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), and may be carrying a book by Thucydides, according to Cesare Ripa's 16th century book on emblems and personifications titled Iconologia.
The double headed eagle, symbol of the Austrian Habsburg dynasty and former rulers of Holland, which adorns the central golden chandelier, may have represented the Catholic faith. Vermeer was unique in being a Catholic in a predominantly Protestant Holland. The absence of candles in the chandelier is also supposed to represent the suppression of the Catholic faith.
The map on the back wall has a rip that divides the Netherlands between the north and south. (West is at the top of the map, as was the custom.) The rip symbolizes the division between the Dutch Republic to the north and the Habsburg controlled provinces to the south. The map by Claes Jansz Visscher (Nicolaum Piscatorem) predates the painting and shows the earlier political division between the Union of Utrecht to the north, and the colonies to the south.
The mask lying on the table next to the artist is thought to be a death mask, depicting the ineffectiveness of the Habsburg monarch.
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 Dali's painting we can see the image of Vermeer viewed from his back re-created as a strange kind of table.