The Painting's Afterlife
Just before his death in 1845, Count Czernin, whose vast properties included lands in and around Vienna and Prague, built a picture gallery in his palace in Vienna. This collection was made available to the public, and over the years, the fame, stature, and value of The Art of Painting grew alongside Vermeer's reputation as one of the greatest masters of the Dutch Golden Age. The ensuing rise in the painting's value was, in fact, one of the contributing factors that led to its acquisition by Adolph Hitler in 1940. This story, and the subsequent legal activities prior to its acquisition by the Kunsthistorisches Museum some years later, is one of the most fascinating sagas in the art world during this troubled period of the twentieth century.
The story begins with the death of Count Franz Czernin (1857–1932), the great-grandson of the founder of the Czernin collections. A complicated legal situation developed at that time, for courts in both Prague and Vienna levied claims of jurisdiction over the Czernin estate. To avoid the looming conflict, Count Eugen Czernin (1892–1955) and his nephew, Count Jaromir Czernin (1908–1966), who were Franz's distant cousins and his heirs, agreed on 23 February 1933 to dissolve the estate. With one major exception, Eugen received as his share the entire art collection, which included such masterpieces as Albrecht Dürer's Portrait of a Clergyman and Titian's Doge Andrea Gritti, both now in the National Gallery of Art. The exception was Vermeer's The Art of Painting, of which Eugen received ownership of one-fifth, and Jaromir, four-fifths. The reason for this unusual distribution was the extraordinarily high value attached to the Vermeer. It was appraised at nearly 1 million schilling, while the entire remaining collection was valued at a little over 250,000 schilling.
Almost immediately after receiving his inheritance, Jaromir Czernin attempted to sell The Art of Painting. Among interested buyers was Andrew W. Mellon, who evidently offered $1 million for the painting in 1935. Although Czernin was aware that the sale of the painting contradicted the stipulations of the 1923 Austrian law for the protection of monuments, he hoped that his brother-in-law, Kurt Schuschnigg, then chancellor of Austria, would intervene. In view of the "nearly fanatical veneration" of the painting "in all art-interested circles" in Vienna, however, Schuschnigg refused permission for the painting's sale and export. Further legal restrictions preventing a sale abroad occurred in 1938 when a law for the protection of monuments specified that the entire Czernin art collection, including its Viennese palace, would be treated as a single entity.
Unperturbed, Count Jaromir Czernin believed he might find buyers within his country's borders, a possibility made more feasible after Austria was annexed to the German Reich. In the summer of 1939 his expectations were raised by the visit of the director of the Dresden picture gallery, Hans Posse. As Adolph Hitler's art agent, Posse had come because Hitler had expressed his personal interest in acquiring The Art of Painting. However, Hitler was unwilling to pay the 2 million reichsmark sought by Count Jaromir Czernin, and the painting remained unsold.
Later that fall, Czernin was approached by the Hamburg tobacco industrialist Philipp Reemtsma, who declared his intent to buy the painting for 1.8 million reichsmark. Reemtsma's request was supported by Hermann Göring himself. A telegram received by the office for the protection of monuments in Vienna, dated 8 December 1939, stated that "the General Fieldmarshall has given permission to sell The Art of Painting by Vermeer, now in the possession of Count Jaromir Czernin, to Mr. Philipp Reemtsma in Hamburg."
The sale was eventually blocked when the secretary of education, Friedrich Plattner, and the director of the central office for the protection of monuments, Herbert Seiberl, contacted the state chancery and asked for support to keep the Vermeer in Vienna. Their request was received positively. On 30 December 1939, a telegram arrived from the secretary of the Reich and head of the state chancery, Hans Heinrich Lammers, stating that the Führer wanted the painting to remain in the [Czernin] gallery and that "no decisions be made about the picture without his personal permission."
On 12 April 1940, Count Jaromir Czernin wrote to the state chancery to demand "a purchase by the state... in exchange for the lost sale to Reemtsma." Count Eugen Czernin, who was initially reluctant, gave his permission to sell the painting in September. After tough negotiations a price was finally agreed upon: Hitler granted Count Jaromir Czernin a reduced sales tax for the work and acquired the painting for 1.65 million reichsmark. On 11 October 1940 the director of the Kunsthistorisches Museum presented the work to the Führer at his residence in Munich. Count Jaromir Czernin wrote to Hitler on 20 November 1940 to express his appreciation for the Führer's acquisition, which he deemed "the most perfect and delightful solution." Czernin ended his note to Hitler by remarking: "I ask that you accept my sincere thanks. Wishing that this picture may bring you, my Führer, joy always, I greet you, my Führer, with the German salute, as your devoted Count Jaromir Czernin-Morzin."
During the winter of 1943/1944 Hitler transferred the painting to safety in the tunnels of the salt mines Altaussee. When the special service units of the American Army retrieved the works of art from the tunnels in spring 1945, Vermeer's painting, along with other works of the former "Hitler collection," was taken to the Central Collecting Point in Munich. The American authorities, General Mark W. Clark, Andrew C. Ritchie, and Colonel Theodore S. Paul, determined that the painting had been the personal possession of Adolph Hitler. On 17 November 1945, the Americans returned it to the Kunsthistorisches Museum for safekeeping. The Art of Painting was exhibited shortly thereafter at the Hofburg in Vienna with other recuperated works from Austrian state museums.
Although Count Eugen Czernin and his heirs did not ask for restitution of Vermeer's painting, Count Jaromir Czernin immediately registered his right of ownership at the Kunsthistorisches Museum. On 15 October 1945 he alleged that Hitler had pressured him into selling the painting for an "outright ridiculous price." On 21 January 1946 the state ministry for education refuted Czernin's claim, stating that "Count Jaromir Czernin sold the painting without undue force and can therefore no longer be considered the owner of the picture." In 1949 the highest commission for restitution ruled that Czernin's complaint was "completely unsubstantiated, indeed malicious." Nevertheless, during the early to mid-1950s Czernin continued in his attempts to claim restitution, each time being rejected.
A curious postscript to this story is that long after the courts had rebuffed his claims, Count Jaromir Czernin continued to consider himself the legal owner of the painting. Remarkably, in the fall of 1955, he offered the National Gallery of Art the opportunity to purchase this great masterpiece. In 1958, Vermeer's The Art of Painting was finally moved from temporary status into the permanent collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
|Preface||Art and History||The Painting's Afterlife|
|Vermeer of Delft||Painting and Illusionism||Bibliography|
|The Art of Painting||Technique and Conservation||Related Resources|