The Allegory of Painting is truly one of the most beautiful paintings in the world. Beautiful not only in the charming scene it depicts (the endearing relationship between a young woman and her portraitist), but also in the message that it hides within the details of the scene. Ultimately, this work is an homage to art itself.
As some of you may know, the artist in the painting is often thought to be Vermeer himself. However, it is hard to say with absolute certainty, as Vermeer has left us no clues (not even a pallet of colours!). The ambiguity surrounding identity is furthered by the dress of the portraitist, who wears a burgundian costume popular in the 1530s. So if this were Vermeer, then why would he paint himself a 150 years in the past? The second apparently strange detail is the painter’s use of a hand rest. Why would he need to use such an awkward instrument used only for the end of paintings, when we can see that he only has just begun?
Now, let us look at the subject. For many historians the most probable option is that this is his eldest daughter, Gertruyd. However, looking a little more closely and comparing the subject to known paintings of Gertruyd, one can see that the two look very little alike. Nonetheless, let us look at what she is holding so awkwardly. We can see very clearly that she has in her arms some kind of book (though of what is not clear) and some sort of trumpet. To keep it short, this is a representation Clio – the muse of history. The trumpet she holds is the ‘trumpet of triumph’ and her book is history. Now pay attention to her gaze. She is neither looking at her portraitist or her audience. Rather, she looks onto a table where we can see an open book and a mask of some sort. It would be reasonable, as it is done so, to assume that this is a book of sheet music and therefore a representation of the muse of music, Euterpe, making the mask therefore, a representation of Thalia, the muse of comedy. But it doesn’t end there…
We must now turn our eye to the setting. At the back of the room we see a map representing each of the 17 regions of the Netherlands as well as the 20 greater cities. In the centre of the room we see a chandelier. This chandelier being particularly Dutch; as we can see ones like it in most interior paintings of the 17th century. Finally, the curtain. After analysing every thread of this tapestry, historians have concluded it to be of Spanish origin.
To conclude, we are looking at a painting of what could be Vermeer painting his daughter, or possibly his wife, dressed as one of the muses, with the intention of painting her as others, back in the 1530s under a Dutch chandelier with no candles and all this hidden behind a Spanish tapestry.
So, how do we interpret this jigsaw of allegories? The early 16th century in the Netherlands was lived under Spanish occupation, and in this light the costume of the painter could be seen as a form of nostalgia for those times. The chandelier with no light therefore represents the sentiment that many artists of the time felt; that the new society of merchants that came to power in the early 17th century (after the removal of the Spanish) were profoundly uncultured. The tapestry, beautiful and radiant in its colours, therefore reflects a nostalgia for an artisitc culture that was lost with the end of Spanish rule, something that Vermeer clearly laments.