The Concert

(Het concert)
c. 1663–1666
Oil on canvas
72.5 x 64.7 cm. (28 1/2 x 25 1/2 in.)
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston
inv. P21W27

there are 11 hotspots in the image below
The Concert, Johannes Vermeer

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

No signature appears on this work.

Albert Blankert, Vermeer: 1632–1675, 1975

c. 1665–1666
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., Vermeer: The Complete Works, New York, 1997

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

c. 1664–1665
Wayne Franits, Vermeer, 2015



The frame of Vermeer's stolen Concert
The 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
Vermeer's Concert in scale
vermeer's life

In the early and mid-1660s Vermeer paints a series of extraordinary pictures of single women in the corner of a room absorbed in their activity. Even their most striking passages of observation are always subordinated to the impression made by the whole composition.

A French diplomat and art connoisseur Balthasar de Monconys visits Vermeer in Delft. In his diary he notes that he was unable to see any paintings there and had to visit the house of a baker where he saw a painting with a single figure.

De Monconys comes initially as a tourist, evidently unaware of Vermeer's presence. A few weeks later, he went to pay his respects in The Hague to Constantijn Huygens, an important art connoisseur and theorist of Dutch culture. De Monconys admired his art collection and described it in detail. However, one can only imagine how amazed Huygens must have been to hear that the Frenchman had been in Delft, without visiting Vermeer. It seems a reasonable assumption that Huygens urged de Monconys to meet with the Delft painter, given the Frenchman's predilection for fine art. Not long afterward, de Monconys did indeed visit with Vermeer at his house, and wrote the following account in his diary journal, which was published in 1665, the year of his death: "In Delft I saw the painter Verme(e)r who did not have any of his works: but we did see one at a baker's, for which six hundred livres had been paid, although it contained but a single figure, for which six pistoles would have been too high a price." Simply put, de Monconys thought the painting he saw was worth less than a tenth of the price mentioned.

c. 1663 a son named Johannes, named after himself, is born to Vermeer.

dutch painting

Rembrandt depicts himself as a bit player in his painting The Raising of the Cross.

Jan Steen paints The Drawing Lesson.

Pieter de Hooch: At the Linen Closet.

Adriaen van de Velde paints Cattle near a Building.

Pieter de Hoogh, who had moved away from Delft to Amsterdam to seek more patronage, returns to Delft at least once in this year.

european painting & architecture

Bernini: Scala Regia, Vatican, Rome

Building of Castle Nymphenburg, near Munich.

Nicolas Poussin paints The Four Seasons.

France's minister of finance Jean-Baptiste Colbert appoints painter Charles Le Brun director of the Gobelins, which will grow under Le Brun's direction from a small tapestry manufactory into a vast enterprise that supplies all of the royal houses. The Academy of Painting and Sculpture is reorganized, with Le Brun as its director.


Mar 7, Tomaso Antonio Vitali, composer, is born.

Pascal: L'Equilibre des liqueurs (posth.)


The Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres (the Academy of the Humanities) is founded in Paris.

John Milton marries Elizabeth Minshull.

science & philosophy

Isaac Newton discovers the binomial theorem.

Physicist Otto von Guericke invents the first electric generator. It produces static electricity by applying friction against a revolving ball of sulfur, and Guericke will show in 1672 that the electricity can cause the surface of the sulfur ball to glow.


Dutch forces hold the best pepper ports of India's Malabar Coast, giving them a virtual stranglehold on the spice trade once controlled by Portugal.

A Third Navigation Act adopted by Parliament July 27 forbids English colonists to trade with other European countries. European goods bound for America must be unloaded at English ports and reshipped, even though English export duties and profits to middlemen may make prices prohibitive in America.

vermeer's life

In a death inventory of the English sculptor Jean Larson, who lived in the Hague, is listed "a head by Vermeer." Some critics believe it may have bee the Girl with a Pearl Earring.

In the early to mid-1660s Vermeer refined all the qualities of his mature style. In his orderly designs, Vermeer gave new life to familiar patterns of contemporary genre painting by closely studying the subtleties of appearance.

dutch painting

Pieter de Hoogh paints Young Woman Weighing Gold

Jan Steen: paints The Christening Feast.

Frans Hals, one of the most fashionable portraitists of his time and now in his late sixties, paints two of his most significant group portraits, the Regents and Regentesses of the Old Men's Alshouse at Haarlem. Owing to his dire poverty he will be given a small allowance by the town of Haarlem.

european painting & architecture

Nicola Poussin paints Apollo and Daphne

John Vanbrugh, Eng. architect and dramatist, is born.

Christopher Wren: Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford.

Francisco de Zurbaran, Spanish painter, dies.


The French horn becomes an orchestral instrument.

Oratorio: Christmas Oratorio by Heinrich Schütz at Dresden.


William Shakespeare - the second impression of the Third Folio, which added seven plays to the thirty-six of the First Folio and the Second: Pericles, Prince of Tyre and six works from the Shakespeare Apocrypha.

Thomas Killigrew and the King's Company stage Killigrew's The Parson's Wedding with an all-female cast. Killigrew attempts a similar all-female production of his play Thomaso, though the project is never realized.

science & philosophy

Robert Hooke discovers the Great Red Spot (an extremely persistent storm) on Jupiter and uses it to determine the period of Jupiter's rotation, which is astonishingly less than ten hours despite Jupiter's great size.

Giovanni Alfonso Borelli, calculates the orbit of a comet and finds that it is a parabola (not a circle, ellipse, or line as expected in various earlier theories).

Descartes' Traité de l'homme et de la formation de foetus (treatise on man and the formation of the fetus), printed posthumously, describes animals as purely mechanical beings; that is, there is no "vital force" that makes animals different from other material objects.

Christiaan Huygens proposes that the length of a pendulum with a period of one second should be the standard unit for length.


Aug 29, Adriaen Pieck/Gerrit de Ferry patented a wooden firespout in Amsterdam.

New Amsterdam handed over by Peter Stuyvesant to the English, who renames the city New York

Amsterdam passes a regulation banning the sale of "rotten, spoiled, or defective spinach, cucumbers, and carrots, ears of corn, radishes, or other fruits [vegetables] because pride could not be taken in or from such things."

Slavery is introduced into the Caribbean island of Montserrat and will not be abolished until 1834.

The Black Death kills 24,000 in old Amsterdam while the English are taking Nieuw Amsterdam. The plague spreads to Brussels and throughout much of Flanders, and in December it kills two Frenchmen in London's Drury Lane. Men who put the dead into the deadcarts keep their pipes lit in the belief, now widespread, that tobacco smokers will somehow be spared.

Samuel Pepys buys forks for his household, but most Englishmen continue to eat with their fingers and will continue to do so until early in the next century lest they be considered effete or, in the opinion of some clergymen, even sacrilegious. A man going out to dinner has for centuries brought his own spoon and knife, the spoon being folded into the pocket and the knife carried in a scabbard attached to the belt; more men now carry folding forks as well.

The Kronenbourg Brewery founded in Alsace will continue into the 21st century to produce beer.

vermeer's life Pieter van Ruijven and his wife Maria Knuijt leave 500 guilders to Vermeer in their last will and testament. This kind of a bequest is very unusual and testifies a close relationship between Vermeer and Van Ruijven that went beyond the usual patron/painter one. It would seem that in his life-time the rich Delft burger had bought a sizable share of Vermeer's artistic output.
dutch painting

Rembrandt paints The Jewish Bride.

Adriaen van Ostade paints The Physician in His Study.

c. 1665 Gerrit Dou painted Woman at the Clavichord and a Self-Portrait in which he resembled Rembrandt.

european painting & architecture

Bernini finishes high altar, Saint Peter's, Rome (begun 1656).

Murillo: Rest on the Flight into Egypt.

Nicolas Poussin, French painter, dies. Known as the founder of French Classicism, he spent most of his career in Rome which he reached at age 30 in 1624. His Greco-Romanism work includes The Death of Chione and The Abduction of the Sabine Women.

Compagnie Saint-Gobain is founded by royal decree to make mirrors for France's Louis XIV. It will become Europe's largest glass-maker.

Francesco Borromini completes Rome's Church of San Andrea delle Fratte.


Molière: Don Giovanni.

Sep 22, Moliere's L'amour Medecin, premiered in Paris.


Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society begins publication.

science & philosophy

Giovanni Cassini determines rotations of Jupiter, Mars, and Venus.

Peter Chamberlen, court physician to Charles 11, invents midwifery forceps

Pierre de Fermat, French mathematician, dies. His equation xn + yn = zn is called Fermat's Last Theorem and remained unproven for many years. The history of its resolution and final proof by Andrew Wiles is told by Amir D. Aczel in his 1996 book Fermat's Last Theorem. Fermat's Enigma: The Epic Quest to Solve the World's Greatest Mathematical Problem by Simon Singh was published in 1997. In 1905 Paul Wolfskehl, a German mathematician, bequeathed a reward of 100,000 marks to whoever could find a proof to Fermat's "last theorem." It stumped mathematicians until 1993, when Andrew John Wiles made a breakthrough.

Francis Grimaldi: Physicomathesis de lumine (posth.) explains diffraction of light.

Isaac Newton experiments on gravitation; invents differential calculus.

Robert Hooke's Micrographia, with illustrations of objects viewed through a microscope, is published. The book greatly influences both scientists and educated laypeople. In it, Hooke describes cells (viewed in sections of cork) for the first time. Fundamentally, it is the first book dealing with observations through a microscope, comparing light to waves in water.

Mathematician Pierre de Fermat dies at Castres January 12 at age 63, having (with the late Blaise Pascal) founded the probability theory. His remains will be reburied in the family vault at Toulouse.


English naval forces defeat a Dutch fleet off Lowestoft June 3 as a Second Anglo-Dutch war begins, 11 years after the end of the first such war. General George Monck, 1st duke of Albemarle, commands the English fleet, Charles II bestows a knighthood on Irish-born pirate Robert Holmes, 42, and promotes him to acting rear admiral, giving him command of the new third-rate battleship Defiance, but the Dutch block the entrance to the Thames in October.

Feb 6, Anne Stuart, queen of England (1702–1714), is born.

At least 68,000 Londoners died of the plague in this year.

University of Kiel is founded.

The second war between England and the United Provinces breaks out. It will last until 1667 and devastate the art market.

Mar 11, A new legal code was approved for the Dutch and English towns, guaranteeing religious observances unhindered.

Nov 7, The London Gazette, the oldest surviving journal, is first published.

Ceylon becomes important trade centre for the VOC

vermeer's life

The Concert presents a very similar deep spatial recession similar to the earlier Music Lesson. Vermeer's interest in the accurate portrayal of three dimensional perspective to create such an effect was shared by other interior genre painters of the time, however, only Vermeer seems to have fully and consciously understood the expressive function of perspective. The two paintings' underlying theme of music between male and female company is also analogous although few critics believe they were conceived as a pendant.

In the paintings of the 1660s the painted surfaces are smoother and less tactile, the lighting schemes tend to be less bold. These pictures convey and impalpable air of reticence and introspection, unique among genre painters with the possible exception of Gerrit ter Borch.

dutch painting Frans Hals, eminent Dutch portrait painter, dies. It was formerly believed that he died in the Oudemannenhuis almshouse in Haarlem which was later became the Frans Halsmuseum.
european painting & architecture

François Mansart, French architect, dies.

Apr 9, 1st public art exhibition (Palais Royale, Paris).

music Dec 5, Francesco Antonio Nicola Scarlatti, composer, is born.
literature Le Misanthrope by Molière is palyed at the Palais-Royal, Paris.
science & philosophy

Laws of gravity established by Cambridge University mathematics professor Isaac Newton, 23, state that the attraction exerted by gravity between any two bodies is directly proportional to their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. Newton has returned to his native Woolsthorpe because the plague at Cambridge has closed Trinity College, where he is a fellow; he has observed the fall of an apple in an orchard at Woolsthorpe and calculates that at a distance of one foot the attraction between two objects is 100 times stronger than at 10 feet. Although he does not fully comprehend the nature of gravity, he concludes that the force exerted on the apple is the same as that exerted on Earth by the moon.

Calculusis invented by Isaac Newton will prove to be one of the most effective tool for scientific investigation ever produced by mathematics.

Nov 14, Samuel Pepys reported the on first blood transfusion, which was between dogs.

The plague decimates London and Isaac Newton moved to the country. He had already discovered the binomial theorem at Cambridge and was offered the post of professor of mathematics. Newton formulates his law of universal gravitation.

A French Academy of Sciences (Académie Royale des Sciences) founded by Louis XIV at Paris seeks to rival London's 4-year-old Royal Society. Jean Baptiste Colbert has persuaded the king to begin subsidizing scientists. Christiaan Huygens, along with 19 other scientists, is elected as a founding member. After the French Revolution, the Royale is dropped and the character of the academy changes. It later becomes the Institut de France.


Sep 2, The Great Fire of London, started at Pudding Lane, began to demolish about four-fifths of London when in the house of King Charles II's baker, Thomas Farrinor, forgets to extinguish his oven. The flames raged uncontrollably for the next few days, helped along by the wind, as well as by warehouses full of oil and other flammable substances. Approximately 13,200 houses, 90 churches and 50 livery company halls burn down or explode. But the fire claimed only 16 lives, and it actually helped impede the spread of the deadly Black Plague, as most of the disease-carrying rats were killed in the fire.

Because almost all European paper is made from recycled cloth rags, which are becoming increasingly scarce as more and more books and other materials are printed, the English Parliament bans burial in cotton or linen cloth so as to preserve the cloth for paper manufacture.

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 the luxury items through a number of 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 afterwards 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 which would have bolstered cultural prestige of their owners.

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 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 (see left), 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 a 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.

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 with 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 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 posthumous inventory of movable goods in the 1676 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-centuy 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.

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.

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 lead to some 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.

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 century but remained in use throughout the 18th century, for performance of 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 which 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 for contrast of tone with the ability to couple the registers of both manuals for a fuller sound.

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 (see detail left) 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.

In order 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 property of his staunchly Catholic and 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 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 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)