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Around the galleries

Vermeer’s musical riches

— September 2013

Associated media

Johannes Vermeer (1632-75), A Young Woman seated at a Virginal  (c.1670-2) © The National Gallery, London

At the National Gallery, Susan Grange finds celebrations, performances, lessons, burgeoning love, pensive reveries, rowdy groups, solitary scenes, still life; a kaleidoscope of images but one thing in common – music.

Of the 36 surviving paintings by the Delft painter Johannes Vermeer (1632–75), 12 illustrate musical themes or depict a musical instrument. Some estimates suggest that around 12 per cent of all paintings in the 17th-century Dutch Republic refer to music with the figure rising to 30 per cent in the case of genre painters (artists who produced scenes of everyday life).

The National Gallery's summer exhibition revolves around five Vermeer paintings, all of which involve music. The National Gallery's own two works of ladies at a harpsichord, the Dulwich Gallery's A Woman Playing a Harpsichord, Kenwood House's The Guitar Player, and a loan from a private New York collection of a young woman seated at a virginal, form this core group of Vermeer's works that include music. Other works in the show provide a variety of paintings by Dutch artists, including Jan Steen, Gabriel Metsu and Pieter de Hooch, which illustrate the multiplicity of images illustrating the importance of music in 17th-century Dutch art.

Paintings aside, the exhibition also features a fascinating array of beautifully crafted instruments of the period. Visitors can compare 17th-century harpsichords, guitars and lutes with their depictions in the paintings themselves. Examples of songbooks, frequently depicted in the paintings, are also on view.

Expression of the links between art (sight) and music (hearing) have provided a challenge for artists in all eras but what inspired Vermeer and his contemporaries to explore this theme in so much depth? Music of many styles permeated all levels of this Protestant society in the Dutch Republic as the paintings bear witness, but with no monarch and no powerful church patrons its use was of a more bourgeois character than found in the more hierarchical  societies in many other countries at that time.

In a society enjoying great prosperity with an ‘embarrassment of riches’, the tactile pleasures of beautifully crafted instruments themselves challenged artists to reproduce them in surroundings of rich furnishings and prosperous inhabitants. At the same time they evoked the talent and culture of bourgeois citizens, with allusions to books, art works, food and drink. In scenes of the lower social groups music might suggest the hearty enjoyment and contentment of the general populace. Overall, music can act as a metaphor for harmony. Nonetheless, as an antidote to the portrayal of such cultural contentment and prosperity, the painter Jan Steen used music in a number of his works to warn that too much enjoyment of the good things of life can lead to social and moral chaos.

Music and the art of love were a frequent theme in 17th-century Dutch art. In The Music Lesson by Vermeer, the young lady's head is bent over the keyboard but in the mirror above, her head is shown turning towards her young male music teacher. In Steen's A Young Woman playing a Harpsichord to a Young Man the man slouches over the instrument staring at the young lady, who is trying to keep her decorum while playing. In the background a young boy approaches carrying a enormous lute, suggesting – perhaps none too subtly – the young man's desires. Lutes were often used as phallic symbols in Dutch art.

Music is often used as a metaphor for the transience of life. As sound quickly disappears so life rapidly passes. In this show the still life works of Steenwyck and Treck explore this vanitas theme.

Paintings, instruments and songbooks aside, there is more. Visitors will not be obliged to view the exhibition in silence as, on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, in the exhibition space itself the Academy of Ancient Music is performing works of music from the period. 

The scientific research into the works on show has not been neglected. The final room of the exhibition reveals some of the findings of experts as they have studied Vermeer's paintings and their  results suggest that Vermeer's technique was the most inventive of any artist of the time.

A delightful accompanying book is available containing an extended essay about the exhibition, detailed catalogue notes with colour illustrations of the works, a very helpful glossary of musical instruments and a list of further reading.  At the exhibition itself there is an accompanying film giving information about the exhibition and its themes, which can also be viewed on the National Gallery website.

With such visual, aural, educational, scientific and cultural experiences this is truly an 'embarrassment of riches' all round.


Susan Grange
Independent art historian

Editor's notes

‘Vermeer and Music: The Art of Love and Leisure’ is at The National Gallery, London until 8 September 2013
Simon Schama’s book, The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age(1987) – the book that made Schama’s name – explores the art and culture of the Dutch Republic in the 17th century.

A film has been made about the pictures featured in this exhibition, which will go on worldwide cinema release on 10 October 2013. For details see the National Gallery website

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