The Art of Painting by Johannes Vermeer

The Art of Painting by by Johannes Vermeer (1667)

My Daily Art Display starts with a question.  Hands up if you have heard of Théopile Thoré sometimes known as  Théopile Thoré-Burger.  Not too many raised hands.  Second question – hands up if you have heard of Joannes Vermeer.   Hands are shooting up all over the place!   Did you know that but for the French journalist and art critic Théopile Thoré nobody may ever have discovered the artistry of our beloved painter from Delft?

Joannes Vermeer was a rather quiet man who enjoyed painting.  He did not push his work.  He did not need to sell his paintings to survive.  He just wanted to discover new painting techniques and liked to concentrate on how light and shadow could be best represented in paintings.  So here we have a man who didn’t paint profusely and during his time was not well known.  Dutch and Flemish art dealers obviously wanted to get their hands on works of art that they could sell at a profit and thus they were always seeking works of popular artists.  To them, the important thing was to know which artists were popular at the time and thus which paintings would make them the most money for them.   The only way they could find this out was by looking at sales registers and seeing which paintings were fetching the greatest amounts.  So, as Vermeer was not so well known at the time, art dealers who had bought his paintings were known to have erased his signature from the work and substitute it with the name of a more popular artist of the same painting genre and so the name of Vermeer as an artist faded.  That was until Étienne-Joseph-Théophile Thoré came onto the scene, almost two centuries after the death of Vermeer.

Joseph-Théophile Thoré was a French art critic and political journalist who founded the newspaper, La Vraie République,  which was later banned by the government as being subversive.  Thoré eventually had to leave France and went into exile to Brussels where he stayed for ten years until he was granted amnesty in 1859.  Whilst he was in Brussels he became interested in the work of the Dutch artists such as Frans Hals, Fabritius but especially in the works of Vermeer and was mystified at the lack of Vermeer paintings.  He had seen, and was extremely impressed with Vermeer’s painting View of Delft,  which he saw when he visited the Mauritshuis of The Hague and he could not understand why such a great artist was completely unknown at this time.   Thoré researched into Vermeer and his paintings and over time proved that many paintings which had been attributed to other Dutch artists were in fact works by Vermeer.

The painting featured in My Daily Art Display today is The Art of Painting, sometimes known as Painter in His Studio and was painted by Vermeer in 1667.   Until 1860 it was thought to be a painting by the Dutch artist Pieter de Hooch but thanks to the work of Thoré it was eventually attributed to Vermeer.  This painting is alleged to be the artist’s favourite.   He would never sell it even when times got hard.  It was only later, after his death that his widow, Catharina, bequeathed it to her mother to avoid it being taken by creditors. 

In this painting we see the Master at his best with an exquisite style of painting in the way he shows the various effects on the people and the objects of the light which streams through the window.   In the painting we see just two figures, the artist, who some art historians would have us believe is Vermeer himself.  However others disagree and point to the fact that a year after his death his widow referred to the painting as de Schilderkonst (the Art of Painting) rather than referring to it as “My Husband the Artist”.  The other person in the painting is the artist’s subject, a girl dressed as the Muse of History, Clio.  She is wearing a laurel wreath, holds a trumpet and carries a book by Thucydides, the Greek historian.   We know it is her because of Cesar Ripa’s 16th century book entitled Iconologia overo Descrittione Dell’imagini Universali cavate dall’Antichità et da altri luoghi , which was a highly influential book about Egyptian, Greek and Roman emblems and had been translated into Dutch in 1644.

There are other fascinating things about this painting.  We see a heavy curtain pulled to one side like a theatre curtain being drawn allowing us to see the actors on stage.  The addition of the drawn heavy and ornate curtain was a way in which Vermeer was able to achieve perspective.  You can see that the drawn curtain partially covers both the trumpet and map and some of the objects on the table.  Does he want us to come forward and draw the curtain further aside so we can see more?  The curtain is almost real to our eyes and maybe Vermeer learnt this trick when he read the tale of the famous contest of Greek antiquity held between two renowned painters Parrhasius and Zeuxis to see who was the finest. This story was cited by Plinius the Elder from a Greek source in his Naturalis historia, which he wrote in 77 AD.   Zeuxis had produced a still life, so convincing that birds flew down from the sky to peck at the painted grapes. Parrhasius then asked Zeuxis to pull aside the curtain from his painting. When it was discovered that the curtain was a painted one and not a real one, Zeuxis was forced to concede defeat, for while his work had managed to fool the eyes of birds, Parrhasius had deceived the eyes of a human being!

An empty chair stands below the curtain.  Maybe we are being invited to sit down and watch the artist at work.  On the back wall is a map of the Seven United Provinces of the Netherlands which was published in 1636.   Although we have come to accept that north is always at the top of our present day maps, in those days West was at the top of their maps, south was to the left hand-side and north was to the right-hand side.  Look and see how the artist has depicted the map with a heavy vertical crease down the middle and by doing this is highlighting the division between the Protestant Netherlands to the north (right-hand side) and the Habsburg-controlled Flemish Catholic provinces in the south (left-hand side).

Now take a look at the chandelier which is high up at the centre of the painting  It in some ways reminds us of the one shown in van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait.  We can see surmounted upon it the double headed eagle which was a symbol of the Catholic Habsburg dynasty of Austria, who had once ruled Holland.  Vermeer was believed to have been a Catholic and some art historians believe that he painted the chandelier without candles as a statement that in Protestant Holland, Catholicism had been suppressed (snuffed out like a candle).   Vermeer paints this chandelier majestically showing in detail the light and shade of the various arms depending on how the light from the window strikes them.  Chandeliers like this one are seen in many paintings and cynics say that they are only there so that artists can demonstrate their painting prowess at being able to show them with various shades of light.

One interesting note with regards its provenance.  In 1940 the painting was bought by Adolf Hitler for his personal collection for 1.65 million Reichsmark.  Fortunately in 1945 it was rescued from the depths of a salt mine where it had been hidden.  Today it can be seen in the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna where it has hung since 1946.

It has been a long and interesting tale of a painting which I was fortunate enough to see when I visited Vienna late last year.  The Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna is definitely a place you should add to your “must visit” list.

Author: jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.

3 thoughts on “The Art of Painting by Johannes Vermeer”

    1. Many thanks for your comments Beth. Loved your blog on the van Eyck painting. There are so many interpreatations to this painting and loads of perceived symbolism. I often wonder what van Eyck would have made of all the interpretations and supposed symbolism!

      Have added your site to my list of links


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