A YOUNG WOMAN SEATED
AT THE VIRGINAL
(attributed to Johannes Vermeer)
oil on canvas
9 7/8 x 7 7/8 in. (25.2 x 20 cm.)
Private Collection , New York
To bolster this work's legitimacy critics have underlined the striking similarity in stylistic treatment of the girl's arms with those of the Lady Seated at the Virginal (London). However, neither passage appear to be among Vermeer's finest examples of painting technique and some critics have cited them as a menacing sign of declining artistic powers.
On the contrary, Lawrence Gowing, one of the most perceptive Vermeer writers, considers such passages not as a technical deviance but as an inevitable stylistic outcome of the artist's so-called "optical way" where what the painter's eyes see is privileged over what his mind knows. Gowing cites the curious bulbous, upheld hand, almost unrecognizable, of the seated artist in Vermeer's masterful Art of Painting as a prime example of Vermeer's idiosyncratic manner of representation.
Although the shawl of the young girl is executed with pigments characteristic of Vermeer's palette (the base yellow is lead-tin yellow), it is generally considered unworthy of his superb technique and skill in chiaroscural modeling. Neither its heavy-handed tuck and fold nor its material is entirely comprehensible. The technical committee which examined the work discovered evidence of retouching but was unable to conclude unanimously whether it was the result of an attempt to remedy some later damage or because another artist had intervened since the canvas had been left unfinished by Vermeer. Vermeer expert Arthur Wheelock, who once doubted the work's authenticity, is now conviced that while it is by Vermeer, the shawl was added by a later hand filling out the figure in an unusual manner. He believes that the present work and the Girl with a Flute were sold soon after the artist's death and finished by another artist in order to make them more salable.
Lead-tin yellow was widely employed from the Middle Ages until the end of the 17th century, but became obsolete thereafter, and was replaced by other yellows such as yellow ochre and Naples yellow. Indeed, knowledge of this pigment was rapidly forgotten, and it was not until 1941 that a scientist discovered that there was a tin component in this typical 17th-century yellow which distinguished it from other, later lead-based yellows.
The fact that lead-tin yellow was the primary pigment used for yellows in this picture immediately proves that it is at the very least a 17th-century painting and not, as some have suggested, a later imitation of Vermeer's style.
Although it is true that Vermeer's female faces lack the matchless nuance of those of Rembrandt or Gerard ter Borch, the portrayal of this girl's face is slightly below par even for his own standards. Her melancholic smile and barely-focused gaze lack the delicacy and technical freshness of the comparable girl in the late Lady Seated at the Virginal which was painted in the same years (see detail left). However, caution should be used in aesthetic evaluations since traces of overpainting have been detected in various areas of the work.
The hairdo and falling lock, which were in vogue for a limited number of years, is quite like that of the Lacemaker and helps to establish the painting's date. The fine red ribbons seem to be original but have been reinforced by a later hand.
Importantly, the authoritative committee of art specialists which established the painting's authenticity discovered that the shadows of the girl's face contain green earth, an unexciting earth green used only very rarely by 17th-century Dutch artists in flesh tones, but inexplicably found in those of Vermeer's late works.
By the 17th century, green earth, once a base component of medieval flesh tones, was largely supplanted by warmer brown earth pigments. It use seems to have been restricted to the some European Mannerist schools and in Netherlands to the Utrecht school. It is interesting to note that Vermeer's mother-in-law, Maria Thins, was distantly related to Abraham Bloemaert who had taught a generation of Utrecht's best artists, including the talented Hendrick Terbrugghen. Bloemaert was also associated in earlier years with the Haarlem mannerists. Furthermore, Maria Thins possessed a significant collection of paintings by Utrecht artists a few of which appear in Vermeer's paintings as background props.
Although we may identify a feasible source, no convincing explanation has ever been advanced which would explain for what reason Vermeer chose to utilize the long-outdated green earth technique into the flesh tones.
According to the technical analysis performed by a special committee to study the authenticity of the work, tell-tale signs of ultramarine blue were discovered in the light gray mixture used to paint the background wall. It is well known that Vermeer used this pigment very extensively, not only for the small areas of rich deep blue that are so characteristic of his paintings, but also incorporating it, almost invisibly, in the light gray tones of his background walls. The blue tends to correct the murky flat gray produced by the base mixture of white and black pigment.
The subliminal enriching effect of this invisible use of the pigment is hard to quantify, but clearly Vermeer believed it was necessary to achieve the effects he desired; and this specific extravagance is something that has never yet been found outside the work of Vermeer. In the present picture, ultramarine is used in precisely this way, not only in the blue velvet chair back, but also, invisibly to the naked eye, throughout the background wall.
Vermeer created a convincing and atmospheric impression of space and depth, thanks to the depiction of minute irregularities and holes in the plaster of the wall, and the presence of a delicate, unified light, which comes, as in most of Vermeer's interiors, from the top left of the composition.
Without a doubt, the finest passage in this work is generally considered to be the silk gown even though it may lack some of the appealing geometrical qualities of the design of a similar gown (see detail left) of the earlier Guitar Player. The execution in the present painting displays the fresh yet adept manual control characteristic of the artist's late paint handling. Present too are the elegant dots, dabs and calligraphic flourishes that appear to divorce themselves from any descriptive function.
Originally, it seems that Vermeer planned that the skirt would extend rather higher than it now does, and that the shawl would be consequently shorter; there is evidence that the initial blocking in of the folds of the skirt extend under the lower part of the present yellow shawl.
The virginal and its music stand is analogous in structure to the ones seen in two earlier renditions, Lady Standing at the Virginal and Lady Seated at the Virginal in London. However, the two mentioned canvases contain important visual counterpoints characteristic of Vermeer's late paintings as well as a complex iconographic structure absent in the present work.
This factor may indicate that the present small-scale work was conceived by Vermeer as preparatory study for the two larger canvas in London or a contained, single-figure composition such as the Lacemaker.
No signature appears on this work.
Walter Liedtke, Vermeer: The Complete Paintings, New York, 2008)
- (?) Pieter Claesz van Ruijven, Delft (d. 1674); (?) his widow, Maria de Knuijt, Delft (d. 1681);
- (?) their daughter, Magdalena van Ruijven, Delft (d. 1682);
- (?) her widower, Jacob Abrahamsz Dissius (d. 1695);
- Dissius sale, Amsterdam, 16 May 1696, possibly no. 37;
- (?) Wessel Ryers sale, Amsterdam, 21 September 1814, no. 93 (to Gruyter);
- Alfred Beit, London (1890s?, by 1904);
- his brother, Otto Beit (in 1906);
- his son, Alfred Beit, Blessington, Ireland (until 1960);
- [Marlborough Fine Art, London, in 1960];
- Baron Frédéric Rolin, Brussels (1960-d.2002);
- his heirs (sold, London [Sotheby's], 7 July 2004, no. 8);
- Steve Wynn Collection, Las Vegas, 2004 [Otto Naumann Ltd., New York];
- private collection, New York.
- London 1907
Burlington Fine Arts Club, Winter Exhibition, “Catalogue of a Collection of Pictures, Decorative Furniture and Other Works of Art” .
4, no. 13, lent by Otto Beit.
- Philadelphia 11 August 2004 – 1 March 2005
A Young Woman Seated at the Virginals by Johannes Vermeer. Philadelphia Museum of Art.
- Tokyo August 2 – December 14, 2008.
Vermeer and the Delft Style. Metropolitan Art Museum.
190-192, no. 31 and ill
- New York 2009
Metropolitan Museum of Art.
- Norfolk, Virginia 1 June 2010 – 1 January, 2011.
Chrysler Museum of Art.
- Cambridge, England 5 October, 2011 – 15 January, 2012
Vermeer’s Women: Secrets and Silence. The Fitzwilliam Museum.
no. 28 and ill.
- Rome 27 September, 2012 - 20 January, 2013
Vermeer. Il secolo d’oro dell’arte olandese. Scuderie del Quirinale.
220, no. 51 and ill.
- London 26 June – 8 September, 2013
Vermeer and Music: Love and Leisure in the Dutch Golden Age.
Vermeer's mother is buried in the Nieuwe Kerk in Delft, February 13.
Geertruijt Reynier Vermeer, Vermeer's sister, is buried at the beginning of May in the Nieuwe Kerk in Delft.
Vermeer inherits Mechelen from his mother, July 13. He rents it to a shoemaker caller Van Ackerdyck.
Vermeer is appointed for a second time headmen of the Saint Luke's Guild. He continues to paint in an "abstract" mode paying greater attention to pattern and the compositional structure of his works. Scholars have asserted that Vermeer may have been following the popular French mode of painting.
Delft pop. 15,000
|european painting & architecture||
Louis Le Vau, Fr. architect, d. (b. 1612)
Landscape architect André Lenôtre lays out the Champs-Elysées at Paris.
Molière's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme includes a ballet with music by court composer Jean Baptiste Lully, 38, who has come to France from his native Florence and changed his name from Giovanni Battista Lulli. The ballet is so popular that four performances are requested in the space of 8 days.
Feb 10, William Congreve, English writer (Old Bachelor, Way of the World), is born.
John Ray prints a book of aphorisms such as: "Blood is thicker than water..." and "Haste makes waste."
|science & philosophy||
Italian scientist Giovanni Borelli attempts to use artificial wings to flying.
London clockmaker William Clement improves the accuracy of clocks by inventing anchor-shaped gadgets (escapements) that control the escape of a clock's driving force.
Parts of Baruch de Spinoza's Tractatus Theologico-Politicus are published anonymously. Spinoza shows that the Bible, if properly understood, gives no support to the intolerance of religious authorities and their interference in civil and political affairs. The book creates a furor. It will provoke widespread denunciations as it goes through five editions in the next 5 years, and Spinoza moves to The Hague to gain the protection of influential friends. Now 37, he suffers from tuberculosis after years of inhaling glass dust produced by his lens-making.
Cardinal Emilio Altieri becomes Pope Clement X.
May 2, The Hudson Bay Co. is chartered by England's King Charles II to exploit the resources of the Hudson Bay area.
Oct 13, Virginia passes a law that blacks arriving in the colonies as Christians cannot be used as slaves.
The Dutch merchant marine has become larger than that of England, France, Spain and Portugal combined.
Minute hands first appear on watches.
Cafe Procope, the first cafe in Paris, begins serving ice cream.
France's Louis XIV founds Les Invalides at Paris to house up to 7,000 disabled soldiers.
|vermeer's life||In July Vermeer appears before the notary Nicolaes van Assendelft to acknowledge that he had received an inheritance of 148 guilders from his sister's estate.|
|dutch painting||Adriaen van Ostade paints Travelers Resting.|
|european painting & architecture||
Lionel Bruant: Hôtel des Invalides, Paris.
Christopher Wren: The Monument to commemorate the Great Fire of London in 1666
Feb 19, Charles-Hubert Gervais, composer, is born.
Dec 1, Francesco Stradivari, Italian violin maker and son of Antonius, is born.
Paris Opera opens with Robert Cambert's opera Pomone.
The French Académie de Royale Musique opens March 3 in the Salle du Jeu de Paume de la Bouteille. Jean Baptiste Lully will take over the Paris Opéra beginning next year and run it until 1687, rebuilding the house after fires that will destroy it in 1678 and 1681
Apr 6, Jean-Baptiste Rousseau, French playwright, poet (Sacred Odes & Songs), is born.
Molière writes his farce Les Fourberies de Scapin (The Wiles of Scapin or Scapin the Cheat).
|science & philosophy||
In Germany Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz devised a mechanical calculator to add, subtract, multiply and divide.
Astronomer Jean Picard visits the observatory of the late Tycho Brache on Hven Island, Sweden, to determine its exact location in order that observations there can be compared with precision to those made elsewhere. He returns to Paris with copies of Brahe's work and will use them to help him obtain an accurate measurement of the length of a degree of a meridian (longitude line) for use in computing the size of the Earth.
|history||c. 1671 first printed reference to an alphabet rhyme, a rhyme composed to help children learn their letters.
Apr 22, King Charles II sits in on English parliament.
Colonel Thomas Blood, Irish adventurer, steals the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London.
Vermeer leases Mechelen to an apothecary for six years.
In May, Vermeer travels with two other headmen of the Saint Luke guild of Delft to The Hague in order to appraise a collection of disputed Italian paintings. Since one of the members of the expedition, Johannes Jordaens had spent many yeas in Italy, and Vermeer probably never left the Netherlands, it is likely that he was chosen for his importance as the headmaster of the guild. They testify before a notary that the works are "great pieces of rubbish and bad paintings."
Vermeer's earnings from his paintings after the French invaded the Netherlands of this year was probably considerably lower that those of the 1660s. His family was also very large by Dutch standards where only two or three children were expected. His economic problems may have been worsened because of low rate of production and restricted clientele and consequentially high prices of his paintings.
The refined sense of balance in Vermeer's compositions of the 1660s have given way to a new dynamic direction in the early 1670s. In The Guitar Player, Vermeer rejected balance in favor of a highly asymmetric compositions. The figure of the young girl seems to literally burst off the canvas. The music of the guitar, much bolder than that of the lute, had become popular in these years.
|european painting & architecture||Christopher Wren: St. Stephen's, Walbrook, London|
Apr 6, Andre Ardinal Destouches, composer, is born.
First public concert at Whitefriars, London, given by violinist John Banister.
The baroque guitar begins to become popular in Holland. A fine example can be seen in Vermeer's The Guitar Player. The lute, by this time, had begun to take on associations with an idealized past.
The Académie Royale de Danse is founded by Louis XIV in 1661 and amalgamated with the Paris Opéra becoming the Paris Opéra Ballet.
|literature||William Temple: Observations upon the United Provinces of the Netherlands.|
|science & philosophy||Flexible hose for use in fighting fires, is constructed by Jan van der Heyde and his son.
Feb 8, Isaac Newton reads his 1st optics paper before Royal Society in London.
Christian Huygens of Holland discoveres white polar caps on Mars.
Apr 29, King Louis XIV of France invaded the Netherlands. The beginning of economic decline in the Dutch Republic and the art market collapses
Jun 15, The Sluices are opened in Holland to save Amsterdam from the French.
The Royal African Co. is granted a charter to expand the slave trade and its stockholders included philosopher John Locke. The operation will supply English sugar colonies with 3,000 slaves annually.
Political lynching of the statesman Johan and Cornelis de Witt by Orange supporters in the Hague
Netherlands's third war with England and starts an economic decline in Holland. The art market collapses.
The Dutch organize a system of relief for the poor, who had been provided for up to now by prosperous merchants. With Dutch trade declining and the country at war, the merchants can no longer afford to be so generous.
The burial records of the Oude Kerk of Delft fixes Vermeer's burial on 15 December 1675. The once prosperous painter left 10 minor children and momentous debts to his wife, Catharina. In an effort to free herself of her creditors, she lamented the lack of financial resources caused by her husband who had lapsed into "decay and decadence." Decadence may have indicated the artist had lapsed into drink, a virtual plague in the Netherlands, or perhaps just a sudden physical decline such as a stroke or a heart failure. Catharina stated that the artist had become so burdened by his economic problems that "as if he had fallen into frenzy and in a day and a half had gone from being healthy to being dead." Although there is a tomb marker of Vermeer's grave in the Oude Kerk, its original location has been lost through the centuries.
As the Vermeer expert Walter Liedtke pointed out, the "similarities of this picture and in four late paintings by Vermeer might be taken as evidence of authenticity or imitation. Even the double shadow behind the music stand, the bluish-white illumination of the wall and its slight regularities could be interpreted as extremely subtle derivations from late works by Vermeer, assuming the imitator had access to them and the expertise to imitate their unusual effects. However, technical analysis and conservations have revealed that the painting is at least 250 years old and that it was made from the ground up of materials and methods distinctive of Vermeer. The canvas is so consistent in its comparatively course weave with the support of the Lacemaker that they may be from the same bolt of cloth."
Furthermore, the orthogonals of the perspective all lead to a pinhole which was a practical method employed repeatedly by Vermeer and other painters to work out and verify the perspectival construction. Perhaps, the most convincing and peculiar piece of evidence in favor of the work's authenticity is the presence of natural ultramarine blue in minimal quantities in the gray paint mixture used to render the background wall. As far as conservators are aware, such use, found in various canvases by Vermeer, is rarely come across in the works of Dutch painters of the time.
Thus, while the painting displays some lacunae likely due to overpainting by a later hand, technical analysis, the composition's firm layout and some finely nuanced passages strongly point to the hand of Johannes Vermeer.
The most significant information regarding the dating of the work was furnished by Marieke de Winkel, costume expert for the Rembrandt Research Project, who has established, on the basis of research using a wide range of sources including contemporary letters, prints, paintings and doll's houses, that the hair-style and arrangement of hair-ribbons seen in this picture were fashionable only for a couple of years at the most, around 1670.
The combination of hair pulled back into a bun with ringlets hanging down on each side and a mix of thin red and white ribbons in the hair soon gave way in popular fashion to the style seen in the two London paintings, where the hair is still drawn back into a bun, but with numerous small decorative curls around the hairline and no ringlets or other embellishments. The Louvre Lacemaker, which is generally dated around 1670 on stylistic grounds, shows very much the same hairstyle as that seen here, and this, together with the technical evidence linking the two pictures, suggests very strongly that the present painting of A Young Woman Seated at the Virginal should also be dated to around 1670, making it Vermeer's first exploration of the theme that was to provide the subject for his two famous paintings in the National Gallery.
Lest we judge too harshly the final works of Vermeer, it should be kept in mind that he must have painted very little in his final years. His life, like the lives of many, was plagued by social unrest caused by the French invasion of the Netherlands in 1672 as well as an ever-growing family which proved increasingly difficult to provide for. Debt slowly closed in on Vermeer and his family although until the end of his life there is evidence that he was considered a respectable citizen. He was inscribed as a "schutter" or marksman of the Delft Civic Guard, a position which guaranteed a degree of honor and social standing.
In peacetime, acceptance in the militia required to be "among the most learned burgers from the most admirable families and those who are men of property." However, in times of war the entrance could be stretched to an occasional shoemaker and tailor. A guard's pay, compared to their duties, consisting in a small subsidiary or a (partial) release from certain taxes, was negligible. Nevertheless, the membership in a Civic Guard was a matter of civic pride, an honor which lead to the development of a kind of "civic nobility" (burgeredeldom).
A final blow to Vermeer's fortune must have been the death of his long-time patron Pieter van Ruijven in 1674. Van Ruijven had acquired more than half of the artist's total output assuring the artist an economic base which allowed him to paint as he wished free from market pressures.
On March 30, 2004 Sotheby's announced the sale of the Young Woman Seated at the Virginal (to be distinguished from the London painting as of similar theme and title) as an authentic painting by Johannes Vermeer. This small unsigned canvas (about 8 x 10 inches or 25 x 20 centimeters) was first identified by modern collectors at an Amsterdam sale in 1814. Since 1960, it was held in the private collection of Baron Freddy Rolin in Brussels who passionately believed in the painting's authenticity. Even though the work had never really stimulated more than lukewarm critical response, experts such as Hofstede de Groot, Phillip Hale, and P. T. A. Swillens had accepted it as an authentic Vermeer. Lawrence Gowing, who has perhaps written one of the most penetrating and influential interpretations of Vermeer's art, only perfunctorily included a photograph of it in his 1952 monograph. He did not, however, provide a comment about its artistic merits.
The painting's fortune began to change when Walter Liedtke, curator of the comprehensive Vermeer and the Delft School show in New York and London (2001), decided at the very last minute to include it in that exhibition although it was not included in the catalogue.
After more than 10 years of extensive research by a team of leading scholars and painting conservators the painting has now been proposed as a secure addition to Vermeer's limited oeuvre. Walter Liedtke included it within Vermeer's oeuvre in his 2008 complete catalogue of Vermeer's painting and after years of doubt Arthur Wheelock has come to accept it in the artist's slim oeuvre although he believes it had been retouched in some areas.
Although the belief of the painter of genius toiling away isolated within the confines of his studio may be a central myth of modernism, it had precious little to do with former times. In his famous Vite (see title page left), the artists that Giorgio Vasari admired are the same Renaissance artists we admire today, in nearly the same ranking and degree. Much the same could be said for the French, Dutch, and Spanish schools.
Perhaps the greatest exception to this rule is Johannes Vermeer. Outside a few celebrated works which held their own in the Netherlands, Vermeer's fame languished in near obscurity until the middle of the 19th century. He now keeps company of a handful of his fellow Masters, such as Leonardo, Raphael and Rembrandt van Rijn.
Although Vermeer was admired in his own city and his works commanded relatively high prices, his fame did not reach farther than Amsterdam. Ironically, the spread of his fame was substantially impaired by his own way of working and doing business. He painted slowly and produced very few paintings, no more than three or four a year. Although 37 works have been proposed by authoritative scholars as authentic, there exists good reasons to believe he probably painted no more than 60.
On the other hand, popular artists such as Rembrandt van Rijn, Frans Hals and Jan van Goyen produced works in the hundreds and in Van Goyen's case, more than one thousand paintings have survived. The output of Gabriel Metsu and Pieter de Hooch, Vermeer's direct "rivals," far exceed Vermeer's.
More than half of Vermeer's paintings were purchased by a single local collector, Pieter van Ruijven. In an age when there were neither public art galleries, museums, art publications nor photographs, the distribution of a great number of paintings and/or graphic works was perhaps the best venue to assure that an artist's work would inscribe itself into the collective consciousness. Otherwise, to guarantee sufficient public exposure, paintings would have to have been exhibited in important public buildings or Churches. This made widespread sales imperative in the Netherlands because it is well known that both public and religious patronage were in short supply in the United Republic.
Den Meij (The May), Anon. [997 KB]
performed by Hendrik Broekman
on a Flemish muselar virginal after Ruckers.
The virginal (or virginals), together with the harpsichord, has its origin probably in the medieval psaltery with a keyboard applied, to be able to play polyphonic music (i.e. melody with accompanying chords). It is mentioned for the first time c. 1460 in a treatise by Paulus Paulirinus of Prague. Although limited in its tonal resources, the virginal occupied a crucial position in the musical life in the 16th and 17th centuries as it was smaller, simpler and cheaper than the harpsichord which is rather rarely represented in paintings, drawings etc.
The main center of virginal- and keyboard making in general was undoubtedly Antwerp/Flanders, with the renowned families of Ruckers and Couchet. Italy was the second center, and since King Henry's VIII's purchase of five virginal it enjoyed considerable appreciation in England. Until the 18th century the virginal remained in use both as solo instrument, even in private circles of music making, as well as for accompaniment of the singing voice or melodic instruments, like the viola da gamba.
The virginal usually appears with a rectangular case, although polygon forms in various sizes were built as well. The metal strings, here only in single choir, runs roughly parallel to the keyboard. They are plucked by plectra mounted on jacks. The jacks (one for each key) are arranged in pairs and placed along a line running from the front of the instrument at the left to the back at the right. They pluck in opposite directions, so that the pairs of jacks are separated by closely spaced pairs of strings. Each pair of jacks is usually served by a single slot in the soundboard, together with another slot below in a thin guide above the keys. Leather on the soundboard and lower guide provides a quiet bearing surface for the jacks.
The typical Flemish "muselar" type (probably invented by Hans Ruckers) has the keyboard to the right side, their strings plucked at a point near the centre for virtually their entire range, producing a powerful, flute-like tone. Though since the jacks and keys for the left hand are inevitably placed in the middle of the instrument's soundboard, any mechanical noise from these is amplified and the central plucking point in the bass strings makes repetition difficult because the motion of the still-sounding string interferes with the ability of the plectrum to connect again. Thus the muselaer is better suited to chord- and melody-music without complex bass parts.
The spinet virginal has its keyboard placed off-centre to the left. The jacks run in a line close to the left-hand bridge; therefore the point at which the jacks pluck the strings is close to the mid-point in the treble and well away towards the left end in the bass. Thus the timbre of the spinet gradually changes from flute-like in the treble to reedy in the bass.
In Dutch interior painting the virginals almost always conveys positive connotations of love and harmony. In the present work, which displays none of the elaborate dialogue between the musician, the virginals and the scene as in Vermeer's Lady Seated at the Virginals and the Lady Standing at the Virginals, it is difficult to understand if the instrument can be truly understood as having symbolic meaning or as a straightforward indicator of a young lady's artist inclination.
Although 90% of the virginals in 17th-century Dutch painting are pictured with women, they were included in more complex contexts such as Vermeer's Music Lesson and Gabriel Metsu's Man and Woman Sitting at the Virginal in which both men and women are present. In the Marriage Portrait of a Husband and Wife of the Lossy de Wariné Family by Gerrit Donck (see image above) a finely crafted virginals, which rests on a rather unusual stand, occupies a notable part of the composition. Its conspicuous presence must have been intended to underscore the musical theme which appaerently played an important part in bonding the lives of the husband and wife.
Following its inclusion in the complete catalogue of the artist's work by Walter Liedtke (2008), this miniscule canvas has not attracted the critical scrutiny it merits, in part perhaps, because it is not always on public view.
If the date now given to this picture is correct, it was presumably executed shortly before or shortly after the Lady Seated at the Virginals in London in which a single woman plays her music in a rather complicated setting of a corner of a dimly lit, contemporary room.
If one compares the present picture with a detail of the London picture (see images left), they appear closely related. In the smaller work, the young musician appears to be seated slightly further from her instrument while the forward side of her virginals is shrouded in deep shadow instead of being fully illuminated. From a compositional point of view either the present work was a sort of preliminary study for the more complex London work or, if executed afterwards, a reworking of the figure.
In any case, the present work seems to be somewhat outside of Vermeer's customary manner of picture making. It displays neither the elaborate iconographic structure of the artist's famous single-figured compositions nor the frank simplicity of the bust-length tronies.
The artist, evidently, wished to devote his energies to a simple, straightforward representation of a young woman at her instrument. It is somewhat problematic to define the work as a portrait in the 17th-century sense of the term. Her face does appear more personalized than that of the London figure (which was certainly not intended as a portrait) but her searching gaze for someone outside the picture reminds us of the Lady Writing which is one of the few works which critics have proposed as a portrait.
In any case, the work also can be most plausibly related to the Lacemaker of almost the equal dimensions and, from what conservators have revealed, is painted upon canvas that was very likely cut from the same role as that of the present picture. Both girls are set upon a naked white-washed wall and their hair styles are comparable.
Liedtke has commented that it is conceivable that Vermeer was asked for a picture of the same themes as the Lady Seated at the Virginals in the years of economic hardship, "a time when any sale was welcome."