An In-Depth Analysis of “Diana and Her Companions” by Johannes Vermeer

This is the start of a four-part series where I analyze three paintings depicting goddesses, and I will compare and contrast them. This article first analyses the Goddess, Diana.

Diana is the Roman goddess of domestic animals, hunting, the moon, conception, childbirth, and virginity. Even though she is the goddess of virginity, she is constantly portrayed as nude. Although it can be argued that it is the study of the body and even the representation of motherhood, it is also a conscious choice made by the artist to sexualize this goddess.

Johannes Vermeer “Diana and Her Companions” (1655–1656), oil on canvas

A common theme in other paintings is Diana’s passion in hunting or engaging with her nymph companions, but in Vermeer’s interpretation, all of them are quite domestic, including her dog. Diana, and many other goddesses, are commonly portrayed with elegant dresses and exquisite clothes, and in action while she is hunting or washing in the river. Diana is often the center of attention as she either is dressed in the prettiest clothes, or bathed in the most light

In many cases, Diana can be characterized as rash and impulsive by easily submitting to her anger and allows it to lead her actions. In one case, she and her nymphs were bathing in a river when the hunter, Actaeon, accidentally stumbled upon them. She values her privacy and since nudity is sacred to her, in a rage she transformed Actaeon into a deer who was later killed by his own hunting team. In another circumstance, a famous scene that is popular among artists, is when Diana finds out that one of her nymphs (that had taken a vow of chastity) was pregnant. Callisto had been tricked into sexual intercourse when Zeus transformed into Diana and wooed her nymph into breaking their vow. When Diana found out Callisto was pregnant she was disgraced and expelled from the group

Diana is commonly portrayed with her signature weapon- a bow and arrow, which alludes to her hunting abilities and fierce personality. Animals such as her hunting dogs or deer are commonly by her side. Vermeer’s painting has the hunting hound, except it seems completely docile and domestic, unlike the other hostile versions. In “Diana and Her Companions”, Vermeer made it clear which individual was the goddess of the moon due to her telltale crescent moon crown.

Balance: There is a contrast between what is illuminated and who lies in the shadows because it illustrates importance and stature. Here, Diana is at the front yet looking away, shading her face, allowing it to blend into the background. This is interesting because typically she is the center of attention while in this painting we can only recognize her from the crescent moon crown on her head, thus normalizing her and her nymphs. There is a nice balance of light and dark in “Diana and Her Companions”, between the women bathed in light, to the dark background that evens out the painting’s harmony and provides a background that allows the characters to pop.

Johannes Vermeer, “Girl with a Pearl Earring” (1665), oil on canvas

Color: The first impression from the painting is the dark mood from the color choices and a dull tone from the earthy colors. Vermeer used chiaroscuro to highlight the figures in the forefront by using a dark background. This is also clear in his other paintings such as “Girl with a Pearl Earring” (1665).

Texture: The texture is very smooth and realistic. The artist’s paint strokes are not prominent and all of the colors are smoothly blended together.

Emphasis: The emphasis is on the four women in the front. There aren’t many subjects in the background, which is common in many of Vermeer’s paintings, because he wants to make it clear who his subject is and to always emphasize them.

Variety: Away from the normal focal eyepoint in the center of the painting, the nymph that is washing Diana’s foot captures our attention.

Pattern: There is a constant use of dark colors to allow the figures in color that are bathed in light to pop on the canvas.

Movement: There are lines in the painting that connect the heads that are meant to direct the viewer’s mind towards the center of the painting and then to Diana and the nymph by her side.

Cultural Significance

Other artworks help analyze the goddess’ character and backstory, helping compare Vermeer’s personal decisions versus the common tropes he might have been influenced by before creating the painting. In Vermeer’s interpretation, the women are shown in a very domestic manner, not showing much emotion, and not looking at each other which gives a solemn feeling. Often Diana is shown in sculptures and paintings in action while she is hunting while being nude, however, this is not shown either. Vermeer consciously chose to normalize the goddess to show a perfect soothing scene, different than the ones constantly portrayed. This could be Vermeer looking at Diana as more than a hunter and wanting to show Diana in her daily life. Other artworks of Vermeer show women in private moments, deep in concentration, and with peaceful expressions.

Foot Washing: One of the ways that they show Diana’s superiority is the nymph that is washing her foot. Feet washing is also a Christian symbol representing cleansing and purification. Christ had washed the disciple's feet at the last supper with tears. This painting had caught the attention of many artists where they noticed the allusions to multiple religions and the unusual depiction of the fanatic goddess. The act of foot washing is a sacred thing on its own and shows the interaction between women when they are alone, demonstrating tenderness and kindness towards each other before men come between them. The calm and serene scene illustrated is elevated by the act of the one interaction. (20)

Vermeer has the ability to capture the allure and subtle characteristics in a single painting, with almost infinite meaning. He lived during the Dutch Golden Age which was a period in the 17th century in the Netherlands where Dutch trade, science, military, and art were one of the most acclaimed in the world. Since the separation of Spanish rule and the church, many of these artists lost their traditional patrons (priests). However, due to the fact that the Dutch East India Company started a new economic landscape that created another merchant class, it, therefore, created another patron for artists. The merchants preferred art that depicted normal people in settings that look familiar to them which explains the normalization of many scenes and the simplicity of many of Vermeer’s works. (12)(19)

(8)Dress Accuracy: The dresses are typical for Ancient Rome with bright colors that range in many colors. Diana is wearing a green dress; green is said to reflect growth and the environment, reflecting peace and nature. Once again, this contradicts her character that has been described as strong, independent, and vengeful.

Vermeer depicts Diana and her nymphs in a way that differs from other depictions by showing them in a tame, and domestic manner. He is showing to the viewers her humanity and civility that other painters neglect to demonstrate.

Sources:

(1)“Johannes Vermeer, Diana and Her Nymphs, c. 1653–1654.” Mauritshuis, www.mauritshuis.nl/en/explore/the-collection/artworks/diana-and-her-nymphs-406/.

(4)“Diana and Actaeon — Titian — Google Arts & Culture.” Google, Google, artsandculture.google.com/asset/diana-and-actaeon/ggFplMh4sgQ6og?hl=en&ms=%7B%22x%22%3A0.5%2C%22y%22%3A0.5%2C%22B%22%3A8.762432991029375%2C%22z%22%3A8.762432991029375%2C%22size%22%3A%7B%22width%22%3A2.0143259948884835%2C%22height%22%3A1.2377804337908496%7D%7D.

(5)Museum of Classical Archaeology Databases.” Diana of Versailles | Museum of Classical Archaeology Databases, museum.classics.cam.ac.uk/collections/casts/diana-versailles.

(6)“Diana.” Metmuseum.org, www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/11999.

(8)Roma Wonder. “Fashion in Ancient Rome: Togas, Underwear, and Wedding Dresses.” Roma Wonder, Roma Wonder, 29 Dec. 2017, www.romawonder.com/fashion-ancient-rome-togas-underwear-wedding-dresses/.

(9)Janson, Jonathan. “Dutch Painting.” Jacob Van Loo, Diana with Her Nymphs, www.essentialvermeer.com/dutch-painters/loo_e.html.

(10)Tate. “‘Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet’, Ford Madox Brown, 1852–6.” Tate, www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/brown-jesus-washing-peters-feet-n01394.

(11)Tate. “Pre-Raphaelite — Art Term.” Tate, www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/p/pre-raphaelite.

(12)Janson, Jonathan. “The Complete Interactive Vermeer Catalogue.” DIANA AND HER COMPANIONS by Johannes Vermeer, www.essentialvermeer.com/catalogue/diana_and_her_companions.html.

(18)“What Is Color Theory?” The Interaction Design Foundation, www.interaction-design.org/literature/topics/color-theory.

(20)McDonald, Thomas L. “Understanding the Washing of the Feet.” God and the Machine, Patheos Explore the World’s Faith through Different Perspectives on Religion and Spirituality! Patheos Has the Views of the Prevalent Religions and Spiritualities of the World., 1 Apr. 2015, www.patheos.com/blogs/godandthemachine/2015/04/washing-of-the-feet/.

(21)“Diana and Cupid.” Metmuseum.org, www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/435622.

I am a writer and an artist who loves to spend my time reading and swimming. I love art history and I want to expose it more so the world can love it too.

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