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Image as Argument: Vermeer's "Artist in his Studio"
Francis-Noël Thomas, Professor of Humanities,
Truman College, Chicago

Paper given at the Third International Congress on Word & Image
Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada, 16 August 1993

In about 1660 Johannes Vermeer of Delft, at the height of his powers as a painter and a leading member of the local painters' guild, just then building a new guild house, painted a picture that amounts to an allegorical editorial on the proper "subject" of painting. It is an argument in the form of a picture.

Vermeer's picture, sometimes called "The Art of Painting," sometimes "The Artist in His Studio" (Vienna: Kunsthistorisches Museum, no. 9128) [Plate 1], despite the considerable literature devoted to it in art historical scholarship, has never, to my knowledge, been treated in the scholarly literature as a (very funny) argument, meant both to ridicule academic theory and to promote the "unworthy" commonplace subjects that Vermeer himself ordinarily painted.

Vermeer's argument is made up of a complex series of comparisons—some immediately evident, others ingenious—summarized by the contrast between what he has painted and what the painter he represents is painting. In keeping with this summary contrast, then, the curtain on the left emphasizes that everything we see behind it is a painting. The curtain is to Vermeer's painting what the canvas on the easel is to the figure of the painter in the painting. We see just enough of the represented painter's subject to understand how it will contrast with Vermeer's.

The painter is painting a subject that belongs to the highest academic category. Not only is his working on a "history" painting, he is painting Clio, the Muse of History, herself. What we see him working on is the model's crown of laurel leaves. It is important to understand that this painter is a very broad caricature and figure of fun, something no seventeenth-century Dutch painter or connoisseur could possibly miss. First of all, he is wearing a kind of Halloween costume. No seventeenth-century Dutch painter would actually paint in such a get up. The costume, for one thing, is out-of-date, the implication being that the subject he is painting is as out of date as his costume. His procedure is archaic as well. No seventeenth-century Dutch painter, certainly not Vermeer, would start by painting only the crown in full detail with no other color anywhere on the canvas. Finally, no painter would ask his model to pose in full costume holding the props in the manner that this model poses.

One reason for claiming that history painting is superior to the painting of common objects that are part of daily visual experience is the supposed universality and permanence of such subjects. Clio belongs to no particular human place; her "art" is of high and unchanging significance. But the model in Vermeer's painting is standing in front of a map. Her head is positioned so that part of it is superimposed on a map of the Netherlands, the rest on two "town views" of Netherlandish towns that form part of the left border of the map. This is an unmistakable way for Vermeer to emphasize what he makes clear in several other ways as well; the dope of a painter in the goofy costume may be painting the universal and unchanging muse of history, but Vermeer himself is painting a Dutch town girl dressed up in a costume and holding props.

When we look closely at her [Plate 2], it is difficult to miss that, besides being unmistakable Dutch, she is young, innocent and naive. She has none of the gravity or dignity that is characteristic of engravings of Clio and the other muses that figure among Vermeer's likely sources.

In view of the fact that the single surviving seventeenth-century commentary on any of Vermeer's paintings informs us that one of them was to be seen at a baker's shop or home, I have come to think of the Dutch girl incongruously dressed up as the Muse of History as the baker's daughter and will refer to her as such in the remainder of my discussion of this picture. I do this not merely whimsically but because I am quite confident that the young model is meant to convey a particular kind of incongruity. It is not merely that she doesn't look grave and magisterial enough to conform to the established iconography of Clio, but, equally important, although she is trying her best to impersonate the Muse of History, she hasn't a clue about what might be appropriate to such a performance because she is a person who belongs to Vermeer's own society of Delft artists and artisans. The Muse of History is a character quite remote from her experience.

In short Vermeer shows us a painter who doesn't know what he's doing and a model who doesn't know what she's doing. I think Vermeer expects us to have confidence that the incompetent painter he represents is not going to paint the map in his picture, nor will he paint the face of the baker's daughter. He won't represent the baker's daughter in a silly costume; he will be sure to have a proper muse in his picture. In other words, he'll paint something he doesn't see, rather than the girl in front of him; inasmuch as muses don't walk the streets of Delft or any other town, he'll paint something nobody can see outside of a picture. This extension of vision from the everyday to the "eternal" will be the dignity of his picture because he is wrong-headed enough to think that showing people what they never can otherwise see is the highest function of painting.

And Vermeer? Well, he is surely a competent painter. No reproduction can re-create the effect of looking at this painting. It is a visible exemplar of what Vermeer values in painting and cannot fail to make an impression on almost anyone with a working optic nerve, whatever concept of painting and its proper subject may be closest to the observer's heart. And what is it that he paints instead of the imaginary muse whom no one ever saw? Why what he can see, of course, and what anyone who hasn't obstructed conventional vision with theories about muses and "history" painting can see. Not merely the baker's daughter and the map (to which I shall return in a moment) but also, to contrast with the represented painter's exalted and super-dignified subject, that worthy man's ample rump as contained in his baggy black trousers, a characteristically Dutch way of bringing things back to earth.

It is clear enough that the represented painter working on his picture of the Muse would hardly think of his ass in baggy black trousers as a valuable subject for painting, but that is only part of Verneer's joke. No reproduction can do justice to the tones of black Vermeer has used. The passage is a virtuoso demonstration of skill and succeeds in drawing admiration and attention of the sort that suggests to most people a whole new dimension in what might be seen in ordinary black cloth worn as clothing by a particular individual at a particular moment, with the resulting complex play of light and shadow. Only a master with Vermeer's concept of painting and his characteristic sense of humor would select such a subject for such treatment, but it is a demonstration of the proposition that it isn't the subject-in-itself that makes a painting interesting but a combination of the painter's "eye" (his selection and conception of subject) and his technical mastery. The passage holds its place in a development from a tradition that made the representation of cloth one of its specialties although the subject of this passage is deliberately coarse in conventional terms.

The concept of painting that Vermeer argues for here does not supplant ordinary "subjects" and does not isolate itself from normal visual experience. It is just such an attempt to supplant and isolate that constitutes his accusation against his represented painter.

The represented painter, in his role as a painter, sees a muse; the trumpet and the book she holds are not seen as the unlearned might see them; they are Clio's attributes, but what about the objects in the room that are not part of his depiction of Clio? What about something as simple as the wall behind her and the map? I've already said that one conventional iconographic use of the map is simply to identify the model as Dutch, surely an incongruous thing for Clio to be. Clio, after all, exists somewhere beyond everyday human experience. She has no nationality; she doesn't grow old; she doesn't change: these are all aspects of her more-than-human dignity.

Just as we can be sure that Vermeer's painter never paid so much attention as Vermeer does to a pair of baggy black trousers, we can be sure that while the represented painter is alert to the Dutch "muse ," he is oblivious to the sunlight on the wall behind her. This is another passage like the black trousers but on a "neutral" rather than a "low" subject. The wall is, for the kind of history painting we see the painter at work upon, not so much incongruous as simply not worth noticing. Like the black trousers passage, this passage retains only a small fraction of its power in reproductions. In Vermeer's painting it is a demonstration of the inherent possibilities of oil paint to represent nuances of color tone as well as being a demonstration of technical mastery, Vermeer's, of course, but also that of the whole Netherlandish tradition of painting, going back over two centuries. That he has chosen an ordinary, basically white, wall for this demonstration of what the art of painting can do speaks volumes for what he conceives this art's proper subject to be.

The map has been identified and analyzed in detail by James A. Welu. It is one of the most famous passages in seventeenth-century Dutch painting. Welu has pointed out that it is an example of decorative cartography, which is to say that it was sold in much the way people today might sell posters advertising nineteenth-century consumer products or 1930s cabarets, and used in much the same way that such posters are used today by their purchasers, as decorative art. It is an out-of-date map of the politically no longer existing seventeen provinces. It is not an old map but a deliberately anachronistic "modern" edition of an old map.

Now, as many others have remarked, this map is itself something like a history painting. An allegorical figure of a woman, paint brushes in hand, is represented back to back with a geometer in the upper left corner to indicate that cartography is both a "science" and an "art." The map is itself a picture; it is a simulated surface—the surface of the earth and the sea—over a literal surface—paper. The painting of the map is a simulated surface—a piece of paper wrinkled in a certain way—over a literal surface—a piece of linen stretched in a certain way. The map is casually taken at first as a representation of a geographic space, something "serious," but it is an out-of-date map, the Netherlands in an old fashioned costume being used as a decoration, something "not serious." The muse, once an allegorical figure representing serious art, is similarly old fashioned and, as seen here, "not serious."

The girl dressed as a muse has something more in common with the map and especially with the "town views" that constitute the map's borders. The map like the painting-in-progress of the muse is a kind of bogus document. It provides a sort of evidence for what does not exist in ordinary experience. The Netherlands (Germania Inferior, as it is called on the map) exists, of course, and so do the towns, yet the map represents a Netherlands that has been officially out-of-date since 1648 and, for all practical purposes, for much longer than that. Nor is the map merely politically out-of-date; it adopts a special tone and point-of-view through the "town views," that are, in effect, attributes of the country and help to give it a particular cultural interpretation. There are eighteen "views" that stand, of course, for whole towns and two others that stand for the courts of Holland and Brabant. The towns and the courts are real but the "views" are abstractions, clichés really, like contemporary iconographic shorthand seen in advertisements: Paris is the Eiffel Tower and London Big Ben. It isn't merely that these towns are much more complex than the "views;" the views are static and stand for the town as a cultural invention, moreover an invention which makes all towns the same in important respects. Perhaps the most important of these respects is that all the towns are, in effect, attributes of the country. One starts with a concept of "The Netherlands," and this concept is reenforced by the town views. They are "a set."

Because of the map's special relationship with the model, we can see that both the girl-as-muse and the Netherlands-as-map are treated in the same transcendent and idealized way. Every problem raised in the picture as a whole is mirrored in both the map and the girl-as-muse. The muse stands for a concept of "history painting," of which the map is an example. For all their imposing cultural weight, they are both much more fragile than the ordinary things that Vermeer himself takes as suitable subjects for painting. These ordinary things, the wall reflecting the sunlight, the curtain, the painter's trousers, are part of the commonplace visual experience of everyone who belonged to the culture. The muse, who is the subject of the represented painter's picture, is quite different. Muses are not part of commonplace visual experience. The Muse, as opposed to a girl dressed in a costume, requires arcane academic concepts to be seen at all. Not everyone can see a muse, and muses can disappear if the theories that makes them possible are forgotten. The concept of a model is much less arcane, but it too is a special concept belonging to certain conventions of visual representation. The concept of "girl" is quite different. It really cannot be undercut by something more basic; it does not depend on academic theory or conventions of artistic practice. In a word, muses are dispensable; girls are not.

If we compare Vermeer's painting with his imaginary painter's, we see a contrast between a muse in an undefined place and a Dutch girl posing in a costume in a painter's house. I think Vermeer suggests that we consider which is more "eternal" or "permanent," muses or girls. It is the same suggestion offered by the comparison between the room itself, a little piece of the Netherlands but, in contrast to the map, a real and enduring one— what can we imagine will happen to Dutch culture that will makes rooms obsolete? The eternal or enduring subjects are not to his way of thinking mythic ones, but commonplace ones, the ones we cannot conceive of the world without: inside and outside, light and shadow, women and men, walls and floors.

In this concept of painting, the painter's role is not to supplant ordinary visual reality or supersede it but to represent it. The muse stands for a concept of "history painting" given every honor by academic theory, but common experience can be neither created nor annihilated by theory, while the subjects that belong to "history painting" are wholly dependant on "theory" of a sort that is wholly unnecessary to anything else. It isn't Clio standing in front of this decorative depiction of one mythology of the Netherlands; it's the baker's daughter dressed up in a costume. The picture as a whole, with all its obvious and subtle contrasts, framed by the pulled back curtain is Vermeer's comment on the question of the great and acceptable subject of painting: our visual experience of the world we live in.

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