Johannes Vermeer Paints The Art of Painting
Few paintings in the entire history of art seem as perfect as this one.
Vermeer's extraordinary technical mastery, the crystal-clear light which illuminates the scene, the purity of the volumes and the unique psychological distancing of the figures are all characteristics of his work that here reach an extraordinary level of refinement.
Paradoxically, this painting is exceptional within the artist's oeuvre, both in its allegorical subject and for being one of the largest of all his paintings. We do not know what motivated Vermeer to produce it, but his family's efforts to retain it at a period of economic difficulty indicate that it was a picture of which the artist and his descendents were particularly proud.
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.