Johannes Vermeer, The Art of Painting


(lively music) Steven: We’re in the
Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, and we’re looking
at Johannes Vermeer’s The Art of Painting, which is a painting of a painter painting a painting. Beth: It is, indeed. He’s painting a model,
who is going to transform into the Muse of History, so she is Clio. We can identify her by what
she holds: the trumpet and the book, and also the
laurel leaves on her head. She’s an allegorical figure. We might think about the
Statue of Liberty, for example. Steven: That idea of a painting’s power to transform is actually
cental to this image. Beth: Doesn’t it feel as though we have a privileged view into the studio? Look at the curtain
that’s been drawn back, that takes up the top
quarter of the painting. We’re looking at a scene that we don’t normally get to see. Steven: If you look at
that curtain that’s been drawn back, there’s a kind of
interesting optical quality. It’s a little bit out of focus. It shimmers and shines, but the points of light are a little too big. It’s as if the entire
painting doesn’t resolve until you get to what the artist himself is looking at: that is, his model. That’s where we start to
see a clarified focus. It’s almost as if the
painting has a depth of field, so much so that some art
historians have suggested that perhaps he was
using a camera obscura. That is, a kind of simple,
early camera without film, to begin to process the
transformation of the three dimensional onto
the two dimensional plain. Beth: The subject always,
with Vermeer, is light. We don’t see the source of the light, which is behind that curtain,
but the light filters onto the chandelier above,
onto the Muse of History, onto the objects on the
table, across the floor, on the artist’s stockinged
feet, on the tiles, catching the brass tacks on that upholstered chair on the right. I mean, we can follow its pathway. Steven: I especially love
the way the light catches the ridging on the map itself and creates these highlights and shadows. Beth: And look at the artist. He’s dressed up, too. He’s dressed up the model,
but he’s wearing something fancier than the artist
would traditionally wear in the studio, this black
vest that has these openings and slits in it, and this really nice hat. Steven: And the bright orange leggings. Beth: This is an image that
was obviously important to Vermeer: it’s larger
than most of his work; the artist in it is dressed up. It was still in his possession
at the time of his death. His wife actually tried to
save it from his creditors who were after his estate,
which was heavily in debt. This is an important painting. Steven: It reminds me actually of the painting Las Meninas by Velazquez, where the artist paints a self portrait. In that case, we can see
his face, but he’s dressed in a very formal manner,
in a way that is meant to place the artist within society, Beth: Exactly. and dignify the profession. Vermeer paints in such a
careful and defined way that we might actually
look in, past the frame of the canvas, and think to ourselves that we’re actually looking into this room. The fact that Vermeer has
depicted an artist painting reminds us that this is
simply a construction, that this is an artificial image. Beth: Ironically, this
painting has a very … Steven: Complex. Beth: Complex and disturbing
history, in some way. Steven: Vermeer’s modest reputation really dissipated in the 18th Century. He was forgotten. But the painting reemerges
in the early 19th Century, and somebody added the signature of an artist who was better known. Beth: Luckily, though, a
Vermeer scholar, later in the 19th Century, recognized
it as a real Vermeer. Ever since then, Vermeer’s reputation has only increased. Steven: By the time we get
to the early 20th Century, this painting is wildly valuable, but the owner tries to sell it. The American financier,
Mellon, tries to buy it, and because of export
restrictions, laws that did not allow for important
historical or artistic works to be let out of the country,
that sale was stopped. Beth: The person who does end up buying it is Adolf Hitler. Steven: Hitler loved art. He wanted to be an
artist early in his life. Beth: He amassed an
enormous collection of art. Their idea was to make a museum of all the great masterpieces
of European art. Steven: The painting
was delivered to Hitler, at his private residence in
Munich, and it stayed there until it was packed away for
safekeeping during the war. Beth: At the end of the war, the painting was recovered by the Allied Forces and returned to the museum in Vienna. It’s interesting to me that a painting that is about the role of art and history, and the role of the
artist in making history has such a complex and
disturbing history itself. (lively music)

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