National Gallery of Art - EXHIBITIONS
Vermeer of DelftPainting and Illusionism
The Art of Painting  Technique and Conservation
Art and HistoryThe Painting's Afterlife

Art and History

Detail of map and chandelier from The Art of Painting

By placing the muse of history at the center of his allegory, Vermeer emphasized the importance of history to the visual artist. Theorists argued that the noblest and most highly regarded form of artistic expression was history painting, a term that encompassed biblical, mythological, and historical subjects, as well as allegories. By creating such paintings, artists demonstrated their knowledge and originality of thought, qualities that raised painting to the elevated status of a liberal art. At first sight, Vermeer's genre scenes and landscapes seem far removed from such ideals, but he had always aimed beyond the superficial depiction of reality, probing the essential truths of human existence. Likewise, while this allegory was inspired by Vermeer's experiences as a practicing artist, its allusions to learned sources and abstract ideals imbue it with a depth and gravity consistent with history painting.

One such reference is the large map hanging on the back wall, which draws attention to the recent history of the Netherlands. Representing the country's seventeen provinces and its major cities, the map was the creation of a distinguished artist, Claes Jansz. Visscher, whose latinized name, Nicolaum Piscatorem, Vermeer clearly inscribed along the map's upper right edge. While faithfully recording the features of the land, the cartouches, and the text, Vermeer also took care to represent the patina of the map and the folds and creases that had formed over time.

Visscher's map was already outdated by the time Vermeer painted this work. Reclamation of lands had changed the physical character of the Netherlands, and political changes had affected its frontiers. At the signing of the Treaty of Münster in 1648, the seventeen Dutch provinces were officially separated into the northern seven, which became the independent political state of the Dutch Republic, and the southern provinces, which remained under the control of the Spanish Habsburg dynasty. The prominent crease that runs through the center of the map divides it, much as the recent political changes had divided the land into two distinct entities. Directly in front of the map hangs an intricate golden chandelier, a masterpiece of design that also alludes to the Netherlands' recent past. Its uppermost part is decorated with an image of a double-headed eagle, the imperial symbol of the Habsburgs.

Johannes Vermeer, Woman Holding a Balance, c. 1664, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Widener Collection

By including the map and chandelier, Vermeer adds a symbolic level of meaning to his image, much as he did when depicting paintings within his paintings. For example, in Woman Holding a Balance , the woman holding the scales is located in front of a painting of the Last Judgment, which provides a theological context for her activity. As she prepares to weigh pearls and gold, objects arranged on the table before her, she is aware that her judgments are temporal, whereas Christ's are eternal. The Last Judgment thus imbues Woman Holding a Balance with allegorical significance, conveying the message that one should conduct one's life with temperance and balanced judgment.

With the map and chandelier, Vermeer may have wished to indicate that the artist, through his awareness of history and his ability to paint elevated subjects, brought fame to his native city and country. The role artists played in enhancing the fame of their homeland and their native city was profoundly appreciated in the Netherlands. This concept, one of the subthemes of Giorgio Vasari's influential Lives of the Artists, was given a northern flavor by Karel van Mander in his Het Schilderboeck (The Book of Painting) of 1604. It also figured in the individual histories of Dutch cities published during the seventeenth century, including Dirck van Bleyswijck's Beschryvinge der Stadt Delft (Description of the City of Delft), published in 1667, the very year that Vermeer executed this painting. It is appropriate that Clio holds her trumpet, a symbol of fame, directly beneath a view of the Hof in The Hague, the seat of government. It is also telling that the artist has begun his painting by depicting Clio's laurel wreath, a symbol of honor and glory.

Bleyswijck commented that artists bring glory and distinction to their respective cities, but he lamented that too often fame comes to them only after death. Bound by convention to limit his praise to artists already deceased, Bleyswijck listed Vermeer only as one of the artists active in Delft; he did not include one word about Vermeer's work. To the reader of this history of Delft, Vermeer remains as indistinguishable from his contemporaries as the artist in this painting. Indeed, while Vermeer probably depicted his artist from the rear to assert the universality of his allegory, he may also have done so to emphasize the anonymity experienced by the artist during his lifetime even as he brings fame and glory to his homeland.

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