Who ultimately owns a work of art: the buyer, the artist, the museum or the person appreciating it?
The Art of Painting by Johannes Vermeer (1666)
This story is about a man and a woman, alone together. The master’s servants had left his private quarters, leaving him to enjoy his beautiful new conquest in solitude. Night was falling across the bedroom, a crepuscular gloom which only served to intensify the rich palette of the canvas. Europe’s most powerful man closed in on his prize, running his fingers across the three-hundred year old pigment, weaving flirtatious circles around the pretty face at the picture’s centre.
She was dressed up as history, and was now in the iron possession of a man making history. Power was his life’s pursuit. He loved to subjugate things, bend them to his will. And this latest trophy was another sure-footed step on his mission to control the world’s finest culture. Together they would reside in a grandiose museum near his hometown, the artistic heartbeat of an empire that would rule the globe for a thousand years.
This is a painting about how audiences participate creatively in the interpretation of art. And it’s also a picture about ownership, about privacy, the role art plays in history and vice versa
Art had always been a cherished project. In his younger days, before he’d stamped arrogantly onto the world stage, he’d yearned to be a painter. And it was in part the cruel rejection of his work by the arbiters of taste in Vienna which had triggered his new career path, one which now saw him bestride Europe like a colossus, the figurehead of a remorseless chariot turned by the wheels of rage and injustice. Painting would play a different role now. No longer a livelihood but more a glorification of his supremacy, a reminder of what he could have been before destiny forced him to seize greater glories.
The date was November 1940. The location was the Berghof, a palatial retreat near Berchtesgarden in the Bavarian Alps. The man was Adolf Hitler. And the picture in his clutches was Johannes Vermeer’s The Art of Painting, which the Führer had purchased for 1.82 million reichmarks. Those are the facts. But it’s worth noting at this point that I’ve completely invented the scene of the dictator caressing the image. The choice is both an aesthetic and symbolic one. Because this is a painting about how audiences participate creatively in the interpretation of art. And it’s also a picture about ownership, about privacy, the role art plays in history and vice versa, and the mysteries of a seductive craft which forever eludes definition and control.
A voyeuristic experience
The first thing to say about this 17th century Dutch masterwork is that it’s classic Vermeer. All his stylistic hallmarks are there: the stillness, the domestic setting, the sense of peeking in on privacy, the milky daylight flooding in from the left. Yet it’s very unique among his work too: the only one in which he turns the lens onto his own livelihood. Complex symbolism and iconography make it more of an intellectual experience than an emotional one like The Lacemaker or Officer and Laughing Girl. And even when facing destitution at the end of his life, it’s the one picture Vermeer steadfastly refused to sell.
From a distance, we see a well-dressed man sitting at his easel painting a young lady’s portrait. Dominating the left side of the canvas is a curtain, pulled back by an unseen hand. The emotional atmosphere is voyeuristic, as if we’re enjoying a privileged eavesdrop of a maestro at work. The curtain has another insinuation too, imbuing the scene with a sense of theatricality, a tone underscored by the contrived positioning of the props.
Yet its true masterstroke lies in Vermeer’s subtle articulation of the limits of making, seeing and understanding works of art. The Art of Painting is true to its title in the way it deliberately draws attention to its own artifice.
The largest of these is the political map on the far wall, which shows the seventeen provinces of the Netherlands as they were thirty years before the picture was painted. The model is dressed in blue, awkwardly bearing a trumpet, laurel wreath and book, the signature accessories of Clio, the muse of history in Greek mythology. On the table is a death mask. But this is a picture that pulsates with life, Vermeer’s exceptionally vivid colours making the image feel more real than real itself.
Despite its painstaking naturalism, we only ever get part of this picture though, and it’s this sense of omission that makes it all the more powerful. On one level, The Art of Painting can be read as a sophisticated celebration of painting itself. Vermeer positions the artist as a well-to-do man (his luxury doublet), political commentator (the map), illustrator of history (Clio) and portrayer of the human condition (death mask).
Yet its true masterstroke lies in Vermeer’s subtle articulation of the limits of making, seeing and understanding works of art. The Art of Painting is true to its title in the way it deliberately draws attention to its own artifice. All the props in the picture are representations, synthetic recreations of actual things. The map, crinkled, worn and already out of date, reminds us power is temporal. The death mask is another variation on the same theme, as is the chandelier which shows the crest of the Habsburg Empire, a political entity in decline at the time the picture was painted.
Crafting your own narrative
The lady is a fiction too: we feel the pretence and discomfort of her unnatural pose. Only part of her will make it on to the artist’s portrait too, a picture within a picture that tells us art is only ever an edited, subjective view of reality, a subtext reinforced by the fact that we only glimpse part of the studio. Both painter and poser are wonderfully inscrutable too. We can’t see their eyes and must guess at what the man may have said to elicit that tantalising, coquettish look from his subject.
No other picture says so much about the open-endedness and dead ends of art, and no other picture quite has that sense of its creator being both present and absent, his back turned so he gives nothing away
In The Art of Painting, as in any painting for that matter, the onus is placed on the viewer to look, interpret and imagine. Absorbing the picture is a quintessential exercise in art appreciation, and a lesson in how we as audiences are coaxed into piecing symbols and images together, filling in the blanks to craft our own satisfying narrative. Maybe that’s why an empty chair is pulled up in the foreground, as Vermeer invites us to sit down and become part of the scene, an offer made all the more poignant by the fact that he kept it in his studio as his own enjoyment. For all its sense of disclosure, the ultimate meaning is remote, the domain of the artist, and we feel on the cusp of something we’ll never truly understand.
So it’s sweetly ironic The Art of Painting was eventually owned by a man who failed at art and tried to compensate by conquering. He would ultimately lose control of both picture and empire, transporting Vermeer’s work to the German salt mines of Altaussee as the net closed in on the Third Reich. There, it was recovered by the Monuments Men of the US Army and returned to the Austrian Government. Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum is its home today.Yet there is still a tussle over its ownership, with members of the Czernin family (which relinquished the picture to the Nazis) issuing legal requests for its return.
A futile dispute, perhaps. To me, The Art of Painting will only ever be owned by one man. No other picture says so much about the open-endedness and dead ends of art, and no other picture quite has that sense of its creator being both present and absent, his back turned so he gives nothing away. Maybe that’s what Vermeer intended all along. His family may have been forced to sell the property after his death, but he is still the only man in possession of its secrets. And my interpretation is just another subjective and mutable reading that will be displaced by time. As great art gets bigger we get smaller: a lesson every human eventually learns, even Hitler.
In that spirit, let me start where I began, with a retreat into the realm of personal invention. The man and woman are alone together, and always will be. I imagine the artist is sharing a joke with the lady at our expense, subtly mocking all the people who queue up to gawp at their private chemistry. The model lowers her gaze to the floor and can’t look us in the eye, even though she knows we wouldn’t have heard.
This tender exchange is immortalised on the canvas – a singular moment between two people never to be repeated or forgotten – and which serves as a gentle reminder that some secrets are best left unshared. And that we as voyeurs will forever be on the fringes, spellbound witnesses to an unspoken magic that reveals nothing except its own sublime sense of wonder.
An interactive study of The Art of Painting Essential Vermeer 2.0
Will Austria part with Hitler’s Vermeer? E. Randol Schoenberg, LA Opus
Ten Famous Pieces of Art Stolen by the Nazis Bryan Johnson, TopTenz