Matters of Categorisation

A few days ago, I have started my first essay for Lent Term. The subject is Vermeer’s The Art of Painting, which I am supposed to categorise. Every art historian knows that, when artistic labels are called into play, headaches are ahead. The work I am discussing is not different, and trying to establish its genre has been a quest. Indeed, I did not manage to define one only, and the work’s complexity required some degree of flexibility. In this post, I am explaining some of the issues and how The Art of Painting can be interpreted.

The Art of Painting – Vermeer

The scene is set in a domestic interior. It might be a studio, since the two characters are a painter at work and his model. She is dressed up as Clio, the muse of History and Fame. The laurel crown, the book, the trumpet and the mask on the table are all typical attributes. Vermeer took inspiration from a translation of Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia, a popular modelbook for draftsmen. It contains specific indications about the depiction of allegories and symbols. The laurel crown occurs also in the painter’s canvas. Vermeer does not represent the gradual process of painting, which would feature precise underdrawing before colouring. Indeed, he intends to focus on the laurel alone as a symbol of everlasting fame and artistic praise.

Vermeer put consistent effort in depicting the interior and its furniture. The viewer’s eyes linger on the drapery on the left, on the wide map against the wall, on the small objects scattered over the table and on the chiselled chandelier. This focus on details is notable and connects the work to Vermeer’s contemporary production. Since the late 1650s, he abandoned history painting in favour of genre painting. This is, in fact, the well-known part of his production and many specimens have survived. The Music Lesson, The Girl with a Glass of Wine, and The Milkmaid are among the most famous examples. These works present similarities with our case, such as the domestic setting featuring a reduced number of characters. These are performing mundane actions, as the painter and the model in our case. However, there is little connotation given to them, and they are mainly defined by their own activity. On the other hand, the model/Clio stands out by her distinguished iconography.

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The model is not the only hint to identify this work as an allegory. The current title is original and dates back to Vermeer’s time. When he died, his widow sold several of his paintings in order to solve a difficult financial situation. However, she decided to save The Art of Painting from creditors by transferring it to her mother. In a note confirming the passage of property, the work is described as “the piece […] wherein the Art of Painting is portrayed”. This is likely to Vermeer’s own interpretation of the work, which he continuously kept in his house. It suggests an allegorical meaning, as it refers to abstract concepts. In fact, it defies typical titles of genre-painting pieces such as “The Painter in His Studio”. It is now clear that the work contains an allegorical meaning.

Evidently, Vermeer does not refer to the same concept of allegory used, for instance, by Roman artists of the time. In works such as Bernini’s Truth Unveiled, the universal conceit is immediately available to the viewer through a sensual stimulus. On the contrary, Vermeer’s piece may appear enigmatic and, certainly, not as immediate.

Truth Unveiled – Bernini

Up to this point, the focus of my research had become Vermeer’s understanding of allegory. While researching, I came across a Nineteenth-century author, Karl Weiß, whose definition guided my further deductions. According to him, the allegory links two worlds without showing them into a single entity. It presents truth but does not reveal it. Rather, this appears through a filter. In Vermeer, this becomes clear. The figure of Fame, Clio, is not an actual goddess here. The painter is depicting a model representing her, thus he is depicting the fame that his work will bring him through effort and exercise. The model and Clio are different entities, but the allegory creates an intellectual conceit by which they converge. The contingent and the universal level touch for an instant.

In conclusion, Vermeer depicts an allegory disguised as a genre-painting piece. Obviously, this does not correspond evenly to any established categorisation. The work’s complexity defies labels. Indeed, these are a necessary component of research. They enable the scholar to cross the immense fields of history confidently, even though they can easily be abused. My answer to The Art of Painting has involved notable flexibility in adapting different schemes to a single object. The risk of using bold terms, in fact, is damaging the object’s understanding and let the label precede the viewer’s experience. This should not happen, as no category existed before somebody looked at artworks critically. As Aristotle wrote, there is nothing in our mind which did not pass through our senses beforehand.


Featured image and The Art of Painting

The Music Lesson

Girl with a Glass of Wine

The Milkmaid

Truth Unveiled


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Alessandro M. Rubin Written by:

Cambridge History of Art alumnus. Passionate early-modernist, curious about contemporary art and aesthetic theory.

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