The Art of Painting

The Art of Painting (1666/1668) by Jan VermeerKunsthistorisches Museum Wien

From behind a curtain that has been pulled to one side...

... we see a painter who is busy immortalising his subject in paint. The work was described as ‘The Art of Painting’ as early as 1676, when Vermeer’s widow, Catharina Bolnes, passed the work on to her mother, Maria Thins, shortly after her husband’s death in an attempt to keep it out of the hands of creditors. Is this simply a portrayal of an artist in his studio, or is the work concealing a message of greater significance?

Opinions are divided, but the painting is usually seen as an allegory (a symbolic representation of an idea or abstract concept) of painting. Unfortunately, we cannot be certain what Vermeer wanted to convey with this work. However, he obviously called on all of his skills: the incidence of light, portrayal of the materials and handling of depth in this painting are all outstanding.

The painting caught the attention of Adolf Hitler, who purchased the work in 1940 from Count Jaromir Czernin, with the intention of including it in the planned – but never realized – Führermuseum in Linz. In 1945, following World War II, the U.S. Army recoverd the painting and it entered the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum. In 2011, after Members of the Czernin Family fought for the restitution of the painting, the Austrian ministry of culture decided, that the painting does not fall under the restitution-act.

The painter
Who is this man sitting with his back to us, working on the painting on the easel in front of him? It’s tempting to think that it is Vermeer himself, but there are absolutely no indications that this is the case.

The man is wearing elegant, expensive clothes. In the mid-17th century, clothes like these were worn by the higher classes on special occasions. The painter’s clothing links him to the higher social circles.

The young woman modelling for the painting is dressed as Clio, the muse of history. We can identify her by her various attributes.

The book she is holding represents historiography...

...the trumpet stands for the proclamation of fame...

... and the crown of laurel denotes honour and glory.

These attributes would have been well-known in the 17th century, thanks to Iconologia, a book of emblems by Italian iconographer Cesar Ripa. Once a Dutch translation of the book was published in 1644, it became a popular iconographical manual in artists’ circles.

In the 17th century, history paintings – works depicting mythological or Biblical tales, stories from literature or historical events from the recent or distant past – were regarded as the highest category of painting. The painter required great technical skill to realistically portray all sorts of objects and materials, but he also needed to have a detailed knowledge of the stories. Does Clio’s presence here indicate that history – in the broadest sense of the word – is the most significant source of inspiration for an artist, or does it suggest that a successful painter can reap fame and take his place in the history books?

Artist’s easel
The painter obscures most of the canvas that he is working on, but we can see that he is painting Clio’s crown of laurels.

Under his arm, white lines roughly outline the rest of the composition.

The small canvas will not accommodate the full length of the woman, and there will also not be sufficient space for one of her attributes, the trumpet. It was not uncommon to more or less complete certain parts of a painting before moving on to other areas.

Seventeen Provinces
The map on the wall shows the Seventeen Provinces – an alternative name for the Habsburg Netherlands, ruled by the Spanish king – with cityscapes of the most significant cities to the left and right. The map is often considered to be a reference to the notion that a successful artist brings fame to the city and country in which he works. Vermeer painted an existing map, which was created by Claes Jansz Visscher in 1636.

North and South
In Vermeer’s time, the geographical and political situation had changed dramatically from the situation shown on the map. The Seventeen Provinces ceased to exist in 1581, when seven northern provinces declared independence from the Spanish ruler. This ultimately led to the recognition of the Dutch Republic in 1648, which also marked the end of the Eighty Years’ War. The map is sometimes interpreted as a desire to return to this earlier situation, emphasised by the clear fold that separates the north from the south. Some have suggested that Vermeer is using the map to highlight and honour the long tradition of the art of painting in ‘The Netherlands’ as a whole, as opposed to only in the northern provinces.

The chandelier
Vermeer’s painting of the incidence of light, a skill that he had mastered, is decidedly natural. The light reflections from the chandelier are exceptionally lifelike.

He used lead-yellow paint for the highlights, applied in thick brushstrokes, also known as impasto.

Chandeliers such as these were popular in paintings in the second half of the 17th century, while they were actually becoming less common. They were mostly found in churches and governmental buildings, but rarely in privately-owned houses, let alone in artists’ studios.

The rug has been drawn to one side like a curtain, allowing us to see into the space behind. This lends the painting a sense of theatre; it is almost as if we are viewing a carefully staged scene. The rug also works as a compositional element. A large, dark object placed clearly in the foreground – also known as a repoussoir – ‘pushes’ the rest of the scene to the back, creating the illusion of depth in the painting.

Vermeer was familiar with the theory behind perspective, and deliberately used it in his paintings. The vanishing point in The Art of Painting is between the model’s hand and the knob of the map hanger. Here, a tiny hole is visible in the ground layer of paint, where Vermeer has pushed a pin into the canvas. He attached a length of string to the pin and rubbed the string with chalk. By moving the other end of the string into different positions and allowing it to touch the canvas, he was able to ‘print’ straight lines that all led to the same vanishing point. Pinholes like this can be found in many of Vermeer’s works.

Vermeer signed this work with I.Ver-Meer. This is the most elaborate version of his signature, only found on this painting and on The Geographer. The I stands for his first name, Johannes. Vermeer used an abbreviated version of his signature on most of his other signed works: IVMeer, for example. The signature can be found on the map, to the right of the young woman’s blue robe.

Credits: Story

This exhibition is part of the Google Vermeer Project.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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