oil on canvas
20 1/4 x 18 1/4 in.
Kenwood, English Heritage as Trustees of the Iveagh Bequest
1981, p. 150
The Guitar Player is one of the most beautiful examples of Vermeer's late style.The crispness of his image and the radiant colors give the painting a glowing quality. Vermeer, in his paintings of the 1670s, was no longer concerned with describing specific textures of materials. Brushstrokes became freer and more expressive than in his earlier works as he emphasized patterns of color rather than textures. Vermeer modeled the girl's dress and jacket, for example (right), with sharply defined planes of color, The subtle modulations in folds and contours that he formerly created by applying glazes over opaque paints are no longer evident.
The face also is treated differently. Its expression is outward and not self-contained. The nuances of shading that suggested qualities of character and personality have been replaced by distinctly separate areas of light, and shade. The interest in pattern is evident in the ringlets of hair silhouetted against the wall.
In addition to the changed emphasis of his painting technique, Vermeer also built this composition on a different principle. As in he drew the focus of his composition away from the center of the painting. The girl is placed so far to the left that her arm is cut by the edge. Light falls to the left and a landscape hangs behind the girl on the back wall. The off-center composition is further emphasized by the direction of the girl's glance. Vermeer probably was reacting against the balanced, contained quality of his earlier work.
One might suspect that a pendant existed which would have balanced this painting, but a document seems to provide evidence to the contrary. In January, 1676, slightly more than a month after Vermeer's death, his widow, Catharina Bolnes, appeared before the notary in Delft to settle a debt of 617 guilders and 6 stuivers with Hendrick van Buyten, master baker in the town. On that occasion she sold two paintings to him, one representing "two persons one of whom is writing a letter and the other with a person playing a guitar." One of the paintings involved in this revealing document is the Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid; the other is probably The Guitar Player. Vermeer's widow almost certainly would not have separated The Guitar Player from a pendant if one had existed.
Vermeer's compositional organization my be linked to his decision to depict a guitar player rather than a lute player. The guitar was just coming into vogue in the late seventeenth century as a popular instrument for solo accompaniment. The music it created was bolder than that of the lute, in large part because its chords produced a resonance not possible on lute had begun to take on associations with an idealized past, a sophisticated era where music had been enjoyed and contemplated for the purity of its sounds. The bright and direct character of The Guitar Player thus, spoke more to the modern world of music represented by the guitar than to the conservative and contemplative traditions of the lute.
Arthur K. Wheelock, Vermeer and the Art of Painting, New Haven and London 1995, pp. 149-150
The Cambridge Companion to Vermeer (Cambridge Companions to the History of Art)
2001, pp. 81-82
The Guitar Player also recalls French engravings of modes and manners of the 1630s that depict a lutenist in front of a garden, field, or park. Two examples of the genre are an anonymous print of 1630 and another entitled Omnia vincit Amor nec Musica vincit Amorem (Love Conquers All but Music Does Not Conquer Love, designed by the expatriot Fleming Pieter van Moi (1599-1650), engraved by the popular French master Charles David (ca. 1600-36), and published by the prolific Jean Ier Leblond. The Omnia vincit Amor (Love Conquers All) recalls particularly Vermeer's composition: both open-mouthed musicians are placed on a diagonal in the foreground of a shallow space; they are flanked by a table with a book or books. In the French engraving, this space is a balcony separated from the garden and landscape by a drapery, while in the Vermeer, the area is a room with a curtain at the right. With consummate skill, Vermeer distilled the landscape into the painting hung deliberately and directly behind the musician's head; he related it visually to and made it reflect her beauty. The landscape seems lovingly to continue and recapitulate her brown hair: the rightward tilt of her head and her ringlets are suggestively relate in the arching foliate branches of the tree above her. Lawrence Gowing puts it, "her bell-like shape is compared with the round head of a tree against sky, painted in the style of Wynants behind her." Her music weaves, as it were, a civilizing magic into plain and forest. She may be thought to recall a beautiful guitarist named Uranie in an air for guitar entablature of 1629, whose "divine voice animates these fields and these woods." The baroque guitar head by Vermeer's musician is a piece of fashionable accoutrement for this purpose in the later seventeenth century it was rapidity supplanting the lute as the most popular solo instrument to accompany a singer.
The general subject of The Guitar Player is also purified in Jouissance (PIeasurabIe), Countryhouse, and Promenade lyrics of the period, in which poets delicately intertwined the woman with features of her natural environment, thereby heightening her attractiveness and intimating that she reflects and even produces the beauty of the landscape. At times she turns into a metaphorical tree or a verdant meadow. This metamorphosis was popular in English and French literature of the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries. It also appeared in the Dutch poems and songs of Hooft, Huygens, and Vondel, ail of whom lived abroad and were greatly influenced by European literary trends. In a spirit similar to Vermeer, Nicholas Hookes in 1653 poeticized the effects of his Amanda's beauty on the tree under which she sits: "The broad- leav'd Sycomore, and ev'ry tree / Shakes like the trembling Aspe, and bends to thee, / And each leaf proudly strives with fresher air/ To fan the curled tresses of thy hair."
In fact, female arborescence, as we may call it, was an imitational convention of the period and appeared in several courtesy books. It is discussed in André du Chesne's Figures mystiques du riche et precieux cabinet des dames ... (Mystical Figures of the Rich and Precious Cabinet of Ladies; Paris, 1605). Here woman is the epitome of nature, metaphorized as the Tree of Life that assimilates all the perfections and virtues of the other plants. The sweetest charms of earthly lave find refuge under the shady foliage of her womanhood Jacques Corbin's panegyric La royne Marguerite (Queen Margaret) asserts hyperbolically in the tradition of the biblical book the Song of Solomon that the lady is higher than an alder tree, more noble than an apple tree, and lovelier to behold than the highest pIane tree. Abraham Darcie, in his Honour of Ladies (London, 1622), generalizes that the comeliness of women "remains as a Character and patterne, which makes it exteriorly known, as the beauty of blossomes of Trees bear witness of the Goodness of the fruit which grows thereof."
The ubiquitous idea that the lady was the "masterpiece of nature," to be admired, possessed, and displayed, appeared in countless poems, songs, and tracts on beautiful women in the seventeenth century. From the Chevalier de l'Escale's Le champion desfemmes (The Champion of Women) through the Sieur de Saint-Gabriel's Le mérite des dames (The Merit of Ladies) to Constantijn Huygens's "Sur le portraict" (On the Portrait; 1673), the ideal woman was variously labeled the masterpiece and miracle of nature and the omament of the earth.
Study of a Young Woman (detail)
The yellow-jacketed girl (left) playing the guitar or cittern in the Kenwood picture also has the characteristic jaw formation of the Wrightsman portrait (right). Assuming the date assigned to that picture (1671-1672) is about right, it could represent Maria (Vermeer's youngest daughter) at the age of seventeen or eighteen. Elisabeth, born about 1657, is a less likely candidate since she was probably less than fifteen years old at the time the Kenwood picture was painted.
John Michael Montias
Vermeer and His Milieu: A Web of Social History, Princeton, 1989
The Guitar Player (detail)
The Baroque Guitar
The baroque guitar may be considered as having had its own particular history both in terms of its shape, tuning, sound and style. It was very often used as a solo instrument but, according to certain sources, also as an accompanying instrument. Even though it may be difficult to give exact dates, it was in use in the second half of the 16th Century until the end of the 18th Century in Italy, Spain and France. The baroque guitar is a lightweight instrument with a clear yet rich timbre that is perfect for accompanying the voice while still being capable of making itself heard in the company of other instruments.
It is used in continuo playing and is often included in ensembles with the theorbo, archlute, viola da gamba and other continuo instruments.
In addition to the playing technique, which is the predecessor of the romantic and modern guitars, it has another unusual feature: its alphabetical musical notation system known as the "alphabetto Montessardino" or "abecedario italiano" and attributed to the Italian Montesardo. Although the baroque guitar would appear to be closely related to the six-string guitar, certain characteristics suggest that it might just as well be considered a different instrument altogether. Not only is the baroque guitar lighter and smaller than its more familiar relative, its music is recorded using a fundamentally different form of notation—tablature rather than mensural notation. But, most importantly, the seventeenth-century guitar was strung in a manner that resulted in different musical and technical characteristics.