Great Works: The Art of Painting, circa 1666-7 (120cm x 100cm), Johannes Vermeer

Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

In its making, this painting is utterly characteristic of the mature Vermeer: admire the warmth and the moistness, if not the butteriness, of the light; the different weight and tactile force of the colours, shifting from soft and yielding through to hard-edged; the lovely, almost seemingly effortless, manipulation of perspective; and the way he has organized objects and people within the space of the painting – to such an extent that what we are looking at almost has an air of inevitability about it. And yet it offers a little something extra too, this painting, something we meet less frequently in this artist's work. Is there not just a gentle touch of self-conscious panache, and even of swagger, in that title, which causes us both to look at what is in front of our eyes – and go on looking and looking at this inexhaustible scene – and to step back and admit to ourselves that this is both a painting and a reflection upon what the art of painting, when practised at this level of achievement, actually consists of, what the art of illusionism – and what the art of history painting, that most exalted of genres – really mean?

It is several paintings in one then. It is both a rather touching domestic scene with a tiny, wheedling underground stream of eroticism (look at the painter's raring red hose, and admire his bulking, almost bull-like presence when seen from behind), and a history painting, executed at a very significant moment in the history of the young Dutch Republic, which poses as an allegory of some importance. It is a third thing too. It is a painting of our witness to the making of such a painting. We are spectators, are we not, in this impromptu studio? The tapestry has just been yanked aside to admit us to this rather private scene, which enables us to observe a painter who is creating a history painting.

We are also seeing much more than this though. We privileged viewers are observing the entire context in which this painter is working, so you could say that the theme within a theme – the making of a history painting whose subject matter is Clio, the muse of history, which we just about glimpse beginning to emerge on the painter's canvas – is only a part of this painting's whole. Yes, we are being treated to a scene that encompasses the making of a history painting, but the history-painting-in-the-making whose creation we are witnessing is much less than the painting we are staring at. Much will be absent from that small scene. That scene will not, for example, take in most of the map, which alludes to the liberation of the Northern Provinces from Spanish domination. This was relatively new history when Vermeer was painting this scene. Neither will it encompass that chandelier, with its twin Hapsburg-like eagles – yet another pointed historical allusion. See what those Hapsburgs have been reduced to these days, those eagles seem to say to us. Are they not as swingeingly powerful as decorative details on a chandelier? So our history painting – as opposed to the one that has been commissioned from this painter with his back to us – is much fuller and more pleasingly detailed than this representation of Clio herself is ever likely to be.

So, thematically speaking, this painting is both large and small – or, depending upon your point of view, large and yet larger still, because small paintings can be very large indeed. It is a lovely and quite intimate domestic scene, with a touchingly gauche and shy young lady – admire the downturn of those eyes – tricked out to represent a personage as significant as Clio. Look at her laurel crown, balanced just a touch precariously (we see it again, as if to emphasise its importance, as we peer over the painter's shoulder), the trumpet that she clasps in her right hand, and that almost comically unwieldy book. The painting is not finished, of course. It will never be finished. History – like a painting – is only ever in the making.

ABOUT THE ARTIST

Johannes Vermeer (1632-75) of Delft, painter and art dealer, was little appreciated during his lifetime. Now his paintings are among the most prized of all. He seems to intensify our visual appreciation of the world of the domestic interior, to raise up the humdrum to an exquisite pitch.

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam