Dialogues with the past: The Art of Painting

Dialogues with the


‘All that we see or seem

Is but a dream within a dream.’

Edgar Allan Poe.


I had gone to Vienna, and once in the city I had felt
compelled to visit its museums. That morning I had planned to go to the

Walking through the galleries of the Kunsthistorisches,
I ran into the painting.  I had been
looking for it since I entered the building: in fact, I confess that this was
one of the attractions of the trip. I had an urge to see that picture; I do not
know why; when I had first seen this picture, I had not been sure then, either.

I remember I had had to do some homework at the
University on a picture by Vermeer, talking about some of his paintings. I had
chosen that picture without any particular reason: I felt that I could find
enough information on this painting and I could easily write a few pages on it.
It was not the one I liked most by the artist, but I chose it anyway.

When I first see an artistic creation, for example, a
painting, I like it or I don’t. I like it if it attracts me for some reason:
this might be the colours or textures that the artist has used, the characters
that appear, or the use of light in the painting. In short, what matters to me
is that it affects me for some reason. If this happens, I stop and analyse in
detail the creation that I have before me. If not, I step to the next table.

With this work, The
Art of Painting
, also known as Painter
in His Studio
or The Allegory of
, I had not felt anything when seeing reproductions on any website.
But when I had had to stop and examine it out of obligation, for my homewoek, my
feelings toward it changed.

The Kunsthistorisches Museum is imposing, with its
atriums, columns, high ceilings, immense galleries, granite and marble
everywhere, and a cafeteria to rest after so much art, but this time I could
not rest. I needed something more, needed to see this painting. I had coffee
and began my search.

I went through a few rooms; I wandered down the
aisles, looking at pictures but there were none that I wanted to fix my eyes
on. I just wanted to be in front of this painting.

After a long while, or so it seemed to me, the moment
arrived: finally and suddenly I had the painting before me. I had not wanted to
look at the museum guide: it gave me greater pleasure searching aimlessly. Each
room meant a new start and a longing look all over the walls. This took time,
but in the end I saw the picture: it is not a large piece, but for me it filled
the space. I stopped, I looked, I slowly got closer. Then I stood and contemplated

I slowly got closer. I stopped thinking: drifting. I
didn’t know where my mind was: where my imagination was leading me. I got
closer and closer.vermeer-art-of-painting2

At the beginning I looked at the whole painting. Soon
my eyes were engaged by details here and there, but without focusing on any in
particular, as trying to apprehend all of them at the same time would have been
impossible. It was almost a gorging on sensations, on shapes, on colours, which
although already known, now looked different to me: in front of me was the real
painting. Moreover, other inner emotions were emerging: it is impossible to
compare a digital reproduction with the real thing.

I calmed down and I started to enjoy it. My sense of
time and space altered. I was in front of the painting and my imagination
started to run wild. I don’t know if my eyes were opened or if they were opened
already. I now felt as if I was part of the picture. I was involved now on
every detail of the studio. I saw the chair next to the curtain. It was empty:
it was like the ones my granny had at home. But without knowing why I preferred
to sit on the floor; on the right of the artist, but apart. I was able to have
a good view of the scene that way. Morning was galloping fast and daylight was
coming fully through the window. Clio was quiet.

Clio, the Muse of History, was in front of me. I could
not stop thinking about the meaning of fame: fame and knowledge throughout
centuries. I do not remember my thoughts now, or maybe I do, but they are worthless:
I was living one of those important moments of my own history and that was the
crucial thing.

The studio was spacious. I noticed the curtains’
colour and the printing on them. Now I stared at the fabrics on the table and
the mask on top of it.

At that particular moment, the artist was starting to
sketch the eyes of the model. This is the element of a person’s portrait that
has always seemed to me essential in order to capture the face and the essence.
I wanted to see what he was capturing; get an intuition of what History meant
for him. But the model had her eyes half-closed; she was looking down ant that
is how she portrayed her.

Why Johannes do you
paint me young when I’ve seen the birth of light?

Why with eyes down?

If I should be
ashamed of my own past…

If you should be ashamed
of yours…

Is not life joy and

Why not a happy smile
in my eyes?


The light coming through the window in the painting
was more intense every time I looked at it. Time was passing by without me
being conscious of it. I started writing with the painter’s hands. My retreat
was his painting, but it seemed that he found refuge in my writing: one and the
same thing.

I was scribbling about every detail of the model’s
face, just as Johannes seemed to have painted it, with meticulous strokes. In
fact, I was painting every detail of her face with Vermeer’s hands. His hands
were mine.


My face does not
reflect my age

No traits, no

Why, Johannes, why?

I own all the
knowledge of having lived fully

My every act so

You do not reflect

Light, Johannes, more

You light me!

It was growing dark when he, or I, was finished with
the whole face. I felt a tap on my shoulder. I was startled, but it was the
security guard, telling me that the museum was shut now and I had to leave.

Beside me, another woman was standing in front of the
painting. He touched her shoulder too. I looked at her, puzzled and complicit.
She looked back, just for an instant, then she smiled and looked away.

Later that night, in the friend’s house where I was
staying, the door bell rang. It shocked me: who the hell was it? It was the
small hours, and everything was so dark at 3 am. Reluctantly, I opened the
door. A beam of light entered the hall. I went out to see who was running down
the stairs. I could recognize something familiar. Was not she Clio, the model
of the painting? Was not she the muse I was looking for?

Please stop, listen
to me:

I like you, Clio.

I’m glad you came.

I loved you fucking me.

T H E  E N D





If this is English for Special Purposes: are we supposed to be writing a short story? Yes, we are. We are writing a formal analysis of the painting too: learning some technical artistic language in between. I really enjoyed the painting much more when I studied the facts behind the symbols. It came very useful to have the web-based contributions of my peers at a click in facebook or delicious.

I came to this painting, and the more I look into it the more questions come to my mind. I shall treasure this little Vermeer for years to come. I wish to see the real painting sometime.




Valeriano Bozal (2003). Vermeer: el gran “voyeur”. Descubrir el Arte,
nº 48.
Consultado 20.03.2011 en

Janson (2011). An essential Vermeer bookshop. Consultada
20.03.2011 en http://www.essentialvermeer.com/books/books_vermeer.html

Department of Modern Languages and Basque Studies
Universidad de