Vermeer's Use of the Picture-within-a-Picture

A New Approach. By Gregor J.M. Weber

The Love Letter (Around 1669) by Johannes VermeerRijksmuseum


Pictures-within-pictures are to be found in a great many paintings of interiors by Johannes Vermeer and his contemporaries, for pictures on walls belonged to the usual decoration of the Dutch bourgeois house. In many cases one would not be prompted to invest the subjects of such pictures-within-pictures with any significance in their own right. In other cases, above all in Vermeer's paintings, even those opposed to an iconographical approach to art history have acknowledged a conscious connection between the "everyday" foreground scenes and the subjects of the pictures-within-these-pictures.

As a result, these "secondary" subjects have been keenly enlisted by those seeking to interpret Vermeer's compositions as a whole. The questions as to how one should characterize this internal pictorial structure and what procedure should be used to interpret it, however, have remained open to discussion. We have to start by taking into account pictures within-pictures themselves: are they quotations of existing paintings, or paraphrases of such paintings, or freely invented compositions? The answer is simple: everything is possible.

In the case of Vermeer, it has often been observed that he employs what is, in effect, the same picture in various shapes and sizes, as in the case of a Finding of Moses, now untraced, which appears as a picture with an extensive landscape background virtually covering the wall, and then again as a small composition showing only the figures. We also know of Vermeer's repeated use of a picture with the figure of Cupid, where he again alters the size and shape.

A Young Woman seated at a Virginal A Young Woman seated at a Virginal by Johannes VermeerThe National Gallery, London

A Young Woman Seated at the Virginal
The National Gallery, London

In A Young Woman Seated at the Virginal the composition appears more compressed than it is in reality. Vermeer's seemingly uninhibited adaptation of such models is even more strongly suggested by the evidence of another example of quotation in the same painting. The cover of the instrument at which the girl is sitting shows a landscape based on a picture by Vermeer's fellow Delft artist Pieter van Asch; except for a treetop at the upper right, Vermeer's copy follows this model very precisely. Only when we are aware of Vermeer's source do we realize that he has rendered the peasants, the wayfarer, and the elegant huntsman of Van Asch's painting as mere smudges and streaks; he was clearly not concerned that they be identifiable.

The Guitar Player (c.1672) by Johannes VermeerOriginal Source: KENWOOD

The Guitar Player
Kenwood House, London

In Vermeer's painting The Guitar Player, Vermeer gives the rectangular composition an upright format by eliminating from the center the group of trees that originally bordered a path leading into the depth of the composition and by pushing together the remaining elements; he now omits all the figures. As a result, it was long unnoticed that these two landscapes appearing within paintings by Vermeer were derived from one composition.

A Young Woman standing at a Virginal A Young Woman standing at a Virginal (about 1670-2) by Johannes VermeerThe National Gallery, London

A Young Woman Standing at the Virginal
The National Gallery, London

The same is true of two other landscapes in Vermeer's A Young Woman Standing at the Virginal painted again after the same model. The composition as seen on the broad cover of her instrument is very close to an existing painting by Pieter Anthonisz van Groenewegen, an artist from Delft as well; so here, for the first time, Vermeer's model can be "attributed" to this painter, too.

In none of the cases mentioned, however, does Vermeer alter the subject matter of the pictures he cites within his paintings; nor has anyone yet been able to prove that he referred only to reproductive engravings as sources for the paintings inserted into his own compositions.

One possible means of securing the picture within-a-picture as a key to the interpretation of genre paintings recently has been sought by reference to corresponding representations from the realm of emblems. Eddy de Jongh, in his pioneering book of 1967 on the interpretation of Dutch genre painting, Zinne- enminnebeelden, did not go so far as to assume an emblematic structure for the role of the picture-within-a-picture in all cases. He only employed the evidence in emblem books as a key, "if the representation in question was itself also to be found among existing emblems." He illustrated his case with the example of Vermeer's A Young Woman Standing at the Virginal, within which there is the picture of Cupid: De Jongh connects this with Otto van Veen's well-known emblem of love (as a message that lovers should focus on only one love)» Vermeer's Cupid, however, lacks crucial details from this emblem: the discarded figures scattered on the floor and the number "one" that appears on his raised sheet of paper.

This picture-within-a-picture is merely an image of Cupid as love's messenger, here shown stepping out smartly, using his bow as a walking stick and, confident of victory, brandishing a letter (which we may be fairly sure is a love letter)." An amorous context is thus provided, and one that also can be connected justifiably with the music being played and with the player's glance out of the picture. The small figure of Cupid in the background then may be said to exemplify the generalized amorous context of the picture and to concentrate this both visually and conceptually in his image, gestures, and facial expressions.

The Love Letter (Around 1669) by Johannes VermeerRijksmuseum

The Love Letter
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

By reference to emblems, Eddy de Jongh was able to provide a clear explication of those paintings showing the reader of a letter placed against a wall on which there appears a seascape—Vermeer depicted this combination as well in his Love Letter. In this case, however, De Jongh did not find the crucial evidence in any particular emblem as a combination of image and text, but rather in the explanatory text alone, and specifically in the comparison between love and the sea, and between the lover and a ship.

The Concert (About 1665) by Jan VermeerIsabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

In Vermeer's Concert two women are making music with a man, and the singing woman signals with her hand to keep time. Directly behind her we find, as a picture within-a-picture, Baburen's Procuress, a composition similarly embracing two women and a man —the prostitute, the customer, and the procuress herself. The relation of the two groups has prompted scholars to two quite divergent interpretations: Baburen's picture has been seen as both "conforming with" and "in contrast to" the scene in the foreground. An attempt even has been made to see the time- beating figure herself as both a procuress and a personification of moderation. Vermeer, here as elsewhere, is much more restrained: he offers us comparisons, but these are never to be taken as evidence.

Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman, 'The Music Lesson' (c.1662 - 1665) by Johannes VermeerRoyal Collection Trust, UK

Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman 'The Music Lesson'
Royal Collection Trust, London

In the case of Vermeer's Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman 'The Music Lesson', which contains, as its own picture-within-the-picture, a representation of Roman Charity, the relation of this to the foreground action is now seen by Arthur Wheelock as an exemplum of consolation and refreshment—as invoked in the text on the virginal, above the sheets of music.

Woman Holding a Balance (c. 1664) by Johannes VermeerNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Woman Holding a Balance
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Vermeer's most accomplished use of the picture-within-a-picture is indisputably to be found in Woman Holding a Balance. Here, I believe, we may assume Vermeer's original model to have been a representation of the personified Vanitas. Surrounded by attributes of earthly riches (including pearls and a mirror), this figure of Vanitas is combined with the representation of a Last Judgment in Heaven. Here, one of the resurrected kneels before the Archangel Michael, on whose scales earthly riches (a crown, a scepter) are weighed against objects symbolizing spiritual values (a Bible, a rosary). Vermeer placed the female figure in the foreground of Woman Holding a Balance, before The Last Judgment, so that she occupies precisely the place where the Archangel Michael, as the Weigher of Souls, would otherwise stand. Vermeer thus again establishes a comparison that, by means of the simile of the act of weighing, makes clear the relation, ex minore ad maius, between transience and eternity, between worldly riches and spiritual values. He tells us, in Etienne Joseph Théophile Thoré's words: "Now you weigh precious stones and gems, one day you in turn will be weighed and judged!"

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