This canvas, dated 1742, is a study for a ceiling decoration representing Pictura (the Art of Painting) and other Arts protected by various deities. No large-scale work of this design is known. It is likely that De Wit considered painting such a ceiling in his own house, at Keizersgracht 385 in Amsterdam, which he purchased in 1741.
The subject of The Met's picture was not recognized until the 1970s, and its iconography is more complicated than usual for a ceiling design by De Wit. This in itself suggests that the composition was intended for a place where the artist might acknowledge his own erudition, rather than the learning or particular interests of a private patron.
Apollo presides in the center of the sketch, surrounded by other gods and goddesses, of whom Venus and Cupid to the left and Minerva (Pallas Athena) with her shield and spear are the most obvious. Below Apollo, Father Time (with his usual scythe) and Poesia (who, like Apollo, holds a lyre) glance in different directions, the former at a maiden who clips his wing, the latter toward Architectura, who holds a miniature temple high above the oblivious Ceres's head. The goddess of summer holds a sickle, and another lies beneath her beehive, which suggests Industry. Between Poesia and Ceres, Pictura appears with her attributes, a mask held by one putto, a brush and palette by another. Near Architectura, Sculptura hammers away at a statue, which stands behind and above the dusky figure of a shepherd wearing a wreath and holding panpipes and a staff. He may allude to Drawing, as does the shepherd who traces with his staff in a trompe-l'oeil relief beneath a statue of Pictura on one of several doors De Wit made for collector's cabinets. Finally, on the left, Musica and attendants holding a flute and what seems to be an awkwardly drawn violin perch above a muscular male figure with wings who, leaning downward, blows air into the viewer's space.
Taken all together, it would appear that two different sets of allegorical figures hover beneath Apollo, who therefore should be recognized as ruler of the Seasons as well as ruler of the Arts. As the Sun God, Apollo supervised the progress of the year, whether it was divided into months (as indicated by the zodiacal belt in Gerard de Lairesse's Apollo and Aurora
]) or into seasons.
Presumably, De Wit would have identified the Flora-like figure with flowers and a vessel spilling water as a representation of Spring. The morning star on her head, more familiar as a symbol of dawn or Aurora, may suggest that with her season a new year begins. (Thus Spring's attendant, also holding flowers, clips the wing of Father Time, whose age signifies the year's end.) A cornucopia, symbolizing fruitfulness or abundance, is held by a putto, and Poesia, like Spring to other seasons, serves as a source for other Arts. Ceres stands for Summer, while the shepherd, recalling Bacchus, must take the place of Fall. The winged male below Musica would be Boreas, the north wind, in the role of Winter. By juxtaposing Apollo with Father Time, De Wit compares temporal pursuits with eternity. The transcendence of art over time is familiar from self-portraits by Dutch artists (especially Gerrit Dou; see 14.40.607 in The Met’s collection), which would support the notion that the Allegory of the Arts
is about the painter himself.
De Wit and his wealthy wife bought two houses on the Keizersgracht in 1741. They lived in No. 385, which had eighteen rooms and a spacious studio facing a garden at the back. One of the main rooms was used to display part of De Wit's collection of paintings, which featured works by Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) and his Flemish contemporaries. The style of the present oil sketch could be described as sympathetic to that painter, whose illusionistic ceiling pictures were especially prized by De Wit. The artist's decorative works of the 1740s are generally more Rococo than this one, with pastel colors, less strongly modeled figures, and lots of open sky. It may be that De Wit adjusted his palette, lighting, and type of composition (with its pyramidal figure groups) so that the intended ceiling would harmonize with the seventeenth-century paintings in the same room.
Two drawings by De Wit representing Pictura and Poesia as statues standing in niches (Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels) are each inscribed on the verso "Painted in my Garden House" (no doubt as grisaille decorations). Poesia
, like the present Allegory
, is dated 1742. This evidence supports the idea that The Met's picture (in which Pictura and Poesia are key players) was painted as a sketch for a ceiling in the artist's residence. However, it is almost certain that the artist never found time to execute the final work. No such canvas is listed in the painter's estate, and the most likely location for it, the sael
or salon, no longer survives. The room was certainly suitable, since it measured more than 23 x 26 feet (7 x 8 m), was about 14 feet 8 inches (4.5 m) high, and had five tall windows. Of course, De Wit could have been planning an allegory of the arts for some well-rounded dilettante who happened to be decorating his house at the same time the artist was decorating his own. But that sort of project probably would have been completed and would have stood a good chance of surviving or remaining known.
[2016; adapted from Liedtke 2007]