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Critical Assessments: What is the meaning of Girl Interrupted in her Music?

Girl Interrupted in her Music

c. 1658–1661
Oil on canvas
39.3 x 44.4 cm. (15 1/2 x 17 1/2 in.)
Frick Collection, New York

Jan Vermeer, Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.

Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.

Jan Vermeer
1981, p. 98

Most Dutch genre painters favored scenes which included some specific action. In Jan Steen's Music Master (fig. 1) of about 1659 or Frans van Mieris's The Duet (fig. 2) of 1658, for example, figures are engrossed in each other and in the making of music. In each instance a young attendant enters the room, adding to the level of activity. Vermeer, in a number of paintings from the end of the 1650s, sought to achieve similar effects in his multifigured genre paintings. His results, however, were mixed at best. In Officer and Laughing Girl, The Glass of Wine, and The Girl with the Wine Glass, his attempts at rendering an action, whether it be laughing, drinking, or smiling, resulted in rather forced and artificial poses.

In the Girl Interrupted at Her Music Vermeer arrived at a solution for this problem: the momentary interruption. This device allowed him to suggest movement without the need for specific gestures and facial expressions that conflicted with the essential stillness of his compositions. In this painting the gentleman and the girl make a compact group as his form gently enfolds hers. She, however, rather than concentrating on the music they hold, looks out at the viewer. Her expression is alert and expectant, but not forced. Light falls gently across her face and on her white headpiece, accenting her gaze.

The Music Masterm Jan Steenfig. 1 The Music Master
Jan Steen
probably 1659
Oil on oak, 42.3 x 33 cm.
National Gallery, London
The Duet, Frans van Mierisfig. 2 The Duet
Frans van Mieris
Oil on panel, 31.5 x 24.6 cm.
Staatliches Museum, Schwerin

Vermeer may have used this pose to emphasize the meaning of his painting. Music is often associated with love, an association that is reinforced in this instance by the painting on the back wall. This painting (fig. 5), perhaps by Caesar van Everdingen, also appears in A Lady Standing at a Virginal (fig. 4), and was initially included in Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window. Its depiction of a cupid holding a card marked with a figure "I" is based on an emblem from Otto van Veen's Amorum Emblemata, (fig. 3) 1608. The emblem's motto, "Perfectus Amor non est nisi ad unum," states that perfect love is but for one lover. The woman's gaze out of the picture may thus have been intended to reinforce a didactic message. Interestingly, in A Lady Standing at a Virginal, the woman also looks out of the painting toward the viewer.

Perfectus Amor Est Nisi ad Unum, Engraving from <em>Amorum Emblemata fig. 3 Otto van Veen
Perfectus Amor Est Nisi
ad Unum

Engraving from Amorum Emblemata
Antwerp, 1608
A Lady Standing at a Virginal (detail), Johannes Vermeerfig. 4 A Lady Standing at a Virginal (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1670–1674
Oil on canvas, 51.7 x 45.2 cm.
National Gallery, London
Girl Interrupted in her Music (detail), Johannes Vermeerfig. 5 Girl Interrupted in her Music (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1658–1661
Oil on canvas, 39.3 x 44.4 cm.
Frick Collection, New York

Unfortunately, this painting is in very bad condition. Only the still life area preserves something of its original surface qualities. The birdhouse on the side wall is an addition painted later by someone else and was not part of Vermeer's design.

Amorum Emblemata

Amor Docet Musicum, Crispin de Passe
Amor Docet Musicum
Crispin de Passe
Etching for Gabriels Rollenhagen's Nucleus Eblematum
Cologne, 1611

The Amorum Emblemata is considered to be one of the most important and influential of all emblem books. The collection was designed by Otto van Veen (1556–1629) and first published in Antwerp in 1608 in three polyglot versions: Latin, French & Dutch; Latin, Italian & French (as in this copy); and Latin, English & Italian. Its success and popularity lead to many further editions and adaptations, while its images were subsequently used by decorative artists throughout Europe.

In producing a book of love emblems, Van Veen was following a trend which began in Amsterdam in 1601 with the publication of Quaeris quid sit Amor, a compilation of twenty-four love emblem prints produced by the artist Jacques de Gheyn with accompanying Dutch verses by Daniel Heinsius. Van Veen's volume is far more comprehensive, consisting of 124 emblems. The amorous maxims which accompany and interpret the pictures are mostly, but not always, taken from Ovid.

Addressed to young people, the book depicts love as an overruling power which should be followed to gain happiness.

Amorum Emblemata

Vermeer: The Complete Paintings, by Wlter Liedtke

Walter Liedtke

Vermeer: The Complete Paintings
2008, p. 84

Albert Blankert's conclusion that the Frick canvas might be a copy fails to explain its best preserved passages and even the evidence in the most damaged areas. The sunlight flooding through the window and over the chair in the foreground is superbly rendered and consistent with that found in other early interiors by Vermeer. On the table, the still life (fig. 6) of a blue and white pitcher with a silver cap, a cittern, a songbook (with detailed but indecipherable words and lute music), and a glass of red wine is composed in the precisely balanced manner one expects after studying The Glass of Wine). With the Braunschweig canvas, this picture and the one in Berlin demonstrate Vermeer's ability to produce variations not only on the themes of other artists but also on his own. In formal terms the process was demanding, a matter of constant refinement. With regard to meaning, by contrast, it all depended on a single notion, that of a young woman's disposition and character. Much less thought was devoted to the artist's male figures, who with the exception of Christ and two scholars hardly vary in type. In the company of women, Vermeer's men are mere attendants. They seek possession and lose themselves.

Girl Interrupted in her Music (detail), Johannes Vermeerfig. 6 Girl Interrupted in her Music (detail)
Johannes Vermeer

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