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Johannes Vermeer The Art Of Painting Essay

With Rembrandt and Frans Hals, Vermeer ranks among the most admired of all Dutch artists, but he was much less well known in his own day and remained relatively obscure until the end of the nineteenth century. The main reason for this is that he produced a small number of pictures, perhaps about forty-five (of which thirty-six are known today), primarily for a small circle of patrons in Delft. Indeed, as much as half of Vermeer’s output was acquired by the local collector Pieter van Ruijven. Although Vermeer’s work was known to other connoisseurs in Delft and the neighboring court city of The Hague, and a few of his paintings sold to individuals farther afield (Antwerp and Amsterdam), most Dutch painters turned out hundreds of pictures for a much broader market. Adding to his image as an isolated figure are the fact that Vermeer’s teacher is unknown, and that he evidently had no pupils. However, the artist was a respected member of the painters’ guild in Delft, and he exchanged pictorial ideas with painters active in that city (especially Pieter de Hooch in the 1650s) and in the region (for example, Frans van Mieris in Leiden).

Vermeer’s father trained as a weaver of fine material but by about 1630 had become an innkeeper and art dealer. The latter business may have helped Vermeer develop his remarkable ability to assimilate formal conventions from past and current masters. On the other hand, his father’s debts and death in 1652 probably explain why Vermeer had to essentially train himself rather than study with an important master. In 1653, he married the daughter of a wealthy Catholic divorcée; the painter converted to their religion and moved into their house in the heart of Delft. During most of his short career—he died at forty-three, leaving his wife with eleven children—Vermeer’s paintings commanded high prices and he was able to support his large family, but the dismal Dutch economy of the early 1670s made his last few years miserable.

In his earliest paintings, Vermeer surveyed the styles of various seventeenth-century artists. For example, in Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (ca. 1654–55; Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh), he achieved an unlikely mixture of Anthony van Dyck and Hendrick ter Brugghen. The Procuress (1656; Dresden, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden) recalls Caravaggesque works by the court painter Gerrit van Honthorst, except for the apparent self-portrait which in its handling of light and soft focus resembles a moment caught in a mirror. Similar effects had been achieved in Delft by the short-lived Rembrandt disciple Carel Fabritius, who is often credited with encouraging Vermeer’s later perspective skills. However, Vermeer’s mature interest in naturalistic effects, his carefully balanced compositions, and his domestic subjects derive from numerous sources in Delft and the south Holland area. As the painter worked on a picture, the world of art was constantly tested against direct observation. Vermeer was intensely preoccupied with the behavior of light and other optical effects such as sudden recessions and changes of focus. These qualities in Vermeer’s work may have been inspired by an interest in the camera obscura (which projects actual images), but its importance to the artist has been greatly exaggerated. His compositions are mostly invented and exhibit the most discriminating formal relationships, including those of color. In addition, Vermeer’s application of paint reveals extraordinary technical ability and time-consuming care.

In his best works, these qualities suit the subject matter exceedingly well. Vermeer idealized a domestic world occupied (if not animated) mostly by women, whose postures, behavior, and in some cases expressions suggest close study and sympathy (in this the artist resembles Gerard ter Borch, the Younger, whose work he knew). He often suggests some connection between a figure and the viewer, subtly casting the latter in the role of a spellbound voyeur.

A Maid Asleep (14.40.611) of about 1657 is probably Vermeer’s earliest scene of modern manners, recalling slightly earlier pictures by Nicolaes Maes. Over the next few years, between works such as The Milkmaid (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) and Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (89.15.21), Vermeer developed his mature style, which involved a delicate balance between observation and arbitrary design. The few famous exceptions to his interior scenes include The Little Street (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam), View of Delft (Mauritshuis, The Hague), and the late Allegory of the Faith (32.100.18). A few bust-length studies of figures, like the celebrated Girl with a Pearl Earring (Mauritshuis), must be based on live models but were not intended as portraits. Such tronies (“faces”) were collector’s items, in which intriguing characters, curious costumes, and superb painting combine.

Walter Liedtke
Department of European Paintings, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

October 2003

The Art of Painting, also known as The Allegory of Painting, or Painter in his Studio, is a 17th-century oil on canvas painting by Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. It is owned by the Austrian Republic and is on display in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

This illusionistic painting is one of Vermeer's most famous. In 1868 Thoré-Bürger, known today for his rediscovery of the work of painter Johannes Vermeer, regarded this painting as his most interesting. Svetlana Alpers describes it as unique and ambitious;[1]Walter Liedtke "as a virtuoso display of the artist's power of invention and execution, staged in an imaginary version of his studio ..."[2] According to Albert Blankert "No other painting so flawlessly integrates naturalistic technique, brightly illuminated space, and a complexly integrated composition."[3]

Many art historians think that it is an allegory of painting, hence the alternative title of the painting. Its composition and iconography make it the most complex Vermeer work of all. After Vermeer's Christ in the House of Martha and Mary it is his largest work.


The painting depicts an artist painting a woman dressed in blue posing as a model in his studio. The subject is standing by a window and a large map of the Low Countries hangs on the wall behind. It is signed to the right of the girl "I [Oannes] Ver. Meer", but not dated. Most experts assume it was executed sometime between 1665/1668, but some suggest the work could have been created as late as 1670–1675.[4]

In 1663 Vermeer had been visited by Balthasar de Monconys, but had no painting to show, so it was possibly done "in order to have an outstanding specimen of his art in his studio."[5] Vermeer obviously liked the painting; he never sold it during his lifetime. According to Alpers "it stands as a kind of summary and assessment of what has been done."[6][7]


The painting has only two figures, the painter and his subject, a woman with downcast eyes. The painter was thought to be a self-portrait of the artist; Jean-Louis Vaudoyer suggested the young woman could be his daughter.[8] The painter sits in front of the painting on the easel, where you can see the sketch of the crown. He is dressed in an elegant black garment with cuts on the sleeves and on the back that offers a glimpse of the shirt underneath. He has short puffy breeches and orange stockings, an expensive and fashionable garment that is also found in other works of the time, as in a well-known self-portrait by Rubens.

The tapestry and the chair, both repoussoirs, lead the viewer into the painting. As in The Allegory of Faith the ceiling can be seen.

Experts attribute symbols to various aspects of the painting. A number of the items, a plastermask, perhaps representing the debate on paragone,[9] the presence of a piece of cloth, a folio, and some leather on the table have been linked to the symbols of Liberal Arts. The representation of the marble tiled floor and the splendid golden chandelier are examples of Vermeer's craftsmanship and show his knowledge of perspective. Each object reflects or absorbs light differently, getting the most accurate rendering of material effects.

The map, remarkable is the representation of light on it, shows the Seventeen Provinces of the Netherlands, flanked by 20 views of prominent Dutch cities.[11] It was published by Claes Janszoon Visscher in 1636. This map, but without the city views on the left and right can be seen on paintings by Jacob Ochtervelt and Nicolaes Maes. Similar maps were found in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris [12] and in the Swedish Skokloster.[13] In the top left of the map two women can be seen; one bearing a cross-staff and compasses, while the other has a palette, brush, and a city view in the hand.[14]

Symbolism and allegory[edit]

Vermeer had a theoretical interest for painting. The subject is presumed to be Fama,[15]Pictura,[16] or Clio,[17] the Muse of History,[18] evidenced by her wearing a laurel wreath, holding a trumpet, possibly carrying a book by Herodotus or Thucydides, which matches the description in Cesare Ripa's 16th century book on emblems and personifications entitled Iconologia.[19][20] However, according to Ripa History should look back [21] and not down as in this painting. Following Vermeer's contemporary Gerard de Lairesse, interested in French Classicism and Ripa, there is another explanation; he mentions history and poetry as the main resources of a painter.[22][23] The woman in blue could be representing poetry,[24][25] pointing to Plutarch who observed that "Simonides calls painting silent poetry and poetry painting that speaks",[26] later paraphrased by the Latin poet Horace as ut pictura poesis. If so, the map is representing history.

The double-headed eagle, symbol of the Habsburg Holy Roman Empire, which possibly adorns the central golden chandelier, may represent the former rulers of the Low Countries. The large map on the back wall has a prominent crease that divides the Seventeen Provinces into the north and south. (West is at the top of the map.) The crease may symbolize the division between the Dutch Republic to the north and southern provinces under Habsburg rule. The map shows the earlier political division between the Union of Utrecht to the north, and the loyal provinces to the south.[28] This interpretation might have appealed to Hitler who owned the painting during the war.[29] According to Liedtke a political interpretation of the map and the Habsburg eagle is unconvincing; they overlook other motives.[30] The map could suggest though that painting has brought fame to the Netherlands;[31] ships sailing over the folds suggest that.


The painting is considered a work with significance for Vermeer because he did not part with it or sell it, even when he was in debt. On 24 February 1676, his widow Catharina bequeathed it to her mother, Maria Thins, in an attempt to avoid the sale of the painting to satisfy creditors.[32] The executor of Vermeer's estate, the famous Delft microscopist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, determined that the transferral of the work to the late painter's mother-in-law was illegal and, according to John Michael Montias, at least a curious transaction.[33] On 15 March 1677 most of his paintings were sold in an auction at the Guild in Delft.[34] It is not known who bought the Art of Painting; perhaps it was Jacob Dissius.[35] It can not determined with certainty whether the painting is quoted in the auction Dissius of 1696 as "Portrait of Vermeer in a room with various accessories." The painting was owned by Gerard van Swieten, and passed into the hands of Gottfried van Swieten.[36] In 1813 it was purchased for 50 florins by the Bohemian-Austrian Count Rudolf Czernin. It was placed on public display in the Czernin Museum in Vienna.

Until 1860, the painting was considered to be by Vermeer's contemporary Pieter de Hooch; Vermeer was little known until the late 19th century. Hooch's signature was even forged on the painting. It was at the intervention of the German art historian Gustav Friedrich Waagen that it was recognised as a Vermeer original.[37][38]

Nazi interest[edit]

In 1935 Count Jaromir Czernin had tried to sell the painting to Andrew W. Mellon, but the Austrian government prohibited the export of the painting.[39] After the annexation of Austria, Philipp Reemtsma with the help of Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring attempted to acquire the painting. The transaction to a private person was refused being cultural heritage.[40] It was finally acquired by Adolf Hitler for the collection of the Linzer Museum at a price of 1.82 million Reichsmark through his agent, Hans Posse on November 20, 1940.[41] The painting was rescued from a salt mine near Altaussee at the end of World War II in 1945, where it was preserved from Allied bombing raids, with other works of art. The painting was escorted to Vienna from Munich by Andrew Ritchie, chief of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program (MFA&A) for Austria, who transported it by locking himself and the painting in a train compartment.[42]

The Americans presented the painting to the Austrian Government in 1946, since the Czernin family were deemed to have sold it voluntarily, without undue force from Hitler. During the early to mid-1950s Czernin continued in his attempts to claim restitution, each time being rejected. In 1958, Vermeer's The Art of Painting was finally moved from temporary status into the permanent collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.[43]

2009 request by heirs for restitution[edit]

This section needs to be updated. Please update this article to reflect recent events or newly available information.(November 2017)

In August 2009 a request was submitted by the heirs of the Czernin family to Austria's culture ministry for the return of the painting. A previous request was submitted in 1960s however it was "rejected on the grounds that the sale had been voluntary and the price had been adequate." A 1998 restitution law which pertains to public institutions has bolstered the family's legal position.[44][45]

See also[edit]


  1. ^Svetlana Alpers (1983) The Art of Description. Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century, p. 119.
  2. ^Liedtke, Walter (2007). Dutch paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art. p. 893. ISBN 0-300-12028-1. 
  3. ^A. Blankert (1978) Vermeer of Delft, pp. 47–49. Oxford: Phaidon.
  4. ^Stokstad, Marilyn (1995). Art History. New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers. p. 797. ISBN 0810927764. 
  5. ^Vermeer and the Delft School, p. 396
  6. ^S. Alpers, p. 122.
  7. ^KHM on the "Art of Painting"
  8. ^Vermeer's Family Secrets: Genius, Discovery, and the Unknown Apprentice by Benjamin Binstock, p. 172.[1]
  9. ^Essential Vermeer.
  10. ^Monumenta Cartographica Neerlandica Vol. VI
  11. ^Brussel, Luxemburg, Gent, Bergen (Henegouwen), Amsterdam, Namen, Leeuwarden, Utrecht, Zutphen, en het Hof van Holland in Den Haag; to the right Limburg, Nijmegen, Arras, Dordrecht, Middelburg, Antwerpen, Mechelen, Deventer, Groningen en het Hof van Brabant in Brussel.
  12. ^S. Alpers, p. 120.
  13. ^Monumenta Cartographica Neerlandica I (1986)
  14. ^S. Alpers, p. 126.
  15. ^Neurdenburg, E. (1942) Johannes Vermeer. Eenige opmerkingen naar aanleiding van de nieuwste studies over den Delftschen Vermeer. In: Oud-Holland 54, pp. 70–71.
  16. ^Vermeer's Family Secrets: Genius, Discovery, and the Unknown Apprentice by Benjamin Binstock, p. 172.[2]
  17. ^K.G. Hulten (1949) 'Zu Vermeers Atelierbild', In: Konsthistorisk Tidskrift, 18, p. 92.
  18. ^Iconologia, or, Moral emblems
  19. ^Iconologia di Cesare Ripa ...: divisa in tre libri, ne i quali si esprimono ... by Cesare Ripa
  20. ^Clio
  21. ^Iconologia di Cesare Ripa, p. 269
  22. ^Groot-Schilderboek (1712), pp. 4, 6, 115, 121, 293
  23. ^Weber, Gregor J.M. (1991) Der Lobtopos des 'lebenden' Bildes: Jan Vos und sein "Zeege der Schilderkunst" von 1654, p. 61. ISBN 3-487-09604-8.
  24. ^Iconologia di Cesare Ripa ...: divisa in tre libri, ne i quali si esprimono ... by Cesare Ripa
  25. ^Vermeer's Family Secrets: Genius, Discovery, and the Unknown Apprentice by Benjamin Binstock, p. 175.[3]
  26. ^Plutarch, De gloria Atheniensium 3.346f, cited by D. Campbell, Greek Lyric III, Loeb Classical Library (1991), page 363
  27. ^KroonluchterArchived 2016-03-05 at the Wayback Machine.
  28. ^Vermeer: The Art of Painting, Exhibitions – NGA
  29. ^Vermeer's Family Secrets: Genius, Discovery, and the Unknown Apprentice by Benjamin Binstock, p. 182.[4]
  30. ^Vermeer and the Delft School, p. 396
  31. ^Vermeer and the Delft School, p. 396
  32. ^Montias, J.M. (1989) Vermeer and his Milieu. A Web of Social History, pp. 338–339.
  33. ^Vermeer and His Milieu: A Web of Social History by John M. Montias, pp. 219, 229.[5][6]
  34. ^Essential Vermeer
  36. ^U.S. National Gallery
  37. ^Waagen, G.F. "Handbuch der Deutschen und Niederländischen Malerschulen". Stuttgart 1862, Bd II, p. 110.
  39. ^Hitler and the European Art
  41. ^Vermeer: The Art of Painting, The Painting's Afterlife – NGA
  42. ^Spirydowicz, K. (2010). "Rescuing Europe's Cultural Heritage: The Role of the Allied Monuments Officers in World War II". Archaeology, Cultural Property, and the Military. L. Rush. Woodbridge, The Boydell Press: 15–27
  43. ^NGA
  44. ^Heirs’ Claim for Hitler’s Vermeer Rejected by Austrian Panel
  45. ^KHM
Detail of Vermeer's Art of Painting showing the painter at his easel using a maulstick.
Is that a double eagle on top of the chandelier?[27]

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