Johannes Vermeer, The Art of Painting

Johannes Vermeer, The Art of Painting, 1666-69, oil on canvas, 130 x 110 cm (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

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Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, and we’re looking at Jan Vermeer’s “The Art of Painting,” which is a painting of a painter painting a painting.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:14] It is indeed, and he’s painting a model who he’s going to transform into the muse of history. She is Clio. We can identify her by what she holds, the trumpet and the book, and also the laurel leaves on her head. She’s an allegorical figure. We might think about the Statue of Liberty, for example.

Dr. Zucker: [0:34] That idea of painting’s power to transform is actually central to this image.

Dr. Harris: [0:39] Doesn’t it feel as though we have a privileged view into the studio? Look at the curtain that’s been drawn back, that takes up the top quarter of the painting. We’re looking at a scene that we don’t normally get to see.

Dr. Zucker: [0:52] If you look at that curtain that’s been drawn back, there’s a kind of interesting optical quality. It’s a little bit out of focus. It shimmers and shines, but the points of light are a little too big. It’s as if the entire painting doesn’t resolve until you get to what the artist himself is looking at, that is, his model. That’s where we start to see a clarified focus.

[1:12] It’s almost as if the painting has a depth of field, so much so that some art historians have suggested that perhaps he was using a camera obscura — that is, a kind of simple early camera without film — to begin to process the transformation of the three-dimensional onto the two-dimensional plane.

Dr. Harris: [1:30] The subject always, with Vermeer, is light. We don’t see the source of the light, which is behind that curtain, but the light filters onto the chandelier above, onto the muse of history, onto the objects on the table, across the floor, on the artist’s stockinged feet, on the tiles, catching the brass tacks on that upholstered chair on the right. I mean, we can follow its pathway.

Dr. Zucker: [1:56] I especially love the way the light catches the ridging on the map itself and creates these highlights and shadows.

Dr. Harris: [2:03] Look at the artist. He’s dressed up too. He’s dressed up the model, but he’s wearing something fancier than the artist would traditionally wear in the studio. This black vest that has these openings and slits in it, and this really nice hat.

Dr. Zucker: [2:18] The bright orange leggings.

Dr. Harris: [2:20] This is an image that was obviously important to Vermeer. It’s larger than most of his work. The artist in it is dressed up. It was still in his possession at the time of his death. His wife tried to save it from his creditors, who were after his estate, which was heavily in debt. This is an important painting.

Dr. Zucker: [2:40] It reminds me actually of the painting “Las Meninas” by Velazquez, where the artist paints a self-portrait. In that case, we can see his face, but he’s dressed in a very formal manner, in a way that is meant to place the artist within society at a very high level…

Dr. Harris: [2:55] Exactly.

Dr. Zucker: [2:55] …and dignify the profession. Vermeer paints in such a careful and defined way that we might look in past the frame of the canvas and think to ourselves that we’re looking into this room, but the fact that Vermeer has depicted an artist painting reminds us that this is simply a construction, that this is an artificial image.

Dr. Harris: [3:16] Ironically, this painting has a very complex and disturbing history in some ways.

Dr. Zucker: [3:22] Vermeer’s modest reputation really dissipated in the 18th century. He was forgotten, but the painting reemerges in the early 19th century and somebody added the signature of an artist who was better known.

Dr. Harris: [3:35] Luckily though, a Vermeer scholar later in the 19th century recognized it as a real Vermeer. Ever since then, Vermeer’s reputation has only increased.

Dr. Zucker: [3:45] By the time we get to the early 20th century, this painting is wildly valuable but the owner tries to sell it. The American financier Mellon tries to buy it, and because of export restrictions, laws that did not allow for important historical or artistic works to be let out of the country, that sale was stopped.

Dr. Harris: [4:04] The person who does end up buying it is Adolf Hitler.

Dr. Zucker: [4:08] Hitler loved art. He wanted to be an artist early in his life.

Dr. Harris: [4:11] He amassed an enormous collection of art, and their idea was to make a museum of all the great masterpieces of European art.

Dr. Zucker: [4:18] The painting was delivered to Hitler at his private residence in Munich, and it stayed there until it was packed away for safekeeping during the war.

Dr. Harris: [4:26] At the end of the war, the painting was recovered by the Allied forces and returned to the museum in Vienna. It’s interesting to me that a painting that is about the role of art and history and the role of the artist in making history has such a complex and disturbing history itself.

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Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "Johannes Vermeer, The Art of Painting," in Smarthistory, December 11, 2015, accessed July 20, 2024,