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

Painting and Illusionism

Camera obscura, engraving, from Athanasius Kircher, Ars magna lucis et vmbrae in decem libros (Rome, 1646), National Gallery of Art, Gift of The Circle of the National Gallery of Art

The symbolic associations to history and fame are only part of Vermeer's allegory on the art of painting. For Vermeer, painting meant more than conveying abstract principles in a realistic form. Its very essence was built on the conviction that an artist needed a thorough understanding of the laws of nature to create a convincing illusion of reality. Such is the seductive beauty of his paintings that their subtle artifice often goes unnoticed. Vermeer succeeded to give this image a sense of life through his masterful observation of the light that illuminates the figures and objects in the room. He also applied his sophisticated knowledge of the rules of linear perspective to give the interior the appearance of a credible space, and to emphasize the painting's most important components. He located the vanishing point just in front of the figure of Clio, directing the viewer's eye toward her and giving her greater prominence in the composition.

Johannes Vermeer, Girl with the Red Hat, c. 1665/1666, oil on panel, National Gallery of Art, Andrew W. Mellon Collection

Vermeer may have made use of a camera obscura (literally "dark room") to help him conceive, although not paint, the composition. This optical device, a precursor of the modern camera, was a box with a small hole through which rays of light passed to form an inverted image on a surface opposite the hole. Images recorded with a camera obscura often show discrepancies in scale similar to those found in this painting, and some areas in clearer focus than others. Vermeer conveyed this optical effect by varying his painting technique. He used a broad application of paint to recreate the unfocused appearance of the drapery hanging over the edge of the table, and a crisper brushstroke for the glint of light on the chandelier and the aged surface of the map on the back wall. A similar diffused focus is found in Vermeer's Girl with the Red Hat, which, as The Art of Painting, was painted during the mid- to late 1660s. The image is executed with remarkable spontaneity and informality, which may again be related to Vermeer's use of a camera obscura. His fluid, painterly treatment can be compared to the unfocused appearance of an image seen through such an optical device.

The apparent realism of Vermeer's scene is a quality seventeenth-century Dutch artists often strove to achieve. In his theoretical treatise, Samuel van Hoogstraten wrote: "A perfect painting is like a mirror of Nature, in which things that are not there appear to be there, and which deceives in an acceptable, amusing, and praiseworthy fashion." The notion that a painting should deceive the eye with its illusionism dates back to antiquity. In his Natural History, Pliny described a competition between the artists Parrhasius and Zeuxis, both of whom were intent on creating images that fooled the viewer into believing that the objects depicted were real. Parrhasius won when he painted a curtain so skillfully that Zeuxis tried to lift it to see the image beneath. We are reminded of this story by the large tapestry in Vermeer's painting, which seems to have been drawn aside to reveal the allegorical scene. Its convincing heavy folds, colors, and textures, which Vermeer suggests with multicolored highlights accenting the nubs of the weave, urge us to push it back even further to reveal more of the room behind it.

The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Frans van Mieris the Elder, Pictura (An Allegory of Painting), 1661, oil on copper, arched top: 5 x 3 1/2 in. (12.5 x 8.5 cm)

The mimetic power of Vermeer's painting is embodied clearly in its strong illusionism, but he also refers to it symbolically. On the table in front of Clio is a mask, which was an established symbol of imitation and the attribute given to the personification of Painting in Ripa's Iconologia. The book describes the allegorical figure of Painting as: "A beautiful Woman...with a gold chain on the neck on which hangs a Stage Mask....She should hold a brush in one hand and a Palette in the other." These prescriptions were followed closely by Vermeer's contemporary, Frans van Mieris, in his painting of the same theme . He adhered to the established conventions of allegory painting by depicting the abstract concept in the form of a single female figure. Vermeer departed radically from this tradition, breathing new life into the coded language of allegory and presenting the symbolic mask as a studio prop left casually on the table.

A similar sense of immediacy is found in Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring, in which he established an engaging rapport between the girl and her viewer. With liquid eyes and parted mouth she looks directly at the viewer, radiating purity and captivating all who gaze upon her. A diffused light illuminates the soft skin of her face, which emerges dramatically from the dark background. Despite her striking presence and tangibility, the girl retains an air of mystery. Her costume and exotic headdress are not the fashion of Vermeer's day, which suggests that she possibly represented an allegorical or biblical figure, perhaps a Sybil. As in The Art of Painting, there is a compelling yet ambiguous relationship between the real and the allegorical. In both paintings, Vermeer modified and idealized reality to achieve a sense of permanence and timelessness.

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