The Art of Painting

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The Art of Painting
Jan Vermeer van Delft 011.jpg
Artist Johannes Vermeer
Year c. 1666
Type Oil on canvas
Dimensions 130 cm × 110 cm (51 in × 43 in)
Location Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

The Art of Painting, also known as The Allegory of Painting, and or Painter in his Studio, is a famous 17th-century oil on canvas painting by Dutch painter, Johannes Vermeer. Many art historians believe that it is an allegory of painting, hence the alternative title of the painting. After Vermeer's The Procuress it is the largest work by the master. Its composition and iconography also make it the most complex Vermeer work of all.[1]

The painting is one of Vermeer's most famous. It offers a realistic presentation of an artist's workplace, and is notable for its depiction of light as it illuminates the interior.


The painting depicts an artist painting a female subject in his studio, by a window, with a large map of the Netherlands on the wall behind.


The painting has only two figures, the painter and his subject. The painter is thought to be a self-portrait of the artist, though the face is not visible.

A number of the items shown in the artist's studio are thought to be somewhat out of place. The marble tiled floor and the golden chandelier are two examples of items which would normally then be reserved for the houses of the well-to-do.

The map in the background is of the Seven United Provinces of the Netherlands, flanked by views of the main centres of power. It was published by Claes Janszoon Visscher in 1636.

Symbolism and allegory[edit]

Experts attribute symbolism to various aspects of the painting. The subject is the Muse of History, Clio. This is evidenced by her wearing a laurel wreath, holding a trumpet (depicting fame), possibly carrying a book by Thucydides, which matches the description in Cesare Ripa's 16th century book on emblems and personifications titled Iconologia.

The double headed eagle, symbol of the Austrian Habsburg dynasty, former rulers of Holland, which adorns the central golden chandelier, may have represented the Catholic faith. Vermeer was unusual in being a Catholic in a predominantly Protestant Netherlands. The absence of candles in the chandelier might represent the suppression of the Catholic faith.

The map on the back wall has a prominent crease that divides the Netherlands between the north and south. (West is at the top of the map, as was the custom.) The crease symbolizes the division between the Dutch Republic to the north and southern provinces under Habsburg rule. The map by Claes Jansz Visscher (Nicolaum Piscatorem) shows the earlier political division between the Union of Utrecht to the north, and the loyal provinces to the south.[2]

Salvador Dalí refers to "The Art of Painting" in his own surrealistic painting The Ghost of Vermeer of Delft Which Can Be Used As a Table (1934). On Dalí's painting we can see the image of Vermeer viewed from his back re-created as a strange kind of table.


External video
The Art of Painting.jpg
Johannes Vermeer's The Art of Painting, (4:55), Smarthistory

The painting is considered a work with significance for the artist because the painter himself did not part with it or sell it, even when he was in debt. In 1676, his widow Catharina bequeathed it to her mother, Maria Thins, in an attempt to avoid the sale of the painting to satisfy creditors.[3] The executor of Vermeer's estate, the famous Delft microscopist Anton van Leeuwenhoek, determined that the transferral of the work to the late painter's mother-in-law was illegal.

It is not known who owned the painting for most of the 18th century. It ultimately was acquired by the eminent Dutch physician Gerard van Swieten. The painting was then inherited by Gerard's also-famous son Gottfried van Swieten, and later passed into the hands of Gottfried's heirs.[4] In 1813 it was purchased for 50 florins by the Bohemian-Austrian Count Czernin.[5] Until 1860, the painting was considered to be by Vermeer's contemporary Pieter de Hooch; Vermeer was little known until the late 19th century. Pieter's signature was even forged on the painting. It was at the intervention of French Vermeer scholar, Thoré Bürger and the German art historian Gustav Friedrich Waagen that it was recognised as a Vermeer original. It was placed on public display in the Czernin Museum in Vienna. Andrew W. Mellon and others tried to buy the painting.[6]

Nazi interest[edit]

After the Nazi invasion of Austria, top Nazi officials including Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring attempted to acquire the painting. It was finally acquired from its then owner, Count Jaromir Czernin by Adolf Hitler for his personal collection at a price of 1.65 million Reichsmark through his agent, Hans Posse on November 20, 1940.[7] The painting was rescued from a salt mine 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.[8]

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. It is now the property of the State of Austria.

2009 request by heirs for restitution[edit]

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.[9]


The painting is on display at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria, where it has been since it was acquired by the Austrian government in 1946.

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]


  1. ^
  2. ^ Vermeer: The Art of Painting, Exhibitions - NGA
  3. ^ Montias, J.M. (1989) Vermeer and his Milieu. A Web of Social History, p. 338-339.
  4. ^ See the website of the U.S. National Gallery:
  5. ^ See the website of the U.S. National Gallery:
  6. ^ Hitler and the European Art
  7. ^ Vermeer: The Art of Painting, The Painting's Afterlife - NGA
  8. ^ 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
  9. ^