Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) lived in an almost permanent state of financial desperation.

As a young man in the Netherlands in 1653, he was unable to support his own apprenticeship, barely managing to scrape by as he taught himself to paint.

At the age of twenty-one he married Catharina Bolnes, but the newlyweds were so strapped for cash that they couldn't raise the funds to leave Catharina's paternal home - most humbling for young Vermeer in those times.

They remained there for the majority of their adult lives, but this did not inhibit the couple from producing no less than eleven children, all of whom remained under this one roof.

Vermeer's decision to pursue life as an artist was no easy one, particularly within his district of the Netherlands.

The area around Delft was simply teeming with painters, all of whom seemed to be offering the newly prosperous bourgeoisie the same product - images of everyday life, or specifically commissioned portraits of genteel families.

Competition within this niche was ferocious, and artists had to adapt themselves into becoming salesmen, even inviting potential collectors to watch them in action in their studios.

On one such occasion, when a wealthy French diplomat visited Vermeer, the artist's attempt at marketing himself was poorly received; unfortunately he had no work to present to the potential benefactor at his home.

Much to the irritation of the diplomat, Vermeer instead had to lead him to the backroom of a local baker shop to showcase some of his paintings. The artist did not receive a commission, nor make a sale.

From this moment Vermeer was adamant that such an opportunity would not pass him by again.

He drew upon all his skills to create his exquisite The Art of Painting, one of the most accomplished examples of realist mastery ever achieved.

Despite his poverty Vermeer never sold this picture - it resonated so personally for him. Should a rich patron pass his way again, Vermeer would not be caught off guard - if this work was on show it would make a fine demonstration of his skill.

The painting gives us a glimpse into the idealised daily life of the artist, with Vermeer portraying the figure of the ancient Greek muse Clio; believed to be modelled by his wife Catharina, she is strikingly beautiful, coyly avoiding the gaze of the viewer.

The artist is seen dressed in great finery, somewhat fanciful considering Vermeer's almost constant state of financial struggle.

The painter's house is also immaculately presented, the marble tiles gleaming, the velvet curtains softly framing this still, crystallised moment in time.

Vermeer is both highlighting his talent as a painter, and also glamourising his lifestyle in order to impress potential patrons.

There are no historical records of Vermeer's studio practices, though it is clear that he would endlessly experiment with different techniques to create the effects of natural illumination.

His paint is applied thinly in virtually translucent layers, and Vermeer would generally confine strong colour to restricted areas of his composition.

In general his palette was suffused, with subtle shifts in tonal values, particularly in the shadows.

The tranquil majesty of Vermeer's painting would cruelly ultimately betray it - becoming the victim of a fate that could never have been predicted.

In 1675, the artist died suddenly at the age forty-three, leaving Catharina and his children destitute.

At his death his wealth was measured not in property, land or money, but simply in the number of children's coats the family had in its possession. Not even the baker's bill could be settled.

Yet Catharina made every effort to conceal the existence of The Art of Painting from debt collectors despite the family's state of financial crisis, once again demonstrating the profound emotional relevance of the work to Vermeer.

When the work re-emerged during the late 19th century, it was ironically credited to Vermeer's rival, Pieter de Hooch, in order to increase its value.

Realism and Impressionism were becoming the most dominant art practices, and by the time The Art of Painting was finally identified as a true Vermeer, his reputation had blossomed.

After the picture was displayed in its new home in Vienna in 1845 it gradually came to be considered 'truly part of the city's cultural identity'.

However, when Austria was annexed by Adolf Hitler in 1938, to its new masters the painting symbolised the representation of victory transcending through time.

Surely, they surmised, the eternal laurel leaves epitomised the Nazi dreams of a Thousand Year Reich?

Hitler even purchased the treasured work for his own collection at a knock-down price, moving it to a vast basement in Munich, alongside some eight thousand other artworks.

The piece was ultimately intended for one of the gargantuan museums Hitler was planning, but following the heavy bombing of Munich in 1943, Hitler moved this entire collection into hidden salt mines.

When discovered in April 1945 the allies found tunnel upon tunnel, some a mile deep, containing a seemingly unending array of masterpieces.

The Art of Painting rested amongst them, to be discovered in pristine condition. It is now of course housed more serenely in its final home at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

Vermeer, perhaps more than any painter, is revered for the sheer precision of his paintings, the deeply atmospheric calm they always seems to convey, and the enigmatic stillness of his subjects.

He is certainly far more than 'the master of light' as he is seen by some observers.

In truth, his sublime pictures are amongst the most entirely perfect creations of mankind.