A recurrent theme in Jacob Toorenvliet’s oeuvre is that of common people engaged in everyday activities, but on at least six occasions he painted abstract allegories, one of the finest of these being Allegory of Painting.1 Although seemingly situated within an ordinary Dutch interior complete with a table covered with a colorful carpet, bookshelf, hanging curtain, and an inquisitive dog, numerous pictorial elements in this work have symbolic associations that distinguish it from Toorenvliet’s genre pictures. The objects near the woman in the light blue dress, including a palette with brushes, a mahlstick, and a painting on an easel in the background, indicate that she is an allegorical figure personifying the art of painting. As she points to the open book she holds with her left hand, she turns her head toward the old man in a mantle who is about to crown her with a laurel wreath. He wears a similar wreath and rests his hand on a celestial globe, as if trying to draw the viewer’s attention to it.
The identity of the bearded old man is made clear through a comparison of this painting with Toorenvliet’s Allegory of Painting Inspired by Poetry.2 In this latter work, a bearded man similarly adorns a female personification of painting with a wreath of laurel, but here he not only wears a laurel branch but also a label identifying him as Poesia (Poetry). The message is clear: poetry inspires the art of painting, a conceit that had its origins in Horace’s dictum that poetry and painting should be considered as sister arts (ut pictura poesis).3 The relationship of painting to poetry was articulated as “Poetry in painting keeps silent, while painting in poetry speaks” in the text describing the allegorical concept of Painting in Cesare Ripa’s popular Iconologia, an emblem book with which Toorenvliet was well acquainted.4 The celestial globe on which the old man rests his hand is also an appropriate attribute for an allegorical figure of Poetry. In his discussion of the concept, Ripa describes Poetry as wearing a laurel wreath, since the origin of verse is in Heaven.5 Furthermore, the book to which the woman points signifies that the art of painting should be based on literary tradition, thereby proclaiming the absolute superiority of the category of history painting.
Toorenvliet probably executed this skillfully finished painting in Vienna around 1675–79, where he lived and worked from the late 1660s until 1679. He produced most of his copper paintings during that period of his career.6 In Vienna, moreover, Toorenvliet further developed his ability to distinguish between a wide variety of materials and textures, evident here in the smooth surface of the plaster, the soft fluff of the carpet, the sharp highlight on the brown skull, and the slightly creased pages of the old sketchbook. At the same time, he became interested in rendering complex allegorical subjects. Here, for example, he purposely juxtaposed a skull with a plaster cast of a classical female head, thereby contrasting the symbol of the transience of human existence with the ideal of timeless beauty, a fundamental concern for the art of painting. The small, brown sculpture of a male figure behind the plaster head is most likely an example of an écorché, a model of the body with its skin removed and outer muscles displayed. Such models were important for the study of human anatomy, which was of vital interest for artists working within the classical tradition.7
The relief behind these objects is a partial plaster cast of Bacchanal with Children and a Goat (fig 1), one of the most famous works by the illustrious seventeenth-century classicizing Flemish sculptor, François Duquesnoy (1597–1643).8 Duquesnoy’s contemporaries so esteemed his sculptural works that they described them as rivaling those of the ancient masters.9 Plaster casts of his sculptures were made for artists to study alongside casts of classical sculpture, as can be seen in a painting by Michiel Sweerts (1618–64), Painter’s Studio with a Model.10 Bacchanal with Children and a Goat was well known to Dutch painters, and Gerrit Dou (1613–75), Toorenvliet’s uncle-in-law, often incorporated an image of this relief sculpture into his paintings.11 One reason Dou chose to include this relief in his work was to display his ability to simulate different materials and objects, including stone sculpture, but another was undoubtedly the allegorical message about the power of illusionism that it conveyed. In this relief, the realistic appearance of the mask held by a putto at the left so fooled a goat that he had to be restrained by a host of putti from charging it.
It is thus fully understandable that Toorenvliet, who so emulated Dou, inserted this relief into his picture.12 Remarkably, however, Toorenvliet omitted the left portion of Duquesnoy’s relief that included the image of the putto holding a mask to “deceive” a goat. One explanation for this omission is that Toorenvliet sought to extend Duquesnoy’s allegory into the broader pictorial image. The goat now appears to rush toward the woman, who, having the ability to create compellingly illusionistic images, both literally and symbolically takes the putto’s place.
The open sketchbook, which practically slides off the table, is the last piece of the pictorial puzzle in Toorenvliet’s intriguing allegory. On the right page are several sketches of human eyes and ears (fig 2). Such sketches of individual body parts had their origin in Italian drawing books of the sixteenth century, and were important in studio practice as well as in art theory.13 This kind of drawing book could also be found in northern Europe, for example Abraham Bloemaert’s (1566–1651) famous sketchbook, engraved and published by Frederik Bloemaert in installments beginning around 1650.14 Toorenvliet’s depiction of the sketchbook shows his interest in the art of disegno as important for comprehending both human anatomy and ideal proportions of the human body.
Toorenvliet left Vienna and returned to the Netherlands around 1679, subsequently moving around 1686 from Amsterdam to his native Leiden, where he helped to establish a drawing academy.15 Toorenvliet, an esteemed artist of international experience, founded this academy for “fine painters” with the younger artists Carel de Moor (1655–1738) and Willem van Mieris (1662–1747). Toorenvliet’s great emphasis on drawing as the practical and theoretical foundation of painting must have been stimulated by the growing taste for classicism during this period, partially inspired by Gerard de Lairesse’s guiding principles. De Lairesse’s Groot schilderboek (1707) recommended that painters use books and plaster casts of ancient sculpture to learn the general principles of classical beauty and the perfect proportions of the human body. Allegory of Painting, which Toorenvliet probably painted before he returned to his native country, can be considered a prelude to the role this important painter and draughtsman had in founding this new drawing academy.