VERMEER, Johannes
(b. 1632, Delft, d. 1675, Delft)

The Art of Painting (detail)

Oil on canvas
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

The artist is seen from behind, seated at his easel, painting a model who is dressed as Clio, the Muse of History. In Cesare Ripa's handbook Iconologia, available to Vermeer in a Dutch translation published in 1644, Clio is described as a girl with a crown of laurel, symbolizing Fame, and holding a trumpet and a volume of the Greek historian Thucydides, symbolizing History. The artist is dressed in a deliberately archaic, 'historical' costume. Vermeer's meaning is that History should be the artist's inspiration. Prominent on the wall behind the artist's model, and painted with remarkable precision and delicacy, is a map of the United Provinces. The projection is south to north rather than the west-east projection of modern maps: in the border are views of the principal towns. The painter, Vermeer is saying, will bring fame not just to his country but also to his town. In Vermeer's case, he will bring fame to Delft.

Vermeer made it clear that he was painting an allegorical representation of the studio by the prominence he gave to the curtain which is drawn aside on the left as if to reveal a staged scene. The title is almost certainly Vermeer's own. In the inventory made after his death, the artist's widow referred to the picture as De Schilderkonst, 'The Art of Painting'.