Johannes Vermeer And The Art of Painting
Johannes Vermeer lived in an almost permanent state of financial desperation. As a young man he barely managed to scrape by as he learned to paint. Because no records have surfaced concerning his apprenticeship, it is thought his family might have been too poor to afford any formal training, and that he may have taught himself.
Vermeer’s decision to pursue life as an artist was no easy one, particularly within his district of the Netherlands. The area around Delft teemed with painters, all of whom seemed to be offering the newly prosperous bourgeoisie the same product – images of everyday life, or commissioned portraits of genteel families.
Competition within this niche was ferocious, and artists had to adapt themselves to become salesmen, even inviting potential collectors to watch them in action in their studios. On one such occasion, when a wealthy French diplomat visited Vermeer, the artist’s attempt at marketing himself was poorly received; unfortunately, he had no work ready to present to the potential benefactor at his home. Instead, much to the irritation of the diplomat, Vermeer had to lead him to the backroom of a local baker’s shop, to show some of his paintings. The artist did not receive a commission, or make a sale.
From this moment, Vermeer was adamant that such an opportunity would not pass him by again. He drew on all his skills to create his exquisite piece, The Art of Painting, one of the most accomplished examples of realist mastery ever achieved. Despite his poverty, Vermeer never sold this picture, because it resonated so personally for him. But should a rich patron pass his way again, Vermeer would not be caught off-guard – if this work was on show it would make a fine demonstration of his skill.
The painting gives us a glimpse into an idealised version of the daily life of the artist, where Vermeer is painting the figure of the ancient Greek muse Clio, believed to be modelled by his wife Catharina. She is strikingly beautiful, coyly avoiding the gaze of the viewer. The artist is seen dressed in great finery, somewhat fanciful considering Vermeer’s almost constant state of penury. The painter’s house is also immaculate, the marble tiles gleaming, the velvet curtains softly framing this still, crystallised moment in time. Vermeer was both highlighting his talent as a painter, and also glamorising his lifestyle to impress potential patrons.
There are no historical records of Vermeer’s studio practices, although it is clear that he would experiment endlessly with different techniques to create the effects of natural light. His paint is applied thinly in virtually translucent layers, and he would generally confine strong colour to restricted areas of his composition. Indeed, his palette was generally suffused, employing only subtle shifts in tonal values, particularly in the shadows.
But the tranquil perfection of Vermeer’s painting would ultimately see it fall into the wrong hands. In 1675, the artist died suddenly at the age of 43, leaving Catharina and his children destitute. At his death, his wealth was measured not in property, land or money, but simply in the number of children’s coats the family had in its possession. Not even the baker’s bill could be settled. Yet Catharina made every effort to conceal the existence of The Art of Painting from debt collectors despite the family’s state of financial crisis, once again demonstrating the profound emotional relevance of the work to Vermeer.
When the work re-emerged during the mid-19th century, it was ironically credited to Vermeer’s rival, Pieter de Hooch, in order to increase its value. Realism and Impressionism were becoming the most dominant art practices, and by the time The Art of Painting was finally identified as a true Vermeer, his reputation had blossomed. After the picture was displayed in its new home in Vienna in 1845 it gradually came to be considered “truly part of the city’s cultural identity”. However, when Austria was annexed by Adolf Hitler in 1938, its new masters believed the painting symbolised victory transcending through time. Surely, they surmised, the eternal laurel leaves on the model’s head epitomised the Nazi dreams of a Thousand-Year Reich?
In 1940, Adolf Hitler purchased the treasured work for his own collection at a knock-down price, moving it to a vast basement in Munich, alongside some 8,000 other artworks. The piece was intended for one of the gargantuan museums Germany’s dictator was planning, but, following heavy bombing of Munich in 1943, Hitler hid his entire collection in salt mines near Altaussee, Austria.
When the mines were discovered in April 1945, the allies found tunnel upon tunnel, some a mile deep, containing a seemingly unending array of masterpieces. The Art of Painting lay among them, in pristine condition. It is now, of course, housed more serenely in its final home at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
Vermeer, perhaps more than any painter, is revered for the sheer precision of his works, the deeply atmospheric calm they always seem to convey, and his subjects’ enigmatic stillness. He is certainly far more than “the master of light”, as he is seen by some observers.
In truth, Vermeer's sublime pictures are among the most entirely perfect creations of mankind.