of Vermeer’s concept of illusionist painting and perhaps nowhere more manifest than in his monumental Art of Painting.
|Johannes Vermeer – De Schilderkunst|
Vermeers Art of Painting (De Schilderkunst)
The composition shows a painter, presumably Vermeer himself; painting a model who poses with a crown of laurel on her head a trumpet in one hand and a book in the other. These accessories refer to fame and its perpetration through writing and would have allowed any contemporary spectator who was well informed in emblems to have identified the woman as Clio, muse of History. The mask which appears on the table is traditionally used as a symbol of imitation and thus of painting. The light hanging above the artist is crowned by a double-headed eagle, symbol of the Hapsburg dynasty which since the 16th century had governed the seventeen provinces of the Netherlands that appear in the map on the end wall (and which still governed the southern provinces). As in the majority of interior paintings, it is difficult to know when an element should be read in a symbolic manner. The map and the lamp may, along with Clio, be further references to history or simply reflections of a taste for these objects which contained an element of nostalgia for the days when the Netherlands were united.
Few paintings in the entire history of art seem as perfect as this one. Vermeer’s extraordinary technical mastery, the crystal-clear light which illuminates the scene, the purity of the volumes and the unique psychological distancing of the figures are all characteristics of his work that here reach an extraordinary level of refinement.