RA Magazine Summer 2013
Issue Number: 119
Preview: Vermeer at the National Gallery
An intimate show brings Vermeer’s paintings to life with live music of their era. Fiona Maddocks reports
First the instruments: voluptuous gourd-shaped lutes, an ivory-inlaid guitar, a set of virginals so rich in detail you can tell their maker. Then the musicians: a coy singer, performers for a private concert or a student whose music lesson is interrupted – the painting streaked through with a mood of surprise. Through the silence of these images Vermeer paints music whose vital intimacy we can only imagine.
Vermeer’s A Young Woman standing at a Virginal, c.1670-72. © The National Gallery, London. Bringing together two art forms central to Dutch life in the 17th century, the National Gallery’s ‘Vermeer and Music: The Art of Love and Leisure’ presents five paintings by Vermeer (1632-75), portraying female musicians, together with around two dozen paintings of the period, instruments and song books. Among the Vermeer highlights are The Guitar Player (c.1672) – on loan from English Heritage – and The Music Lesson (1662-63) from the Royal Collection. Works by Pieter de Hooch, Jan Steen and others will also be displayed.
To bring these ghostly musical subjects to life, players from the renowned Academy of Ancient Music will perform music from the period – including work by the Dutch composer Jan Pieterzoon Sweelinck – in the gallery over three days each week.
Often depicting a young woman at her instrument, gazing directly out of the picture towards us, Vermeer conveys music in all its guises, social, sexual and metaphorical. Whether as suggestion of harmony or symbol of transience, sign of learning or insinuation of eroticism, Vermeer’s music can reflect any human concern, from the base to the divine.
The National Gallery’s two Vermeers, A Young Woman standing at a Virginal, and A Young Woman seated at a Virginal (both c.1670-72) feature the square baroque keyboard instrument, similar to a harpsichord, which was as common a household object as the upright piano two centuries later.
Those depicted by Vermeer in fact look more like muselars, a form of virginal made only in northern Europe, which have the keyboard to the right of centre (visible in both paintings), a different plucking mechanism and a heavier tone. In the view of one observer in the late Baroque period, these instruments ‘grunt in the bass like young pigs’. Having a less agile response, they tended to be used for simple accompaniments to songs rather than as virtuosic solo instruments.
So music might not have been uppermost in the minds of Vermeer’s celebrated sitters. They may have longed for that interruption, amorous or otherwise, as the painter arrived with his easel to save them from plodding bass lines and endow them with immortality.
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