Critical Assessments: 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
Perfectus Amor Est Nisi ad Unum, Engraving from <em>Amorum Emblemata
Otto van Veen
Perfectus Amor Est Nisi
ad Unum

Engraving from Amorum Emblemata
Antwerp, 1608

Most Dutch genre painters favored scenes which included some specific action. In Jan Steen's Music Master of about 1659 or Frans van Mieris's The Duet of 1658 (below), 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 Duet, Frans van Mieris
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, perhaps by Caesar van Everdingen, also appears in A Lady Standing at a Virginal, 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, 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.

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.

Amor Docet Musicum, Crispin de Passe
Amor Docet Musicum
Crispin de Passe
Etching for Gabriels Rollenhagen's Nucleus Eblematum
Cologne, 1611
A Lady Standing at a Virginal (detail), Johannes Vermeer
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 Vermeer
Girl Interrupted in her Music (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1658–1661
Oil on canvas, 39.3 x 44.4 cm.
Frick Collection, New York