Passing through London on the way to Brussels for a few days that were to be focussed on 16th and 17th century Dutch and Flemish art, it seemed appropriate to visit the National Gallery to see the current exhibition, Vermeer and Music: The Art of Love and Leisure. A little amuse bouche for what was to come, we hoped. The exhibition is notable for bringing together the National Gallery’s two paintings by Vermeer – A Young Woman standing at a Virginal and A Young Woman seated at a Virginal – with Vermeer’s Guitar Player, currently on loan while Kenwood House is being renovated.
To these three paintings, the National Gallery have added two more by Vermeer – The Music Lesson from the Royal Collection, and a little-seen painting from a private collection in New York, Young Woman seated at a Virginal – alongside a small selection of Dutch genre paintings illustrating the importance of music in 17th-century Netherlands.
Music was one of the most popular themes in Dutch painting, and the exhibition explores how playing music was presented in art, and the symbolic significance attached to music. It’s a small exhibition (and none the worse for that) that focusses on the symbolism and allegory of music in such works, and how they represent music playing in varied settings – in family and small groups, and in intimate duets – each of which would have had different meanings or associations for viewers at the time. In portraits, a musical instrument or songbook might suggest the education or social position of the sitter. In scenes of everyday life, it might act as a metaphor for harmony, or a symbol of transience.
Alongside the canvases, the curators have displayed examples of 17th-century musical instruments that feature in the paintings, including virginals (a type of harpsichord), guitars and lutes.
There are only five Vermeer paintings in the exhibition, the rest of which comprises a small selection of Dutch genre paintings which also illustrate the importance of music in 17th-century bourgeois life. All but three of the paintings are from the National Gallery’s own collection, and though they’re interesting to look at, none of them display the same level of artistry as the Vermeers.
However, I thought the first painting in the presentation – a view of Delft with a musical instrument seller’s stall by Carel Fabritius painted in 1652 (above) – was arresting. It’s small – just 12 inches by six – but grabs your attention because of its exaggerated perspective and interesting details. In the foreground, a musical instrument seller with a viol da gamba and a lute sits at his street stall. Beyond, Fabritius has painted a view of a section of Vermeer’s home town of Delft. The gallery caption explains that it shows the corner of the Oude Langendijk and Oosteinde, looking roughly north west; in the centre is the Nieuwe Kerk and just to the left of it, in the distance, the town hall, both of which, the note observes, look much the same today.
Carel Fabritius was born to the family of a village schoolmaster and amateur artist, who personally gave his son his first lessons in drawing and painting. Between 1641 and 1643 Carel worked in Rembrandt’s workshop in Amsterdam, becoming Rembrandt’s most outstanding pupil. Today, his reputation rests on a handful of surviving paintings. Fabritius was a brilliant experimental artist, interested in perspective and illusionism. Contemporary sources say that he made perspective boxes, sometimes called peepshows – optical devices which enabled an artist to create a convincing illusion of interior (or, as here), exterior space.
Another fine painting is Pieter de Hooch’s A Musical Party in a Courtyard, an evening scene with the musical party in shadow in the foreground. You can tell it’s a de Hooch, though, by the way that the courtyard gateway frames the young man in in silhouette, with the street beyond.
Other paintings include the two above by Jan Steen and Gabriel Metsu, both of which reflect the association between playing music and flirtatious relations between bourgeois couples.
And so we arrive at the Vermeers. The National Gallery’s two paintings of women at the virginals (above) frame The Guitar Player, on loan from Kenwood House. The other three paintings by Vermeer are hung in close proximity, and together they look – well, what else but – absolutely superb. Sir Herbert Read defined the qualities in Vermeer’s paintings that appeal to a modern viewer as being design, colour and serenity – and all those characteristics are present in these images.
In the first painting the young woman is seated at a virginal, with a viola da gamba in the foreground resting with the bow placed between the strings. The virginal has a landscape painted on the inside of the lid, while the painting in the background is The Procuress by Dirck van Baburen. It’s not clear whether the subject of The Procuress is intended to have any bearing on the meaning of the work, though it is likely that a more general association between music and love is intended.
The second of the pair shows a richly dressed woman playing a virginal while standing. It’s a prosperous Dutch home with paintings on the wall, a marble-tiled floor, and a skirting of locally produced Delft blue and white tiles. The painting of Cupid on the wall may either refer to the idea of faithfulness to one lover or, in conjunction with the virginal, to the traditional association of music and love.
The National Gallery note for The Guitar Player states:
The stark simplicity of Vermeer’s depiction of a woman playing a guitar masks the extraordinary sophistication of his art. The asymmetrical composition is surprisingly modern, and works to draw us in to the scene. Yet Vermeer intentionally blurred the strokes of his brush, rendering the scene elusive, as if seen through a dreamlike haze.
In a case nearby is displayed an exquisite guitar, just like the one depicted in the painting.
On the left of The Guitar Player is The Music Lesson, from the Royal Collection, in which a young woman with her back to us plays the virginal as a young man looks on.
This is from Arthur Wheelock’s assessment of the painting in his book, Jan Vermeer:
Both figures are quiet and statuesque, as though the music were measured and restrained. Indeed, this painting is one of the most refined works in Vermeer’s oeuvre. In it, figures, musical instruments, picture, mirror, table, tile patterns, and chairs, however realistically presented, are conceived as patterns of colour and shape. Such abstract design principles are generally associated with the twentieth century. One cannot approach this work, however, without realizing that Vermeer calculated his compositional elements every bit as carefully as did Mondrian. The pattern of the roof beams, the repetition of black shapes on the back wall, the position of the table, chairs, and pitcher have all been painstakingly planned.
In this work, Vermeer actually gave us a clue that the scene was posed. We can vaguely perceive the shape of his easel and perhaps the artist’s box in the mirror (middle right). Vermeer’s implied presence thus gives the painting a different character from those in which the figures seem to exist in their own personal world. It makes the scene somewhat colder and more calculated. At the same time, however, it makes us aware of the intellect that went into its creation. However calculated the composition of this painting, it could not succeed without Vermeer’s sensitive handling of light and colour. Light floods the wall near the windows, but gently looses its force as it falls away from them. Shadows of objects, such as the mirror, are modulated because the light comes from different sources. Colours are also subtly adjusted according to the nature of the light that falls upon them. The letters of the inscription on the lid of the clavecin are ochre on the left of the girl but blue on her right. Similarly, the leading in the rear window is painted in ochres, but that in the adjacent window, against which the sky is seen, is blue.
The last painting is another one that depicts a young woman seated at a virginal, a rarely seen work from a private collection. Some critics have suggested that this is a lesser work, when compared to the other four. Yet it shares with those the same concern with the effects of light – what Julian Bell, in The Mirror of the World, calls ‘his flawless fabric of light’ – that make Vermeer’s paintings so intoxicating. It’s a miniature study of lighting effects – the glimmer on the edge of the music desk, the dim reflection of the musician’s arms in the polished surface of the virginal’s case.
As well as supplementing the art works with examples of contemporary musical instruments like those in the paintings, every hour there are short musical performances by members of the Academy of Ancient Music. We listened while two musicians played short pieces on viola da gamba and harsichord, including a Capriccio by Handel. The National Gallery has uploaded three videos to YouTube that provide more background to the exhibition, with some examples of the music played.
Exhibition Insight: Vermeer and Music
In a short introduction, exhibition curator Betsy Wieseman explains how Vermeer’s musical subjects explore variations on a similar theme – in much the same way that a musician might – and why music was such an important part of society in the Dutch Golden Age.
Exhibition Insight: Music and Painting in the Dutch Golden Age
Betsy Wieseman, the curator of ‘Vermeer and Music: The Art of Love and Leisure, and experts from the AAM explore how music was used by painters as a metaphor for harmony. This could be harmony amid family members, political harmony or harmony between lovers. Music was a major part of life in the 17th century, not only in churches and taverns but in people’s homes. A lack of recorded music meant that it existed only in the moment it was created; a musical painting could serve not only as a reminder of good times but also of the transience of life.
Exhibition Insight: Vermeer: Painter of Music
Betsy Wieseman and members of the Academy of Ancient Music discuss the symbolism present in some of Vermeer’s best-known works, with musical accompaniment from members of the Academy. Wieseman examines the relationship between Vermeer’s paintings of women with musical instruments from 1670 — 1672 and the music of the period in this film produced to accompany the exhibition.
Vermeer was not a prolific artist with only 36 paintings agreed to have been produced during his lifetime. Although it is unknown whether Vermeer himself was a musician in any way, three of his paintings in particular; ‘Woman Standing at a Virginal’, ‘Woman Seated at a Virginal’ and ‘The Guitar Player’, see him consciously addressing variations around the same theme; in the same way that a musician might.
- Alistair Sook reviews Vermeer and Music: Telegraph video
- Vermeer and Music: exhibition review by Brian Sewell (Evening Standard)
- Vermeer and Music: exhibition review by Laura Cumming (Observer)
- Vermeer and Music: exhibition review by Richard Egarr, Music Director of the Academy of Ancient Music
- Vermeer and Music: National Gallery resources
- Vermeer: Women, Secrets and Silence