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The Art of Painting by Johannes Vermeer - Kunsthistorisches Museum Guide

Updated: Jul 1



The Art of Painting by Johannes Vermeer

The Art of Painting is one of the most renowned works of Dutch Golden Age painter Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), who painted this masterpiece for himself and never meant to sell it.


Forgotten for decades and then endangered by the Nazis' obscure dreams, the painting is an illusionistic creation that employs groundbreaking perspective techniques and reaches excellence in illumination. It represents an artist (possibly Vermeer himself?) in his studio with a model but scholars have good reasons to believe this is an allegory of painting, the art Vermeer mastered better than most of his contemporaries.


Here in this guide we will go through all details, symbols and meaning of this painting, we will explore its complex history and, of course, we will understand something more of its author.



 


In this article:


Artwork Profile and Meaning: The Art of Painting by Johannes Vermeer


 



Artwork Profile and Meaning: The Art of Painting by Johannes Vermeer



OVERVIEW


Title(s): The Art of Painting, also known as Allegory of Painting or Painter in his Studio (in Dutch: De schilderkunst or Allegorie op de schilderkunst)

Artist: Johannes (Jan) Vermeer (1632-1675)

Execution: 1665-1666 ca.

Commissioner: Made for personal use

Style: Dutch Baroque (in the context of the Dutch Golden Age)

Subject: Allegory of painting

Technique: Oil on canvas

Dimensions: 100x120cm / 47x39in

Ticket: Yes (full price: 21€)



THE ARTIST: JOHANNES (JAN) VERMEER


For Johannes Vermeer we have a year, 1632, and a date, 31st October. The year is set, the date does not correspond to his day of birth but rather to the day when he was baptized (and the event registered).


He was born in Delft, today Netherlands, but his family was originally from Antwerp (today Belgium); they arrived following a then-common trend among people from the southern Flemish provinces to emigrate to the Netherlands to escape the local government.


Vermeer lived and died in the thriving city of Delft, where he therefore created and sold his work. He did not sustain himself just on his art though: his father came to Delft as a silk weaver, then acquired an inn and started a career in art dealing. His (only) son likely inherited the inn and was active as an art dealer too.


Like his father did before him, in 1653 Johannes joined the Guild of St. Luke of Delft, the community of artists and professionals linked to the art world (like the art dealers), and must have managed to build a solid reputation for himself, for he was repeatedly appointed Dean of the Guild throughout his life. However, normally artists needed to complete a few years of apprenticeship before they were able to join the guild, but scholars have never been able to identify with whom Vermeer trained to become an artist. Still, we do know some names of painters who must have inspired him: Carel Fabritius, Pieter de Hooch, Gerard ter Borch, then, more indirectly, the great masters of his age, Rembrandt and Caravaggio.


1653 was a year of great changes for Johannes: he joined the Guild and also married Catharina Bolnes - a wealthy Catholic -, improving his social status and possibly converting to Catholicism (quite a rarity for his time and provenance).


With Catharina Bolnes Vermeer would have fifteen children, of whom circa ten survived infancy. Nevertheless, until the early 1670s the family did not show signs of struggling to feed all those mouths, meaning that they were pretty well off. But Vermeer was not a prolific artist and today we don't have more than 30-something works universally attributed to him (there are many more that aren't). It was estimated that he must have produced 2/3 works per year and he therefore surely had other businesses.

This "freedom" allowed him to only seldom rely on commissions and to have wealthy patrons instead, who would purchase his works after he made them. He even painted a few pictures and kept them for himself, like The Art of Painting!


Vermeer's life, which so far seems pretty comfortable, ended in tragedy: in 1672, the Dutch Republic forcibly entered the Franco-Dutch War when the Kingdom of France attacked it. The conflict would last until 1678, disrupting the country's balance and social life, and making art selling much more complicated, thus hampering Vermeer's career as a painter and art dealer. His financial conditions deteriorated rapidly and by the end of his life he was in great debt, forced to sell his work for much less than its value. Unable to sustain these troubles, Vermeer died in 1675 at the age of 43 after a brief malady, probably caused by his sorrows.


After his death, most of his limited collection of works got dispersed through auctions and purchases and after some time, at the end of the Dutch Golden Age, his talent went forgotten. It was not until the mid-19th century that Vermeer returned to fame, even more so than when he was alive.


View of Delft (1661), Johannes Vermeer
The View of Delft (1661), a depiction Vermeer made of his own city


Johannes Vermeer's Style: A Brief Introduction

Johannes Vermeer is revered as one of the great masters of the Dutch Golden Age, a bright period - possibly the brightest in Dutch art - that corresponded more or less to the 17th century and that also involved Rembrandt, Frans Hals, Pieter de Hooch, Jan Steen, Gerrit Dou and many others. More specifically, Vermeer belonged to a declination of the Dutch Golden Age called The School of Delft from the lively and artistically active city he came from.


Vermeer engaged with different subjects, including history paintings, landscapes, portraits, genre scenes, allegories and moralizing scenes. As typical of his epoch and of The Netherlands, he rarely produced religious art, as Protestantism did not welcome human figures in churches and religious commissioners were therefore scarce.


He is remembered for his groundbreaking innovations and for the originality of his style, even though he often took inspiration from his peers. He was able to master perspective and he is believed to have used a camera obscura to construct the spatiality of several paintings (including The Art of Painting). Also, he is sometimes known as the "Master of Light" for the exquisite way he managed light in his pictures, in an almost-perfect resemblance to real life. We will soon see how he incredibly did that in his The Art of Painting!

Camera obscura is a Latin definition that means dark chamber, and from it comes the current name we use for photographing devices, the cameras. Indeed, the camera obscura can be considered a precursor of modern cameras and has been actively used in the West since Renaissance. It consists of a darkened chamber with an aperture or a darkened box with a convex lens used to project the image of an external object onto another surface, in this case a canvas.


THE TROUBLED HISTORY OF THE ART OF PAINTING


The Art of Painting's path to our times was not an easy one, that's for sure.


We have Vermeer's signature on it but we don't have a date, so we can only suppose it from documents and style analysis. Also, we know that one of the artist's patrons visited Johannes's studio for potential purchases in 1665 and did not mention it (he wrote that no painting was available) - so it was made later, possibly that same year or the year after. Originally, it was likely created as a showpiece, an example painting used to show Vermeer's potential acquirers what he could do, and never meant to be sold. So it should have been there when the patron visited, otherwise, it means it didn't exist yet.


The author must have cared a great deal about it (probably because it represented himself and his very art), since his widow did not want to sell it after his death, despite the substantial debts her family was navigating into. Unfortunately, her mother and her children must have thought differently (or had no other choice), because soon after her death they eventually sold the masterpiece at an auction. From this moment, its whereabouts remain nebulous until the early 19th century.


The Art of Painting began a journey through the mansions of various nobles and as the fame of its author decreased (reaching its lowest in the 18th century) information about it began to fade. When the picture eventually appeared again, its date of creation and the artist who made it were unknown.


Matter of fact, a possible author of this painting was believed to be known when the lucky Austrian Count Johann Rudolf Czernin bought it in 1813: a forged signature had indeed been added to the canvas, attributing it to Vermeer's peer Pieter de Hoogh, an artist he surely knew well (artistically and personally) and who, at that time of their death, was much more popular than Vermeer. This false attribution allowed Count Czernin to purchase the painting for a ridiculous sum.


In 1860 a German scholar finally came out with the right attribution and even found the signature of Vermeer himself in the painting - by then, the artist was much more esteemed than he had been before, so the price and notoriety of The Art of Painting grew exponentially.


But the bad chapter was yet to come.


The newly-found popularity of Vermeer and the genius of his art made their way to the ears of a former painter whose life took a different turn: in the late 1930s Adolf Hitler put his eyes on The Art of Painting, selecting it for the project he had in mind to build a massive museum of European art, to be called the Führermuseum - a collection of works of art the Nazis would confiscate, steal or forcibly acquire.


Luckily the museum never saw the light, but Vermeer's work ended up in the dictator's hands nevertheless. Initially, the descendants of Count Czernin tried to sell it to an American businessman and philanthropist, Andrew W. Mellon, but German-imposed Austrian laws prohibited the selling of paintings overseas. So, after attempts by other Nazis, including Hermann Göring, Hitler eventually bought it on November 20, 1940.


The Art of Painting, Johannes Vermeer, during the Second World War
The Art of Painting during the troubled war years

The Art of Painting would stay with the Nazis until their fall, in 1945. When the war turned for the worst, they stored it in a salt mine for safekeeping and here it was found by a division of the American Army, the task force known as the Monuments Men, made famous by a blockbuster movie (2014).


Having had Austria as its last host before Nazi Germany, the painting was restituted to it and given to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna: despite all their claims for restitution, the descendants of Count Czernin could not have it back (they sold it to Hitler for money so were not technically forced to give it away, although we may imagine that resist Hitler's requests may have not been easy in 1940) and since the 1950s it is part of the museum's permanent collection.



The Art of Painting, Johannes Vermeer


DESCRIPTION


The Art of Painting is a small-sized painting (but one of the biggest Vermeer's ever created), 100x120cm / 47x39in, made with the common technique of applying oil on canvas. It represents a painter in his studio, painting in front of a model. The subject was not uncommon in Vermeer's time, but due to the title given to it by the artist's wife after his death ("Allegory of Painting") and to several symbols to be spotted in it, scholars agree that it must represent an allegory of the art of painting rather than a genre scene.


The painting looks quite crowded and every element has its own significance: we see two figures (the painter with his easel and a stool, and the model), two identical chairs (one in the left front area and one behind the canvas), a huge drawn-back curtain in the front left corner, a big map hung on the wall in the background, a table with various objects on it, and a golden chandelier hanging from the ceiling. Moreover, the interior is decorated with a black and white chessboard floor and a beamed ceiling.


Repoussoir in The Art of Painting, Vermeer
Detail of the curtain and the chair, the two repoussoir

Spatiality and illumination are carefully constructed to show off the artist's best abilities (this was a showpiece after all!): with the aid of the drawn-back tapestry, which is also the most Baroque of all elements here, the viewer is introduced to the scene, which seems to open in front of their eyes. The curtain conceals the windows the model is posing before thus hiding the source of light, which however perfectly illuminates the room and which effects Vermeer was exquisitely able to replicate. Both the curtain and the chair beside it are repoussoirs, devices used to achieve perspective and a higher degree of depth. This accuracy in perspective was only recreated with the aid of geometric lines: we don't know exactly what technique Vermeer used here, but it could be either the camera obscura or a pinhole to fix the vanishing point (which would be located under the model's hand). In any case, he mastered it.


The Art of Faith, Johannes Vermeer
Another work of Vermeer, The Allegory of Faith (1670 ca.) - here Vermeer reproposed the same ceiling, floor and curtain, making scholars believe this could have indeed been his studio

Of the painter we don't see the face, so we can't be sure who he might have been, but many scholars think he is Vermeer himself: the age and supposed appearance correspond. He is all dressed up in a black robe with slashes on the back that show the undershirt, has orange stockings, white socks and a black hat. He is depicted in the act of painting the model's laurel wreath but this very detail proves how the whole scene must be staged: no artist would paint the details while having a model standing up for them - they would sketch the figure and add the details later. However, we can understand how Vermeer liked to work: for example, he used a maulstick to steady his hands, started from a preparatory sketch we can grasp in the painting, etc.



Model in The Art of Painting, Johannes Vermeer
A full view of the standing model

The model is a young girl, possibly Vermeer's daughter, standing up while holding various objects in her hands: she is depicted as Clio, the Muse of History, or alternatively as the Muse of Poetry. Her dress, a beautiful blue robe, is the sign of how much Vermeer invested in his paintings, as the color was recreated with the use of lapis lazuli, which were incredibly expensive. The fashion of the dress is not contemporary but probably made to resemble classical robes, thus linking the model to the Muses of Antiquity.


The Art of Painting, Johannes Vermeer
Of all the creases on the map, the biggest one is here shown on the right and should represent the new divisions of the Low Countries

The map on the wall comes from real life: it is the painted reproduction of a 1636 work of mapmaker Claes Jansz Visscher and frequently used in paintings. The Dutch, whose spirituality was notably feeble, liked to have their walls decorated with maps rather than religious works. This trend was maximized by the widespread Protestant faith. The map portrays the Low Countries (Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg) and is already outdated: even before 1672 and the Franco-Dutch War, when Vermeer painted this canvas in 1665 ca. borders had already changed and scholars suppose the deep crease Vermeer added on the map could represent the divisions at the time of the painting's creation. The map has the West on top and North on the right, as it was custom in the 17th century.


The Art of Painting, Johannes Vermeer
Detail of the chandelier

The chandelier is a beautiful golden decoration, but it might hide a political meaning: its upper part resembles a crested eagle, which would be very similar to the symbol of the Habsburgs, the Spanish (and Catholic) dynasty that ruled over the Netherlands before the new divisions marked by the crease on the map. Could it be that Vermeer added this reference to express his nostalgia for the former government or for Catholic domination? We will probably never know for sure, but there is a possibility. Also, the absence of candles has sometimes been associated with the suppression of Catholicism in the Netherlands. Just remember that it is likely that Vermeer converted to Catholicism upon marrying.



AN ALLEGORY OF PAINTING: SUBJECT EXPLAINED


As we mentioned, while Vermeer himself never officially named this painting, scholars have always agreed on saying that rather than being a genre scene (thus representing real life), The Art of Painting would be an allegory, a tool to depict an abstract concept through specific, fixed symbols.


The reason why Vermeer would have chosen to do this is rooted in the society of his time and of the centuries that came before him: painting, together with sculpture, architecture and several other arts, for a long time was considered a manual work and treated as such. Compared to other professions, it was always felt as minor, less important, because being manual it did not require the use of intellect and therefore the artists (and sculptures, architects) were always seen as illiterates. This was particularly true during the Middle Ages, of which we know so few names of architects and painters because they were not allowed or did not feel the need to sign their works. From Renaissance onwards, things started to change and artists were insistively attributing themselves the same status as any other liberal art professional, highlighting their connection with history, poetry and mathematics. Vermeer, who seemed to care a lot about his social status and his wealth, likely expressed this common feeling through this painting, underscoring how much he agreed with the new conception.



Painter in The Art of Painting, Johannes Vermeer
Detail of the painter, who could be Vermeer himself

The Painter

In this work, the eye soon falls on the painter, depicted from behind in the act of painting, indeed.


His height is disproportionate and his robe is not suitable for what he is doing, thus proving the fact that this was supposed to be an ideal way in which Vermeer wanted an exponent of his profession to be seen: well-dressed, sophisticated and wealthy. Also, he made sure to increase the size of the figure so as to make it stand out in the scene. In the eyes of his contemporaries, a man dressed in that fashion could only be placed high within society, Vermeer knew they would know.




The Model

We mentioned that the model is dressed in a blue robe colored with the use of the expensive lapis lazuli and made to resemble ancient models.


The girl is supposed to incarnate Clio, the Muse of History, and we know this because we can recognize the symbol she carries: the laurel wreath, symbol of eternal life and glory; the trumpet, symbol of fame, and the book, in which history was written. These symbols had been defined by Cesare Ripa in his Iconologia (1593), a guide for artists on how to correctly depict several allegories, virtues, sciences, passions and more. Vermeer no doubt had a copy of the book, moreover recently translated into Dutch.


Why the Muse of History, in an allegory of painting? A figure that alone could represent painting did not exist, as painting was itself just emerging as a liberal art. Painting was mainly associated with history (history painting being the highest expression of the art) because it helped convey it; poetry because it inspired the artistsand geometry or mathematics, because they guided the artists in the process.



Map in The Art of Painting, Johannes Vermeer
Detail of the map of the Low Countries

The Map

While most scholars agree that history is the one represented here through the model, some attribute this role to the map, which would immortalize the concept of the passing of time punctuated by human actions, wars and politics in a more subtle way.


Should this be true, the model would instead represent the Muse of Poetry, normally represented in a similar fashion. A discerning factor could be the book the model holds in her hand because normally poetry and history were represented by different volumes, but Vermeer decided to show its backside, thus concealing the title.



Table in The Art of Painting, Johannes Vermeer
Detail of the table

The Table

A quick look at the table behind the drawn-back curtain reveals some more details: it is full of objects the painter would use for his job.


On the table we can see drawings, used by the painter to sketch his figures; then another book, used to study theory, ancient works and subjects; and a plaster cast of what seems an ancient sculpture. This latter has been interpreted differently and it could either be a reference to classical models or to the endless debate about painting and sculpture (the so-called Paragone) and on which one should be deemed superior.


All these symbols in The Art of Painting may seem confusing and difficult, but of course most of Vermeer's peers would understand and recognize them by heart!


 

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WHERE AND HOW TO VISIT





The Art of Painting can be seen at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.


It can be found in the Picture Gallery of the Museum, on floor 1, Room XII, in the section dedicated to Dutch, Flemish and German painters. In the same room, you can admire the works of Rembrandt, Jan Steen, Simon de Vlieger and others.


 To visit the Kunsthistorisches Museum you will need a ticket: a full price ticket costs 21€, a reduced one 18€ (valid for students), free entry for kids under 19, and there are some other options in case you have specific cards or opt for a combined ticket.


 The Museum is normally closed on Mondays, open Tue-Sun from 10AM to 6PM, and on Thursdays from 10AM to 9PM. From June to August, it is open every day (Mon 10AM - 6PM).


You can find these and other pieces of information here, on the official website of the Museum, where you can also purchase your tickets.




 



References:
  • Masters of Art Series - Johannes Vermeer, Delphi 2014.

  • Claudio Pescio, Vermeer, Art e Dossier 2012.

  • Rainer Hagen, Rose-Marie Hagen, What Great Paintings Say, Taschen 1996.

  • Walter Liedtke, Vermeer and the Delft School, The Metropolitan Museum of Art 2001.

  • Stories of Art's The Art of Painting Explained on Youtube



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