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Vermeer & the Art of Painting

Presented on the occasion of the Vermeer exhibit at the
National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.,
November 12, 1995 to February 11, 1996

Note: This is an excerpt from the excellent book "Vermeer & the Art of Painting", by Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr. It is just one of the seventeen Vermeer works described by Mr. Wheelock. Do yourself a favor and check out the rest of his wonderful book.

The Music Lesson
c. 1662-1665
Oil on canvas
74.6 x 64.1 cm
Royal Collection, St. James' Palace, London

(To download an 860 x 971, 139kb JPEG of "The Music Lesson", click on the painting)
The virginal was an instrument greatly admired by the Dutch upper class during the mid-seventeenth century. The Iyrical yet restrained tones that resonated from its keyboard underscored the refinement in taste that accompanied the increase of wealth and influence enjoyed by this society. The music written for the virginal, by (among others) Constantijn Huygens (1596-1687), was measured in its rhythms, and nuances of timing were carefully conceived and executed. The lyrics that often accompanied the music extolled love, both human and spiritual, and the solace that could be gained from it. The sentiments the music and Iyrics expressed and the role they played within the upper echelons of Dutch society frequently were inscribed on the instruments themselves. The text on the lid of the virginal in The Music Lesson reads: "Mvsica letitiae co[me]s medicina dolor[vm]" (Music: companion of joy, balm for sorrow).

Of the many paintings from the period that feature the virginal, none captures as well as Vermeer's the balance and harmony of its music or the elegance and refinement of the world to which it belonged. Every object in Vermeer's spacious interior is as carefully considered and identified as the notes in a song by Huygens, yet these independent entities are likewise carefully orchestrated to be brought together into a whole whose mood is based upon a firm mathematical and geometric foundation.

The instrument that is at the focus of Vermeer's painting can be identified as one made by the famed Antwerp instrument maker Andreas Ruckers (1579-1654). Its large scale and the elaborately painted decorative elements covering its various surfaces mark it as one of Ruckers' finest productions. The painter clearly admired the craftsmanship with which it was made and recorded its exquisite detail with care.

That Vermeer gave such prominence to the virginal and that a family expended the vast sum that such an outstanding instrument would have required indicate the importance of this instrument in Dutch society. To judge from the number of depictions of maidens seated or standing at such instruments from the 1650s and 1660s by Frans van Mieris, Jan Steen, Gerard ter Borch, Gerard Dou, Gabriel Metsu, and Vermeer, a young woman's proficiency in this art was greatly esteemed. A music master was often retained to instruct the young woman. Once having mastered the art she would perform solo or as part of a duet or trio, usually within a domestic setting. Indeed, aside from being an artistic form of expression suitable for a young woman, proficiency at the clavecin, virginal, or harpsichord also served a social function, for it facilitated polite contact between the sexes.

Artists were fascinated with the nature of that contact, and exploited the theme of the music lesson or concert as a vehicle for depicting the sensuality as well as the social acceptability of a woman playing such an instrument. Sometimes, as in Jan Steen's Harpsichord Lesson in the Wallace Collection, the music master's attentions to the attractive pupil are seen as lecherous, but usually a spirit of sensual harmony pervades the scene that is not out of keeping with the elevated ideals inscribed on the instruments. In Steen's Music Master, c. 1659, for example, the man's attentive attitude conveys an ease and familiarity with the woman, yet nothing in his demeanor or in her upright posture suggests that they are disrespectful of the elevated sentiments plainly visible on the cover of the harpsichord: "Soli Deo Gloria." Indeed, rather than a music master, it seems more probable that the man is a suitor who, moved by the woman's beauty and that of her music, feels in perfect harmony with his beloved.

A comparable feeling of harmony pervades Vermeer's Girl Interrupted at Her Music from the early 1660s, where an attentive gentleman assists a young woman with her sheet music. A painting of Cupid on the rear wall affirms that the contact between the two is amorous; the relationship of this image of Cupid to an emblem by Otto van Veen, which stresses the importance of taking but one lover, establishes the moral tenor of the scene. Similarly, the man who is so transfixed by the music in The Music Lesson is almost certainly not a music master, and his presence must be otherwise explained. He is an aristocratic gentleman, perhaps a suitor, dressed in a conservative black costume that is accented by a white collar and elegant white cuffs. He stands resting a hand on his staff, while a gold-knobbed sword hangs from the white sash that crosses his chest.

Music was often used metaphorically to suggest the harmony of two souls in love. In one of his most familiar emblems, for example, Jacob Cats depicted a lute player in an interior before an open window. Beside him lies another lute, unused. As Cats explained in his text, the emblem "Qvid Non Sentit Amor" means that the resonances of one lute echo onto the other just as two hearts can exist in total harmony even if they are separated. Steen's painting probably incorporates a similar sentiment, for in the background of the scene a young servant brings the man at the clavecin a lute, an indication of the harmony shared by the pair. The presence of the bass viol on the floor in Vermeer's Music Lesson may serve a similar thematic function.

Even more directly related to Vermeer's painting is the emblem "Zy blinckt, en doet al blincken" (it shines and makes everything shine) in P. C. Hooft's Emblemata Amatoria. The emblem contains two vignettes, Cupid holding a mirror reflecting sunrays in the foreground, and a man standing near a woman playing a keyboard instrument in the background. The accompanying verses explain that just as a mirror reflects the sunlight it receives, so does love reflect its source in the beloved. What love one possesses comes not from oneself, but from the beloved. Although the image of Cupid with the mirror depicts quite literally the message of Hooft's verses, the figures in the background - the man looking with rapt attention at his beloved, whose music has so moved him - expand upon them metaphorically. The compositional relationships between the emblem and The Music Lesson suggest that Vermeer had a similar concept in mind when conceiving his work. Not only do the figures in the background of the emblem bear a striking resemblance to those in The Music Lesson, the emphasis on the mirror in the emblem parallels the prominence given to the woman's reflection in the mirror in Vermeer's painting.

Given the similarity in theme between Steen's and Vermeer's paintings, the differences in their artistic approaches are remarkable. Steen emphasized the narrative elements of the scene by allowing the viewer to look over the harpsichord player's shoulder and watch her hands playing the keys. The music book can be seen and the figures' expressions studied. The room around them is undefined so that primary attention is placed on their relationship, although the angle at which Steen placed the harpsichord does lead the eye back to the doorway and to the servant bringing the lute down the stairs. Vermeer, in contrast, virtually eliminated the narrative. The woman is seen directly from behind. Her hands and music are obscured from the viewer; her face, partially turned toward the gentleman, is only dimly visible in the mirror hanging before her. Thus Vermeer emphasized less the specifics of the woman and her music than the abstract concepts her music embodies: joy, harmony in love, healing, and solace. Vermeer seems to have rethought the pictorial tradition within which Steen worked by transforming the allusions to love into something more universal and less moralizing.

Vermeer's message, delivered in measured cadences rather than in a compelling narrative, partakes of the total environment in which the figures exist rather than being focused on their attitudes and activities. For Vermeer, the room's geometric character, its furnishings, and the light that pervades it establish the essential framework for conveying the nature of the relationships of the figures at the clavecin. The theme of healing and solace, for example, is reinforced through the painting partially visible on the rear wall. Just enough of its image is visible to identify it as a depiction of Cimon and Pero, a story taken from Valerius Maximus that is better known as Roman Charity. Other elements in the room also reinforce the painting's thematic content, including the white pitcher on the tapestry-covered table in the immediate foreground of this deeply recessive interior space.

Brilliantly illuminated by the sun, this pure white, elegantly proportioned ceramic pitcher on a sparkling silver platter is an object whose meaning has never been explained. A similar pitcher occurs in both The Glass of Wine in the Gemaldegalerie, Berlin and The Girl with the Wine Glass in the Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, Brunswick. In each instance Vermeer has depicted it as the vessel from which the wine has been poured, and thus as part of the sensual, and hence negatively intended, component of the composition. An even more explicit example of the sensual implications of the wine pitcher is evident in Frans van Mieris' Oyster Meal, where it is placed in conjunction with a platter of oysters, which were commonly viewed as an aphrodisiac. It could be argued that such associations exist here as well. Nevertheless, its context is essentially different from the ones seen in the Berlin and Brunswick paintings. Here it exists independent of a genre context. No glasses are visible, no figures are near. The beauty and purity of its starkly illuminated form gives it an almost sacramental character, reminiscent of the ewer and basin found in early Netherlandish scenes of the Annunciation. The pitcher reinforces the positive thematic message of the painting. Whether seen as a vessel containing the cleansing freshness of water or the nourishment of wine, its function parallels rather than contrasts with those symbolized by the Roman Charity and the woman at the virginal.

Continue to Part Two
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