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Hitler and Vermeer: The Battle for “The Art of Painting” Heats Up in Vienna

artofpainting-012710In Vienna, Austria, today, the Kunsthistorisches Museum unveiled a masterful restoration of Joannes Vermeer’s legendary masterwork, “The Art of Painting” (c.1666, left). More than just an example of one of time’s greatest painters portraying the practice of his own craft while at the height of his powers, the work is a political and historical hot potato—a national treasure of a country that did not produce it, kept and acquired through ethically questionable means. See, in 1938, an Austrian named Jaromir Czernin, who had inherited “The Art of Painting”, was looking to sell, but laws enacted by the Nazi government, which had recently annexed the country, forbade the sale of artworks abroad. Nonetheless, Czernin was approached by a wealthy buyer, a former painter with a taste for masterpieces. His name was Adolf Hitler.

From the mid 1930s all through the war, Hilter and his associates in the Nazi party embarked on one of the largest art-collection projects in history. Through hook, and more often, by crook, the Nazis made a game of art collecting, amassing much of Europe’s treasures and either filling their villas with them or, when the war turned against Germany, secreting them in salt mines or other hideaways.
Such was the fate of Czernin, who claimed that he sold “The Art of Painting” under duress. Approached first by Reich Marshal Hermann Göering, Czernin was already feeling undue pressure to sell. The fact that his wife was half Jewish and a subsequent detainment by the Gestapo obviously made him a very motivated seller. From there, the work joined another Vermeer, “The Astronomer”, in the Altaussee salt mines, a depository of thousands of Europe’s treasures eventually liberated by Allied troops at war’s end. Initially, “The Art of Painting” was supposed to return to Czerin, but the Austrian government claimed he had sold it in good faith and it has hung in the Kunsthistorisches ever since. Czerin died still suing for the return of the painting, a cause that his heirs have taken up and expect to win now that the work is receiving new public attention and attitudes toward repatriating artworks have changed (note that there are similar fights over Van Gogh currently). The Austrian courts are mulling a decision, with a final verdict expected later this year.
Whether right or wrong, that means that now is the only time you can guarantee yourself a viewing of Vermeer’s masterwork. The exhibition Vermeer: The Art of Painting runs through April 25.
To walk through Vermeer’s life (and his native Delft), pre-order a copy of “Art + Travel Europe: Step into the Lives of Five Famous Painters” today. We guarantee no legal hassles.
Hitler’s Vermeer, Pride of Vienna Museum, Faces Nazi-Era Claim [Bloomberg]

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