Essential Vermeer 3.0
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The Complete Interactive Vermeer Catalogue

The textual material contained in the Essential Vermeer Interactive Catalogue would fill a hefty-sized book, and is enhanced by more than 1,000 corollary images. In order to use the catalogue most advantageously:

1. Slowly scroll your mouse over the painting to a point of particular interest. Relative information and images will slide into the box located to the right of the painting. To hold and scroll the slide-in information, single click on area of interest. To release the slide-in information, single-click on the painting again and continue exploring.

2. To access Special Topics and Fact Sheet information and accessory images, single-click any list item. To release slide-in information, click on any list item and continue exploring.

The painting in the background of a bordello scene

The Procuress, Johannes Vermeer

The Procuress
102 x 108 cm.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

This picture, The Procuress by Dirck van Baburen, most likely belonged to Vermeer's mother-in-law, Maria Thins, who had patrician connections in Delft and a discreet art collection of the Utrecht Caravaggists. It portrays a young female prostitute/lutenist, a bearded man, who is the client, and an older woman, the procuress, who points to her opened hand soliciting payment. Although these immensely popular ribald low-life subjects had lost some of their appeal in the late 17th century, Vermeer seems to have appreciated them not only as a convenient way of introducing comments on the scenes which were represented in his own paintings, but for Van Baburen's bold hand and technical mastery.

Since the composition of the Van Baburen trio parallels the group of "merry company" below, early critics claimed that the real hidden subject of Vermeer's Concert was an elegant brothel. Thus, the older singing woman to the right would be the procuress, the seated lutenist, the client and the seated harpsichordist the prostitute. However, modern critics who weigh the serene atmosphere of Vermeer's composition, see Van Baburen's work more likely an admonition rather than an invitation to avoid sensual excess.

The Arcadian landscape above the harpsichordist

The Concert (detail), Johannes Vermeer

No other painting exemplifies so well the difficulties in interpreting the symbolic content of Vermeer's works.

According to art historian Elise Goodman, the rough Arcadian landscape above the harpsichordist's head relates to her alone. "During Vermeer's time, composers frequently opposed somber landscapes to the gentle beauty of their ladies. The lady may be related to the landscape in sympathy with the international convention in which the woman is the epitome of nature, metaphorized as the Tree of Life. The idea that the lady was the 'masterpiece of nature' appears in countless songs, poems and tracts on beautiful women in the 17th century."

On the other hand, hypothesizing that the "rugged" landscape (painted in the manner of Jacob van Ruisdael) was intended as a counterpoint the idyllic scene of the three musicians, Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. points out that it includes a dead tree trunk, a motif which Van Ruisdael was fond of using to indicate death and decay.

Perhaps, unlike other genre painters who worked more explicitly with the same themes, Vermeer avoided over-clarification and finger-wagging allowing the spectator greater latitude in relating to the picture.

The harpsichord

Ruckers harpisichord

The harpsichord in Vermeer's painting, with a verdant landscape on its lid, was almost certainly manufactured by the renowned Ruckers family in Antwerp. This kind of instrument would have only been found in the drawing rooms of the wealthy so it is likely that, even though the artist lived with his well-to-do mother-in-law Maria Thins, the rendering is based on an existing instrument loaned to the artist for the occasion.

The 1636 Ruckers harpsichord from Cobbe Collection, Hatchlands, Great Britain, is one of the finest surviving playable instruments from the greatest harpsichord makers of all time. It is richly decorated with flowers on the soundboard. The original landscape on the inside lid is by Jan Wildens, with mythological scenes drawn from the works of Titian and Poussin on the exterior.

Curiously, the layout of the great trees on Vermeer's harpsichord left echoes those of the ebony-framed landscape.

The viola da gamba

The Music Lesson (detail), Johannes Vermeer

The viola da gamba makes four minor, but iconographically significant, appearances in Vermeer's musical theme paintings: The Music Lesson, The Woman with a Lute, The Concert and A Lady Seated at a Virginal. Never once does he portray the instrument being played: in all four paintings, it remains quietly unattended, waiting, perhaps, someone, a male, who will gather it up and make music.

Together with the lute, the viola da gamba was probably the most frequently represented instrument throughout the centuries, whether in painting, sculpture or miniature. The viol's soft but clear tone imitates the human voice and is the perfect complement for the lute. Its deep tone and unusual stature are associated with the male while the virginal is associated with the female.

The Oriental carpet

The Ambassadors (detail), Hans Holbein the Younger

The Ambassadors (detail)
Hans Holbein the Younger
Oil on wood, 207 x 209 cm.
National Gallery, London

By the 13th century, merchant travelers like Marco Polo had remarked on the beauty of the Oriental carpets they encountered on their journeys. Soon, they began to be imported into Venice and thence to the rest of Europe. While actual early carpets of this kind are rarely preserved, European painting by the great masters such as Giotto, Ghirlandaio, Holbein, Van Eyck, Lotto, and Vermeer left many representations of carpets from Turkey and Iran.

The fact that so many carpets appear in Dutch interiors of the time might lead us to believe that they were an integral part of the Dutch home. However, they do not occur so frequently in death inventories and these "turkse" and "persiche tapijten" never occur in appreciable quantities on the cargo of Dutch merchant ships. It is known that some painters supplied the carpets themselves and a single carpet might be used for generations of artists.

The cittern on the foreground table

The Cittern Player, Gabriel Metsu

The Cittern Player (detail)
Gabriel Metsu
After 1660
Oil on oak, 37 x 30 cm.
Staatliche Museen, Kassel

Although it may escape the untrained eye, the instrument which lies obliquely on the carpet-covered table is a cittern. The cittern, or cister, is a stringed instrument of the guitar family dating from the Renaissance. With its flat back, the cittern was much simpler, and therefore cheaper, to construct than the lute. In addition, it was easier to play and keep in tune. Being smaller and less delicate, it was far more portable. Although it was played by all classes, the cittern was a premier instrument of casual music making for the common people, much like the guitar at the present day.

In three paintings, The Concert, The Girl Interrupted in her Music and The Glass of Wine, the cittern lies partially hidden on a table or a chair even though the more informed viewer has no problem in identifying its typical flat body, different from the pear-shaped body of the lute. Such oblique views of instruments were common in paintings since they allowed the artist to show his ability in foreshortening, a key means of reinforcing the illusion of real objects in space.

The Renaissance cittern was played by the "common man," and the upper classes. Given the simple tuning and its ability to produce simple chords, it was probably originally used as a music-making instrument, for accompanying the singing voice and for dances.

Because of its metal strings, the bright, jangling sound of the cittern is very different from the mellow sound of the lute.

The tiled floor

Portrait of a Family Playing Music (detail), Pieter de Hooch

Portrait of a Family Playing Music (detail)
Pieter de Hooch
Oil on canvas, 124.5 x 142.5 cm.
Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland

Because patterned marble floors can be seen in many genre interiors from the middle and the third quarter of the 17th century, we have been led to believe that they were present in nearly all well-to-do interiors. Willemijn Fock, a historian of decorative arts, has demonstrated that floors paved with marble tiles were extremely rare in 17th-century Netherlands. They were only found in the houses of the very wealthy and were usually confined to smaller spaces such as voorhuis and corridors. Fock reasons that the artists were attracted by the challenge involved in representing the difficult perspective of receding multicolored marble tiling.

Although the Concert has been considered a pendant to Vermeer's Music Lesson, the marble floors present different patterns. It is interesting to note that Vermeer systematically excluded any reflections which would have naturally appeared with real polished tiles, and it is not out of question that the different patterns of tiles in Vermeer's interiors were inventions of the artist. Philip Steadman hypothesized that the artist probably began painting the more common ceramic tiles present in his own home in two of his early works, The Glass of Wine and the Girl with a Wine Glass. Surprisingly, Steadman calculated that the black and white marble tiles are precisely double the size of the ceramic ones. The artist could have quite easily derived a simple diagonal grid system from the existing ceramic tiles which could be transferred onto his canvas, altering their patterns to attain the most advantageous visual effect.

The three musicians

The Concert (detail), Johannes Vermeer

Although there is no evidence that Vermeer derived the composition of The Concert directly from another work, there exists an almost infinite number of loosely arranged musicians that formed a popular genre called the "merry company." The girl's relaxed yet dignified pose conveys that she is fully absorbed in her music like the two other musicians. The fact that her profile is artfully hidden in shadow guards her thoughts against intruding viewers and enhances the atmosphere of privacy of musical rendezvous.

The young harpsichord player in profile wears a similar voguish silk jacket as in other early paintings by Vermeer. Its wonderful lemon hue that resonates against the icy gray background wall was painted with the ordinary lead-tin yellow found on the palette of almost every 17th-century painter.

The seated gentleman

A Woman Playing the Theorbo-Lute and a Cavalier, Gerrit ter Borch

A Woman Playing the Theorbo-Lute and a Cavalier (detail)
Gerrit ter Borch
c. 1658
Oil on canvas, 36.8 x 32.4 cm.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Little can be made out of the seated man except that he is playing a rather well-concealed theorbo-lute (see detail image left) and that he appears earnestly intent on making music with his fellow music lovers. His sash and dangling sword indicate he was some sort of a military man, perhaps a member of the Delft Civic Guard.

In the words of a Delft edict of 1655, a Civic Guard hailed from "the most suitable, most peaceful and best-qualified burgers or children of burgers." Their pay, compared to their duties, was negligible consisting in a small subsidiary or a (partial) release from certain taxes. Nevertheless, the membership in a Civic Guard was a matter of civic pride, an honor which led to the development of a kind of "civic nobility."

The militia's charter included exact guidelines as to the age and economic condition of the appointed members. Economic solidity was necessary to buy their complete equipment (weapons, uniform). Any show of conflict or envy among the members was strictly forbidden and punished by a fine.

Even though the oath of the Civic Guard members was not taken lightly, some incidents occurred in Delft that demonstrates that they did not always come up to the mark, at least in the eyes of the public. However, they did constitute part of the backbone of the city of Delft.

Similar to scores of analogous depictions of the time, this armed gentleman hardly threatens the calm and harmonious atmosphere that reigns over the scene.

The standing young musician

The Concert (detail), Johannes Vermeer

Unfortunately, the elegantly clad figure of the standing woman with a bluish-green jacket has suffered much since the canvas left Vermeer's studio. The odd, off-key gray of her gown was once a strong blue that has degraded in time exposing the dark gray preparation over which Vermeer would have presumably superimposed a thin glaze of ultramarine blue. Thus, we can imagine that the gathering had a brighter color scheme in keeping with the subtle yet agreeable strains of the trio's musical performance.

The singer gazes down at a sheet of music presumably with lyrics and musical notation. Walter Liedtke has pointed out that she may not be keeping time with her out-held hand since small chamber music groups generally need no conductor to keep time. Judging by the decorum of the scene, it is not clear if the musicians are playing sacred or profane music. However, the most popular songbooks of the time contained numerous love songs. The images of the two background paintings are, perhaps, illusions, both subtle and not, to the amorous undercurrents of the scene below.

The seated harpsichordist

The Concert, Gerrit ter Borch

The Concert (detail)
Gerrit ter Borch
c. 1657
Oil on canvas, 47 x 44 cm.
Louvre, Paris

When Vermeer painted the silk gown of the seated musician he must have been aware that it would be automatically compared to those of the most formidable competitor in the field, Gerrit ter Borch from Deventer. Ter Borch, Vermeer's elder and a key figure of Dutch interior painting, had practically founded his fame and fortune on his astonishing ability to render silk garments of upper-class women with paint and brush. The illusion of silk is so thorough—even to today's jaded art goer—that they appear to possess a life of their own.

The demand for such time-consuming interior paintings was particularly great and the luxurious garments were one of the keys to their success. Ter Borch and his studio assistants had devised a system to transfer the most successful versions of the silk dresses to new canvases mechanically. Seven painted versions of one particular gown have survived.

Although Vermeer never strove to obtain the level of microscopic detail which characterized Ter Borch's realism, the silk gown of the Concert remains one of the most memorable passages in his oeuvre. While Ter Borch's silk appears to be a literal transcription of the natural fall of light on every crease and fold no matter how insignificant, Vermeer, instead, created a subtle yet uncannily robust pattern of light made of mosaic-like patches of paint which bond together and create a unity of silk, light and paint on canvas.

In the paintings of Vermeer, we find both fact and fiction combined according to the artist's necessities. While the window casements and walls appear to be have been factual, the marble floor patterns in most cases are fictive and were created with linear perspective. While the movable props, such as the porcelain wine jugs, tables, pictures, mirrors and maps, were probably Vermeer's own, the tapestries and keyboard instruments, both rare and costly items, were very likely brought in for the occasion. It is also highly likely that his figures were not painted from life but from a mannequin so that the lighting on the folds of their dress would not be disturbed every time the live sitter might pose anew.

Vermeer had access to such luxury items through various of channels. His rich Delft patron, Pieter van Ruijven, is the most probable candidate although the artist's presumed connection with Constantijn Huygens, the Dutch diplomat, poet and musician, could have easily provided the artist contacts with a discreet group of elite art lovers who would have been disposed to loan him their precious instruments for the sake of his noble art.

In a certain sense, Vermeer's painted environments are analogous to advertisements in today's interior design magazines which are assembled and properly lit only to be photographed (and afterward disassembled). Vermeer's perfect compositions represent an ideal of the interior—brighter, cleaner, neater and more richly decorated. Moreover, they were in themselves expensive commodities that would have bolstered the cultural prestige of their owners.

The draw-leaf table

The Concert (detail), Johannes Vermeer

* Hiding in the deep foreground shadows of some interiors by Vermeer is a sturdy draw-leaf table, called a balpoottajel or trektajel in Dutch. From its origin in the beginning of the 17th century, the draw-leaf table evolved from a solid everyday object into richly ornamented veneered showpiece. One of the most characteristic features of the draw-leaf table is its bulbous spherical legs, which are most clearly visible in Vermeer's Art of Painting. Rather than waste an extremely thick piece of wood, the cabinet maker added wood blocks to all four sides of each leg before turning them. Thus, the leg was thickened only at the position of the ball. This process also reduced the chance of splitting the wood. The stretchers between the legs strengthen the table. In the first half of the 17th century, they form a rectangle; in the second half of the century, the stretcher moved to the middle of the table with a V-shaped connection at the two ends, a so-called double-Y form. The tables that appear in Vermeer's paintings appear to have the stretchers of the later type.

* the information on the Dutch draw-leaf table was drawn from Golden: Dutch and Flemish Masterworks from the Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo Collection (2011)

The background wall

The Lacemaker, Caspar Netshcer

The Lace Maker
Caspar Netscher
Oil on canvas, 33 x 27 cm.
The Wallace Collection, London

Since the Middle Ages, whitewashed walls were ubiquitously found in Dutch houses, castles and churches. Bare brick walls were kept only in industrial buildings or warehouses. However, these walls were not simply whitewashed with a brush; they were first covered with a thicker layer of putty, which was made from seashells, limestone or chalk. Walls could be whitewashed as many times as necessary to restore their pristine condition. In domestic settings whitewashed walls could be partially or completely covered with a wide choice of luxurious paneling or tapestries. Whitewashed walls had a practical as well as an aesthetic function. Pure white walls had the advantage of reflecting whatever light was available in overcast Netherlands, increasing the sense of domestic well-being. Moreover, the putty and successive build-up of the washes masked the irregularities of the bricks creating a relatively smooth surface that gathered less dust and soil, and the walls were easier to cleanse. Whitewashed walls also protected tapestries, maps and framed pictures from damage caused by the wall’s dampness. Although background walls appear in a great number of Dutch interior paintings, only a few artists, such as Caspar Netscher, dedicated as much attention as did Vermeer to this humble motif, and even then only in a sporadic manner.

The double shadows cast by the ebony-framed landscape on the background wall of The Concert indicate that two windows were open in the studio. Tto give the proper color to the many walls that appear in pictures of domestic interiors, Dutch painters generally employed the standard recipe ubiquitously adopted for depicting white objects of all sorts, from shiny ceramic ware and dainty lace to billowy clouds: lead white, bone or ivory black, and frequently, an earth pigment, usually the workhorse raw umber. By altering the quantities of these three base components a skilled painter was able to represent with unsurpassed naturalism the effects of light, shadow, substance and surface texture of each different kind of white object. Owing to their inherent neutrality, black and white were the obvious choice to produce the lighter shades ofgray; umber was generally added in the deepest shadows, as dark mixtures of gray appear unnaturally murky when only white and black are used.

Scientific analysis has shown that Vermeer used not only the conventional mixture of white lead and black to produce the gray tints adapted for painting his background walls, but natural ultramarine, one of the most precious pigments available to painters. The addition of minute amounts of blue lent the gray paint ever-so-slightly tinge, which suggests the cool temperature of natural daylight more effectively. Vermeer may have borrowed this technique from other painters, such as Gerard ter Borch, who is known to have added small amounts of blue to his gray mixtures when depicting the luminous satin gowns for which he became famous.

Critical assessment

The change in mood is most evident in the benign treatment of the male figure. He is still a visitor in an interior that obviously favors feminine presence. The two landscapes function as the map does in The Soldier and the Smiling Girl, framing his head against an image of the outer world, while enclosing the seated woman even more rigorously within the space of the room. Yet now the structure of the painting conspires to absorb him, and render his intrusive aspect as inconspicuous as possible.

Edward A. Snow, A Study of Vermeer, 1979

The signature

No signature appears on this work.

(Click here to access a complete study of Vermeer's signatures.)


Albert Blankert, Vermeer: 1632–1675, 1975

c. 1665–1666
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., The Public and the Private in the Age of Vermeer, London, 2000

c. 1663–1666
Walter Liedtke, Vermeer: The Complete Paintings, New York, 2008

c. 1664–1665
Wayne Franits, Vermeer, 2015

(Click here to access a complete study of the dates of Vermeer's paintings).

The painting in its frame

(Click here to access all of Vermeer's paintings in their frames).

The frame of Vermeer's stolen ConcertThe Concert, which once hung in this frame, is one of the paintings stolen in the 1990 Isabella Stewart Gardner heist.


  • (?) 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. 9;
  • Johannes Lodewijk Strantwijk sale, Amsterdam, 10 May, 1780, no. 150 (to A. Delfos for the 'Heer van Vlaardingen', the following);
  • Diederik van Leyden sale, Paris [Paillet], 5 November, 1804, no. 62 (to Paillet);
  • Sale, London (Foster), 26 February, 1835, no. 127;
  • Admiral Lysaght et al. sale, London [Christie's], 2 April, 1860, no. 49 (to Toothe);
  • [Demidoff] sale, Paris, 1 April, 1869, no. 14, evidently to Thoré-Bürger;
  • Thoré-Bürger (Etienne Joseph Théophile Thoré), Paris (?1869-d.1869);
  • Thoré-Bürger sale, Paris, 5 December, 1892, no. 31 (to Robert for Gardner);
  • Isabella Stewart Gardner, Boston (1869-d.1924);
  • Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston (inv. P21W27).


  • Boston 5–28 March, 1897
    One Hundred Masterpieces
    Copely Hall, Copley Society
    no. 98, as "The Muscians," lent by Mrs. John L. Gardner

(Click here to access a complete, sortable list of the exhibitions of Vermeer's paintings).

The painting in scale

(Click here to access all of Vermeer's paintings in scale).

Vermeer's Concert in scale

Vermeer's interiors: fact or fiction?

In the paintings of Vermeer, we find both fact and fiction combined according to the artist's necessities. While the window casements and walls appear to be have been factual, the marble floor patterns in most cases are fictive and were created with linear perspective and colored with imagination. While the movable props, such as the porcelain wine jugs, tables, pictures, mirrors and maps, were probably Vermeer's own, the tapestries and keyboard instruments, both rare and costly items, were very likely brought in for the occasion. It is also highly likely that he did not paint his figures entirely from life but used a mannequin so that the lighting on the folds of their dress would not be disturbed every time the sitter posed anew. To a good extent, the fickle Dutch weather would have tested the painter's memory since it would have been rare to observe a single lighting condition for any length of time.

Vermeer had access to such luxury items through various channels. His rich Delft patron, Pieter van Ruijven, is the most probable candidate although Vermeer's presumed connection with Constantijn Huygens, the Dutch diplomat, poet and musician, could have easily provided the artist contacts to the elite art lovers who would have been glad to loan him their instruments.

In a certain sense, Vermeer's painted environments are analogous to advertisements in today's interior design magazines which are assembled and properly lit only to be photographed (and afterward disassembled). Vermeer's perfect compositions represent an ideal of the interior—brighter, cleaner, neater and more richly decorated. Moreover, they were in themselves expensive commodities that would have bolstered the cultural prestige of their owners.

Musical gatherings: Merry Companies

A Merry Company Making Music, Dirck Hals

A Merry Company Making Music
Dirck Hals
Oil on oak panel, 23 x 31 cm.
Private collection

In the 17th century, music was an integral part of Dutch life from the lowest to the most elevated rungs of society. Musical gatherings, such at the one represented in The Concert, were not only a pleasurable way of seeking solace from the inevitable hardships of life but an accepted way to promote social contacts, particularly with the opposite sex, otherwise, highly regulated. Many songbooks published for domestic use were devoted exclusively to love.

Merry Companies, as they were called, had become a bread-and-butter motif of pioneering Dutch artists such as Dirk Hals, Willem Pietersz. Buytewech, Anthonie Palamadesz. and Willem Cornelisz. Duyster. They portrayed the conduct of the careless young, frittering away their lives on drink, women, music and revelry gathered around tables covered by freshly ironed linens and set with expensive goblets and platters. Musical instruments were prominently on display. Some Merry Companies include biblical analogies to suggest that a moral life avoids the perils of the easy life given over to indulging the senses. These scenes were also enjoyed as a substituting experience of the relaxed morals of the inn or brothel within an otherwise strict society.

When Vermeer turned his craft to the Merry Company motif it had been previously refined to an incredible degree by Gerrit ter Borch. However, only Vermeer was capable of infusing such a trivial genre with a sense of pictorial order and empathy.

Color in Vermeer's painting

The Concert (detail), Johannes Vermeer

When somber hues dominated the Dutch palettes in the decades prior to Vermeer's activity, most painters still found it difficult to resist the seductive power of a patch of bright color. Although few bright pigments were readily available, artists learned how to produce a range of lavish colors through multi-layered techniques and careful juxtaposition of color. Instead, Vermeer worked principally with the primary colors: blue, red and yellow. Measured areas of the primary colors are enclosed by areas of low-key silvery grays and subtle browns that lend them their unique character.

The range of Vermeer's strong colors was more restricted than those of many fellow genre painters. He employed orange and purple uniquely in his initial history paintings. The occasional patches of intense green which appear in his work play secondary roles and in most cases are composed of mixtures of yellow and blue pigments. He employed verdigris, the most lustrous of all green pigments so loved by early Flemish painters, only sparingly.

Thumbing through a catalogue of Vermeer's work, we notice that the costume of nearly every key figure is painted with red, blue or yellow. Only one important figure, the writing mistress in the Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid, is painted in a muted green. All of the red-clad figures were made early in his career. The secondary figures are usually rendered in dull or secondary hues: olive green, dull brown or black. By rendering the principal figures with bright, positive colors, the observer is signaled where he must look first, thereby reinforcing the narrative clarity of the painting.

The musical instruments in Vermeer's painting

The Painter in his Studio, Hendrick Pot

The Painter in his Studio
Hendrick Pot
c. 1650
Oil on wood, 42 x 48 cm.
Gemeentemuseum, The Hague

In fourteen of the thirty-seven known Vermeer paintings, a remarkable variety of musical instruments are portrayed even though they are not always clearly visible. Nonetheless, their frequency suggests that they held significant interest for the painter.

In Vermeer's oeuvre, we find four muselar virginals, one harpsichord, three bass viols, five citterns, two lutes, a guitar, a trumpet and a recorder. In eight or nine compositions, music-making is the central theme. We do not know whether Vermeer himself kept any musical instruments in his household, but his grandfather was a musician. In fact, after the death of her first husband, Vermeer's grandmother, Cornelia (Neeltge) Goris, married Claes Corstiaensz van der Minne in the same year. Claes was a tavern keeper and professional musician who lived in De Drie Hamers in Beestenmarkt. Claes owned a lute, a trombone, a shawm, two violins and a "cornet." However, not a single instrument was listed in the probate inventory of movable goods of the painter's dwelling. It is very likely that Vermeer's patrician mother-in-law, Maria Thins, had at least one instrument, perhaps a lute, and that the artist often had the chance to observe the more costly instruments first-hand at the home of his rich patron Pieter van Ruijven. In Van Ruijven's inventory of movable goods are listed a viola da gamba, a violin and two flutes, together with several music books.

Vermeer may also have had direct access to musical instruments through the wealthy Delft brewer Cornelis Graswinckel, whose remarkable collection of music books contained a sizable part of vocal music, several editions for keyboard instruments and tablatures for flutes. Moreover, many historians have speculated on Vermeer's ties with Constantijn Huygens, one of the foremost figures of Dutch 17th-century culture and an accomplished musician, composer and art connoisseur. If indeed Vermeer did know him, he would have certainly taken the half-hour's boat ride or hour's walk to the nearby Hague to admire his important collection of musical instruments.

How accurate are Vermeer's portrayals of musical instruments?

Early music expert Louis Peter Grijp points out that the instruments in Vermeer's paintings "are accurate, but they could be more accurate." Albert Pomme de Mirimonde ("Les Sujets musicaux chez Vermeer de Delft") wrote that the musical annotation on the crumpled sheet of paper lying on the foreground chair in Love Letter does not make musical sense. Moreover, the structure of the flute in the Girl with a Flute does not seem entirely convincing, a fact, together with other anomalies in the work, that has brought many Dutch painting experts to doubt its authenticity. All in all, the musical instruments in Vermeer's paintings seem to be coherent with his overall system of representation but do not evidence any particular knowledge of music or musical instruments.

Paintings in the Netherlands

Collector's Gallery, Frans Francken the Younger

Collector's Gallery
Frans Francken the Younger
Oil on panel, 115.5 x 148 cm.
Schönborn-Buchheim Collection,
Leichtenstein Museum, Liechtenstein

There may be no other country in which so many paintings were produced during the 17th century than in the United Provinces. It is estimated that between 1600 and 1700 no less than 5 million paintings were executed in small and large centers of painting. This astronomical figure is even more surprising if we remember the distrust of holy images professed by Calvinism. The wave of iconoclasm had destroyed an incalculable number of works of art. Today, the large churches in Dutch towns still welcome the faithful with bare whitewashed plastered walls, with plain, stark spaces. Inscriptions and coats of arms may sometimes grace the memorial tablets and sporadic images decorate the balustrades of the galleries, but everything else is strictly imageless.

Dutch homes, however, were covered with paintings and eventually became to be represented themselves in many domestic interior scenes. It was not uncommon for a Dutch citizen to own ten or fifteen paintings, in addition to prints and large maps. In the homes of the well-to-do, 50 paintings could be expected. The fact that Dutch paintings were generally very small and easy to handle made it easier to place them on the market and increased their diffusion. Laborers or peasants in the countryside probably could not afford paintings, but contemporary reports suggest that even humble homes often contained drawings and prints. Prices varied widely. While many paintings fetched fewer than 20 guilders, a large-scale portrait by Rembrandt could command 500 guilders and a small scene of everyday life by Leiden master Gerrit Dou 1,000, enough to buy a comfortable house.

A very prestigious art collection

Photograph of Thore Burger

Photograph of Thoré-Bürger from
the sales catalogue of the
Thoré-Bürger collection, 1892

Thoré-Bürger, who is considered the rediscoverer of Vermeer, wrote under the name of Wilhelm Burger. An exceptional enthusiast for Dutch 17th-century art, in 1866 Thoré published an important essay on the work of Vermeer which became extremely influential although it led to misunderstandings about Vermeer's oeuvre. Thoré attributed 66 pictures to Vermeer although there are only 35 or 36 paintings firmly attributed to him today.

Bürger did not himself have the financial means to acquire paintings on anything like the scale of the major European collectors with whom he was associated. Nevertheless, his collection, informed by his avid researches and his energetic search for related artworks, soon developed well beyond a "somewhat unusual gallery of bric- à-brac." He once possessed Vermeer's Concert, Lady Standing at a Virginal and the entrancing Woman with a Pearl Necklace.

Listen to period music

music icon Prelude 1 [1.39 MB]
François Couperin

from L'Art de Toucher de Clavecin,
performed by Hendrik Broekman
on a Flemish single harpsichord.

music icon Come, Charming Sleep
John Johnson

performed by members of Musica Antiqua,
Iowa State University.

Harpsichord by Andreas Ruckers

Harpsichord by Andreas Ruckers
National Music Museum
Vermillion, South Dakota

The Harpsichord

Like the virginal, the harpsichord is probably derived from the medieval psaltery with a keyboard applied to be able to play polyphonic music (melody with accompanying chords).

The earliest known reference to a harpsichord dates from 1397 telling that a certain Hermann Poll claimed to have invented an instrument called "clavicembalum." The earliest known representation is a sculpture in an altarpiece of 1425 from Minden/North-West Germany.

The main centers for harpsichord production were situated in Germany, Flanders (above all Antwerp with the renowned families Ruckers and Couchet) and Italy.

The harpsichord reached its peak in the 16th and 17th centuries but remained in use throughout the 18th century fro solo keyboard music (above all Bach, Couperin, Froberger) as well as an essential participant in chamber music, orchestral music and opera (accompaniment of the "recitativo").

The harpsichord is characterized by its elongated wing shape similar to a grand piano, which results from the fact that the strings, growing progressively longer from treble to bass, run directly away from the player. The heart of the harpsichord's mechanism is the jack, a slender slip of wood that stands resting on the back of the key. The top of the jack carries a plectrum that plucks the strings when the key is depressed. There are two strings per key, the courses, tuned either to the same pitch or in octave. A padded bar placed overhead—the jackrail—prevents the jack from flying out of the instrument, when the key is struck.

Two manuals were common, though the upper manual was originally used for transposing. Only in the second half of the 17th century, the additional manual was used to create contrast in tone with the ability to couple the registers of both manuals for a fuller sound.

A high-class bordello scene?

The Seduction, Caspar Netscher

The Seduction (detail)
Caspar Netscher
Oil on panel, 38 x 32 cm.
Private collection

Once the popular brothel scenes of the Utrecht school had lost commercial steam, the theme was adroitly recycled into a new idiom of elegant genre interiors. Earlier Vermeer writers, taking the clue of the explicit bordello scene by Dirck van Baburen which hangs in a heavy black frame to the right, proposed that Vermeer had portrayed in the Concert one such high-class but thinly disguised bordello with a moralizing function, equating it to a sort of Christian sermon. Recent scholarship has questioned whether the affluent Dutch needed reminders of moral values in art and propose that Van Baburen's work was meant to contrast the chaste, musical meeting even though it is not out of the question that Vermeer may have meant to overlap hints of vice and virtue.

In the work by Caspar Netscher of roughly the same years as Vermeer's Concert, the elegant young woman standing at left assumes the role of the procuress. She points insistently at her palm demanding money from the young man seated before her (the same gesture is seen in Van Baburen's work). The "gentleman," in turn, dutifully offers up a gold coin in payment. The second young woman, clad in a lustrous satin gown, is poised with pitcher and glass, ready to commence festivities the moment the transaction is completed.

Who would have bought scenes of prostitution?

To understand who bought painted scenes of prostitution like Vermeer's Procuress we need not look further than Vermeer's own household. In fact, Dirck van Baburen's Procuress, which hung as a conspicuous background prop in two works by Vermeer, was the property of his staunchly Catholic patrician mother-in-law, Maria Thins.

In some respects, this immensely popular genre reflects the ubiquity of the prostitution trade in 17th-century Netherlands but it does not explain why the genre was sought after by elite buyers. In any case, neither Vermeer's Procuress nor the hundreds of similar paintings reflect real, sordid working conditions of mankind's oldest trade in those times. Traditional art history theory has it that bordellos scenes were meant to have a moralizing significance on the viewer but Wayne Franits points out that "interest in offensive materials permeated Dutch society all levels, a fact that does not square with lingering modern constructs of a sober, religiously zealous Calvinist nation. The pervasiveness of such materials naturally provoked impassioned condemnation by leaders of the Reformed Church but it would be a mistake to assume that their denouncements were endorsed by the population at large."

In fact, theatre, itself controlled by the cultural elite, featured a consistent flow of comical lewdness and risqué plots. These sophisticated theatre-goers were evidently the same who collected paintings like Vermeer's Procuress, whose overtly lewd subject ran no risk of being misunderstood. Most likely, the distance between the elite buyers and the explicit sexual contents of both this type of theatre and painting was maintained by the sophisticated qualities of the artistic production and the fact that the subjects belonged to a separate, inferior social class.

The man's long hair

The Concert (detail), Johannes Vermeer

Despite their look of bygone times, Vermeer represented a world of rapidly changing moral codes and fashions. Some of his painting can even be dated by the hairstyles of his women. Before the 1620s, men and boys were often portrayed with short hair. As early as the 1640s, the fashion of long hair had become unstoppable. Youths, students, university scholars, the urban elite, and even ministers, especially the younger ones, were all letting their hair grow. Godefridus Cornelis Udemans, one of the most influential theologians of his generation, argued for keeping one's hair short-cropped because long hair endangered their masculinity. He considered young men with long hair to be feminine and applied the simple logic that when young men sported long locks, they not only physically resembled women but also behaved like them. Consequently, men became vain and would squander endless hours grooming in front of a mirror. After the 1670s long hair on men had become the mainstream fashion, even young ministers. All of Vermeer's men wear long hair.

drawn from: Sex and Drugs before Rock 'n Roll: Youth Culture and Masculinity during Holland's Golden Age, by Benjamin B. Roberts (2012)

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