Vermeer’s The Art of Painting

By Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist.[1]

In one of the smaller rooms of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna there hangs a small painting by Vermeer. It shows an artist sitting with his back toward the viewer, painting a girl dressed as Clio, the muse of history. The left of the painting is dominated by a curtain, partly flung back, which gives the viewer the impression of a scene suddenly revealed. The figures have not yet noticed his presence. He holds his breath not wanting to break the spell. What is the spell? It is not the spell of the Rembrandt self-portraits in the last room, which the viewer has already spent so much time looking at—those dark mysterious eyes like wells, those furrowed brows. No eyes look at the viewer from this painting. The girl, bathed in beautiful afternoon sunlight from a source obscured by the curtain, is looking dreamily down. She has lost all self-consciousness, as has the painter, completely absorbed in his task. The girl’s brow is completely smooth and unfurrowed—in contrast to the large map of the low-countries behind her, crumpled and creased as though by many wars. One particularly large crease, which juts out in the middle, about where the Spanish Netherlands meet the United Netherlands, throws the later into shadow—the shadow of Protestant error. This idea is emphasized by chandelier, which hangs above the map. It is decorated with double-headed eagle of the house of Habsburg, but the candle sockets on it are empty. The light of the true faith, always protected and upheld by that venerable house, shines no more over Holland.[2] The viewer can hold his breath no longer. He lets it out in a long sigh. “It’s like a picture!” he says. His companion snorts, “It is a picture, you silly ass!”

Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist. is a monk of Stift Heiligenkreuz.

[1] I originally wrote this reflection for an art-history class that I audited at the Franciscan University of Steubenville Austria Program, Kartause Gaming in 2001 or 2002. The class was taught by Jennifer Healy, whom I thank for her insightful remarks on Vermeer. I later published it in the student magazine of Thomas Aquinas College: Demiurgus 4.2 (2005), p. 28.

[2] In the so-called Eighty Years War (1568–1648), the seven Northern provinces of the Netherlands won independence from the Habsburgs, forming a predominantly Calvinist republic: The United Netherlands. The ten Southern provinces remained under Habsburg rule, and formed the predominantly Catholic Spanish Netherlands. Vermeer was a convert to Catholicism who lived in the Holland, one of the Northern, Protestant provinces. (See Charles M. Nelson’s notes on The Art of Painting).

 

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