Though three centuries of time separate the Baroque artist, Vermeer, from the Surrealist, Dali, each of the artists painted celebrated works which include a self-portrait with the artist’s model. In Vermeer’s case, his painting “Die Allegorie der Malerei” or “The Allegory of Painting” (1666) achieved fame not only during the artist’s lifetime, but has endured in the minds of many generations. Dali’s later painting “Impressions of Africa” is certainly a self-portrait which includes his model (and wife) — but his execution of the work is so vastly different from anything done before him that a comparison with Vermeer’s highly classical piece will yield far more differences both in technique and purpose. That is, each of the paintings utilizes a similar subject matter: the artist at work in close proximity to a female model; however, the themes of the works are quite dissimilar as are the techniques.
Vermeer’s work has been widely embraced as a brilliant example of optical painting which creates an indelible realism in its impact. The perspective of the painting is complicated as are the patterns of light and the detail and arrangement of the scene. It is probably Vermeer’s most complex work, combining a “camera obscura” technique with a rich and detailed allegorical expression. The arrangement of figures in the scene is meant to be symbolically connotative: with the two main figures, the artist and model playing key roles in forwarding the “story” of the painting. In this case, the model is intended to be a symbol for the Muse which is a mythic symbol of artistic inspiration. The artist’s figure, which is faceless with his back to the viewer, in the painting, represents not merely Vermeer himself, but all artist who search for wisdom and inspiration.
Vermeer;s painting represents the feminine aspect of the creative artist as being that which is elevated adn revered while the artist is himself nearly anonymous. Though the painting also forwards allegorical ideas which were tied to seventeenth century politics and so are possibly no longer relevant as such in modern times, the aspects of the painting which serve to describe through symbolic connotation, the essence of the artistic mission and inspiration are as strong now as upon original conception. Vermeer’s painting is a combination of classical technique and allegory with only a mere hint of true self-reference.
By contrast, Dali’s painting “Impressions of Africa” eschews classical technique in favor of a stream-of-consciousness, fiery, bursting idiom which while maintaining the highest-standards of technique, turn classical perspective like that used so brilliantly by Vermeer, completely upside down. Dali’s self-portrait-with-model is a whirlwind of bizarre images which — while as intensely symbolic as Vermeer’s — are not, strictly speaking, allegorical. Rather, the images in Dali’s painting, including the image of the artist and model are meant to convey the living and swirling essence of the imagination.
Whereas Vermeer’s “Allegory of Painting” sought to symbolically represent the relationship of the artist to wisdom adn inspiration, Dali portrays the artist in a whirl-wind of chaos, desperately trying to capture any of it in the artist’s probing, measuring eye. If Vermeer’s painting is a celebration of what art is and should be and what art can and should do — Dali’s work is a passionate confession of the artist’s fear of inability, of the artist’s admission that art is merely a moment in the swirling flux of the universe.
The model, in Vermeer’s painting, forms the centerpiece of the painting; in Dali’s work it is the artist who is the centerpiece. Vermeer shows the artist’s back, but Dali shows the artist, wild-eyed and passionate, full-on for the observer to see as though the observer is, themselves a likely subject for the feverish artist’s next work. Behind the artist a severed head of his model floats as though she is a disembodied Saint. This speaks of the same inspiration through the feminine “muse” as the Vermeer painting; however, Dali’s conception of inspiration is not controlled nor ordered but electrically chaotic.
Vermeer’s idiom and technique are realistic with allegorical resonance; Dali’s painting is surrealistic and steeped in ambiguity. It may be that Dali is attempting to show the ultimate power the artist has over the chaos of the universe, but it is just as likely that Dali is attempting to demonstrate through this work that the artist is impotent to stop the flow of chaos which consumes both person and art — artist and model. If Vermeer e’s painting was politically subversive in some ways, Dali’s painting is apolitical and takes as its theme the essential nature of human existence and experience.
The stark contrast between the styles and themes of the two artists in some way clouds the fact that each of them relied on a similar starting pont for these celebrated works: the idea of artistic capacity,, purpose, and inspiration. For Vermeer, his classical “Muse” makes a glorious fit for his classical technique and studied perspective. For Dali, the surrealistic idiom works brilliantly to convey his theme of artistic incapacity and existential angst while still preserving the same dignity of line and precision which is evident in the more classical work of Vermeer. each of the artists achieved a rich adn profound expression of the personal views of artistic experience. By including themselves in the painting with their models, each of the artists creates a moire intimate statement, almost a kind of “confession” which the observer is trusted to receive.