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Girl Interrupted in her Music

(Onderbreking van de muziek)
c. 1658–1661
Oil on canvas
39.3 x 44.4 cm. (15 1/2 x 17 1/2 in.)
Frick Collection, New York
acc. no. 11.1.125
Girl Interrupted in her Music, Johannes Vermeer

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Cupid as a "picture-within-a-picture"

Amorum emblemata, Otto Vaenius

Amorum emblemata ("Perfectus amor non est nisi ad unum")
Otto Vaenius
Engraving, 1608
Antwerp: [Typis Henrici Swingenii] Venalia apud Auctorem, 1608

Much has been written about the Cupid picture-within-a-picture which hangs on the background wall. Until the painting was restored in 1907, however, it was covered by an expanse of wall and a small violin hung by a nail. Such pictures were a popular pictorial device intended to provide supplementary information or commentary, often moralistic, on the scene which unfolds below.

The work has been linked to two images: one, a Cupid in the style of Vermeer's contemporary Cesar van Everdingen and two, an illustration in an emblem book.

In the case of the present work, the Cupid may be intended as a cautioning to the young couple whose musical activity only partially dissimulates the amorous intention of the young cavalier. In fact, according to Eddy de Jongh, the image of a Cupid with an upraised hand was probably adopted from a popular emblem book by Otto van Veen which advises one must have only one lover. Vermeer expert Walter Liedtke pointed out that Vermeer's version, however, lacks various attributes of Van Veen's image and consequentially the Cupid may simply indicate that "love is in the air." Alternatively, if Vermeer's Cupid holds in his upheld hand a blank card instead of a tablet, it may indicate that love is a game of chance. Unfortunately, this passage is in such a poor state that the painting's story may never be entirely clear.

The oversized Cupid may have been part of the art collection of Vermeer's patrician mother-in-law, Maria Thins. It should be remembered that except in rare cases, paintings were inexpensive compared to other objects of luxury consumption such as jewelry or silver plates. Paintings in Dutch homes had other functions than as precious works of art.

The courting cavalier

Teasing the Pet, Frans van Mieris

Teasing the Pet
Frans van Mieris
Oil on panel, 27.5 x 20 cm.
The Hague, Mauritshuis

The fashionable cavalier bends over a young girl and politely props up the sheet music which she holds with her hands. Although the cavalier's eyes are lowered, his attempt to let the music and a little red wine serve the amorous cause is readily apparent. Vermeer may have drawn inspiration for his figures from Jan Steen's Music Master or Frans van Mieris' Teasing the Pet, although he reworked the body language and facial expressions of the figures to convey a more restrained atmosphere.

The gentlemen may reflect a popular literary convention of the time whereby men, overpowered by love, were compared to mice caught in traps, or ominously threaten by cats, to squirrels running futilely on caged wheels, to stags shot by arrows, to insects attracted by burning candles"

Unfortunately, the cavalier's cloak has been almost destroyed by time and restorations of the past.

Wine, music making and courtship

Girl Interrupted in her Music (detail), Johannes Vermeer

As usual, Vermeer derived the great part of his themes and compositions from the works of successful interior painters of the time. The prototypes of this work show a man and woman absorbed actively in music making, both of whom are unaware of the observer. In this painting, similar to the earlier Girl with a Wine Glass, Vermeer introduced a pictorial device that complicates the reading of the painting and constrains the viewer to become involved in the scene. Instead of actively engaging the cavalier, the young woman momentarily turns her attention towards the observer suspending her relationship with the unaware cavalier.

Marieke de Winkel, a Dutch costume expert, points out the type of headgear worn by the young woman was partly ornamental and served to protect the hairdo before and after dressing.

The Low Countries had been famous for cloth manufacture since the Middle Ages. It remained the most important part of the Dutch industrial economy, benefiting greatly from the emigration of large numbers of textile workers from the south. Linen was Haarlem's most famous product. Workers specialized in bleaching and finishing locally woven cloth as well as cloth shipped in from other parts of Europe. The bleached linen was used to make clothing such as caps (mutsen), aprons, night shawls, collars and cuffs, which are often seen in Vermeer's paintings.

Unfortunately, like much of the picture, the young girl's skirt and jacket have suffered the passing of time and heavy-handed retouching. Of the two figures, perhaps, only the face of the young woman has maintained some of its original nuance.

The Dutch songbook

The Music Lesson, Jacob Ochtervelt

The Music Lesson
Jacob Ochtervelt
c. 1667
Oil on canvas, 69 x 58 cm.
Reiss-Engelhorn-Museen, Mannheim, Germany

Although we know nothing of Vermeer's tastes in music and the arts, the people he chose to represent would have ideally belonged to the haute bourgeoisie who wrote and spoke several languages and who collected European poetry and songbooks. Songbooks, one of which can be observed on the table (complete with musical notation), played a conspicuous role in the rituals of modern courtship, the theme of the present work.

Since Dutch music was in great part uninventive, Dutch songbooks contained many French as native airs. Amateur musicians, like the two which Vermeer represents in this painting, probably collected them in numbers. Music making provided the ideal ground on which both parties could approach each other without the presence of parents or older guardians.

Young musicians had a vast choice of foreign and local songbooks, which were called liedboeken, or collections of love songs. The Dutch music expert Louis Peter Grijp pointed out how these books frequently reflected the local culture containing references to favorite meeting places for lovers, taverns, etc. Some songs proclaimed the beauty of local women over those of other towns while others demonstrated a growing affection for national Dutch identity. The dedicatory preface of Den Nieuwen Lust-Hof, one such music book, was to the "Young Ladies of the Netherlands." One author from Utrecht complained that the local youth had not purchased his previous works because they had preferred the more elaborate songbooks of Amsterdam and Haarlem.

Some songbooks included risqué lyrics while others were polite. In a single volume, one may occasionally find refined Petrarchan-inspired love songs, vulgar songs of prostitutes, festive drinking as well as pious hymns and even patriotic tunes. While many emphasized moral integrity, the readers themselves were never directly admonished, evidently assuming that they were already of impeccable character.

The ceramic wine jug

Girl Interrupted in her Music (detail), Johannes Vermeer

In the center of the still life, behind the wooden body of the cittern, sits a thin-necked vase with blue designs and a silver cap. It is most likely a wine jug made in Delft, which was one of the principal centers of porcelain producers in the Netherlands. Similar porcelain was imported in vast quantities from China by the VOC, the first company of public holding which, likewise, extended its trading routes all over the world. By 1645, imports stagnated triggering a fascinating development in the Netherlands. Since the 1620s earthenware producers in Delft, Haarlem, and probably Rotterdam had been trying to make high-quality imitations of Chinese porcelain with limited success. However, it was only after a prolonged period of experimentation that they succeeded in making thin, light, white-glazed earthenware decorated in blue in the Chinese style. Delft became the center of the industry taking advantage of the failed beer breweries that could be accommodated the sprawling potteries. Their imitation products eventfully became so refined that they were exported back to China.

In its heyday, more than thirty potteries operated in Delft, making everything from simple household vessels to decorative panels. Most Delftware is decorated with blue on a white ground, but some objects featured a range of colors. One original maker, Royal Delft (the former Porceleyne Fles / Porcelain Bottle), founded in 1653, is still producing today.

The birdcage: someone else's idea

Girl Interrupted in her Music (detail), Johannes Vermeer

In 1899, Hofstede de Groot complained that the bird\cage and violin (which once hung on the background wall where the painting of a large Cupid now stands) were freshly painted. The present-day conservator of the Frick Collection also considers the cage an addition by a later hand. Birdcages were a popular feature in Dutch interior paintings and had various symbolic meanings, all of which are irrelevant to the original concept of the present work by Vermeer.

The "Spanish" chair

Girl Interrupted in her Music (detail), Johannes Vermeer

In this picture, Vermeer included depicted three so-called Spanish chairs. The magnificently rendered foreground chair, which has fortunately escaped damage caused by heavy-handed restorations of the past, constitutes one of the finest passages of the painting. The back of the hand-carved lion-head finials isas if sculpted with globular flicks of thick light paint that recall the "circles of confusion," optical aberrations produced by the camera obscura, a kind of precursor to the modern photographic camera. A cushion with a deep blue velvet covering rests on the seat.

Both the brass studs and the lozenge patterns of the background chair appear innumerable times in genre interior painting of the time testifying to the popularity of this kind of furniture. Spanish chairs take their name from the embossed leather used for their coverings.

The unfortunate fate of the red jacket

Girl Interrupted in her Music (detail), Johannes Vermeer

Unfortunately, the girl's red garment has suffered aggressive restorations of the past and now appears flattened and without specific substance.

Most likely, Vermeer had employed a common painting technique called glazing to achieve its cherry-red color. The garment was first modeled with the brightest red available to the artist's of the time, natural vermilion with a decidedly orange overtone, traces of black in the deepest shadows and a bit of white here and there to lighten the folds. Once this layer of paint was thoroughly dry, one or more thin layers of transparent red madder (a deep ruby red pigment) was laid on top to give the garment depth and see-through transparency.

Wine-drinking and ritualized seduction?

Girl Interrupted in her Music (detail), Johannes Vermeer

The association between the wine glass and conviviality is found countless times in the 17th-century "merry companies," an extension of the popular feast scenes of the preceding century which usually featured elaborately dressed figures in an interior, drinking, gaming, playing music, and, on occasion, engaging in amorous pursuits. By the second half of the 17th century, such gatherings had been largely tamed and the figures were reduced to two, three or even one. Consequentially, wine drinking assumed different connotations.

The wine glass in the present composition was depicted with such discretion that it could easily go unnoticed. However, it was introduced to subtly enhance the theme of an attempted, albeit, highly ritualized seduction. In fact, wine drinking and music making, both overlapping subjects in Vermeer's interior pictures, were associated with love in the 17th century.

Manners books established that a glass of wine was not to be gulped down all at once but should be drunk in two or three times. The glass of wine in Vermeer's work stands untouched as if to underline the restraint which both parties exercise as they quietly work their way through their amorous relationship.

The painting's poor condition

No expert eye is required to comprehend the poor state of conservation of much of the present work. The ebony-framed Cupid, once incautiously overpainted with a patch of flat wall and a hanging violin can barely be made out. The uncertain modulation of the gray background wall is rough at best, and significant areas of the canvas surface are abraded. Although this sorry state deprives much of the work's original nuance, there nonetheless exist some passages of exquisite facture.

The bad state of conservation may explain some apparent anomalies of the motifs. In such a room one would expect to find some sort of tiling in-keeping with the elaborate window rather than the indecipherable blank passage of flat brown paint in the lower right-hand corner which we now see.

The Cupid once appeared in the background of the earlier Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window before it was painted out, however, proportionately much more imposing than in the present work. The conspicuous discrepancy in scale warns the modern viewer to be aware that Vermeer took significant liberties while constructing his seemingly naturalistic renderings. The same Cupid, traditionally accredited to Cesar van Everdingen, finally appears in all its unabashed glory in one of the artist's latest works, A Lady Standing at a Virginal.

The light-filled window

diagram of a window of a Vermeer's interior

Along with the black and white marble flooring, one of the most characteristic features of Vermeer's interiors is the leaded, multi-paned window that appears in the present work. The window's design is a complex pattern of interlocking squares, circles and semi-circles with a central panel of four squares bounded by four semi-circles. Vermeer repeated this particular design eight times, often barely recognizable. It can be observed most advantageously in The Music Lesson. In six pictures, the leading is filled with plane, transparent glass but in The Girl with a Wine Glass, The Glass of Wine and the Woman Writing a Letter with her Maid, the central motif is decorated with an elaborate, colored coat of arms. Although the same square-and-circle arrangement is repeated in the Woman with a Water Pitcher and the Woman with a Lute, the window sill appears more rustic than the carefully carved one of the present picture. Moreover, the latter is set flush against the background wall. Such dissimilarities indicate that different room are portrayed, naturally, if we are to believe in the artist's absolute fidelity to his motif.

Although it is not possible to understand from reproductions, the window and its decorative elements are executed with uncanny precision. This passage, one of the best-preserved in a picture heavily damaged by time, betrays a move away from a more granular, material treatment of the early Milkmaid and Officer and Laughing Girl towards a more refined paint handling that barely breaks the surface of the canvas. This refined, or net technique as it was called by the Dutch, is more consonant to the genteel, sophisticated environments and perfectly balanced compositions that Vermeer will bring into full fruition in the later single-figure works like the Woman Holding a Balance, Woman with a Pearl Necklace and the Woman with a Water Pitcher.

The light which flows gently through the window is so convincingly evoked that it may alone qualify the work as by Vermeer, even though some earlier experts had doubted its authenticity.

The gentleman's cloak

Both the abraded cloak of the gentleman and the petticoat of the young girl are in such poor condition that is not easy to understand what the cause may be. Both their modeling and colors are weak by Vermeer's standards. However, there exists significant evidence that the painting was heavily retouched after it left Vermeer's studio. The hazy painting-within-a-painting was only discovered after its restoration in 1907; it had been covered up by a wall and a hanging violin. Conservation specialists have revealed that the birdcage is a later addition. The muddled insensitive modeling of the girl's red jacket is also uncharacteristic of Vermeer's technique of this time.

The cittern

musical scor of Vermeer's Girl Interrupted in her Music

On the table lays a stringed musical instrument called the cittern, which is turned at such a highly oblique angle that it may be unrecognizable for all but period music specialists. A series of light notes can be clearly made out on the exposed page of music book next to the instrument. The two figures are probably deliberating on another pace of sheet music, on which, however, no notes are visible, held by both the young lady and her suitor. The shape of a cittern resembles the modern banjo more than the lute. But, like the lute, it is constructed entirely of wood. However, like the banjo it is strung with wire which gives this instrument its characteristic metallic twang. Its flat-back design made it simpler and cheaper to construct than the lute. It was also easier to play, smaller and less fragile. Played by all classes, the cittern was a premier instrument of casual music-making much as is the guitar today.

Very few seventeenth-century citterns have survived. There are two surviving cittern manuscripts from the mid-seventeenth century: Robert Edwards' Commonplace Book and the Millar/Macalman manuscript. These contain mostly secular music presented as vocal solos with accompaniment, as well as purely instrumental music. The level of complexity, sophistication and technical difficulty varies widely. Before the early seventeenth century the cittern was generally played by professional musicians. By the mid-seventeenth century, it had come to be thought of as an instrument for amateurs. The early playing technique is similar to that of a lute. During the sixteenth and very early seventeenth centuries, music published for the cittern was set in tablature and clearly indicates that the strings are to be plucked with the fingers. Later, playing simple chords with a plectrum became more common.

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. 1660–1661
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., The Public and the Private in the Age of Vermeer, London, 1997

c. 1658–1659
Walter Liedtke, Vermeer: The Complete Paintings, New York, 2008

c. 1658–1659
Wayne Franits, Vermeer, 2015

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

Critical assessment

The fine, plain-weave linen with a thread count of 14 x 15 per cm² retains its original tacking edges; on both left and right sides are selvedges; The support has been glue/paste lined. The double ground consists of a white layer, containing chalk, lead white, and umber, followed by a reddish brown layer. The ground was left uncovered along several outlines of the figures and the wine jug. It extends a few millimeters over the tacking edges.

Parts of the window, red dress, chair, and many of the highlights were painted wet-in-wet, with impasto in the highlights, the fruit, and the red skirt of the figure in the window. Ultramarine is used extensively in the window, the background, the tablecloth, and in the underpaint of the shadows of the girl's red dress. The position of the heads of the standing man and the girl, and the bows in her hair, have been slightly altered. Some parts of the painting appear unfinished, such as the wall between the male figures, and the arm and cuff of the girl. There is degraded medium in the ultramarine mixtures and the pigment appears discolored.

* Johannes Vermeer (exh. cat., National Gallery of Art and Royal Cabinet of Paintings Mauritshuis - Washington and The Hague, 1995, edited by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.)

The painting in its frame

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

Girl Interrupted in her Music with frame, Johannes Vermeer


  • Pieter de Smeth van Alphen, Amsterdam (Van Alphen sale, 12 August, 1810, no. 57, to J. de Vries);
  • Henry Croese et al. sale, Amsterdam, 18 September, 1811, no. 45, to Roos;
  • Cornelis Sebille Roos (1811–1820); Roos sale, Amsterdam, 28 August, 1820, no. 64, to Brondgeest or to N.N.;
  • Samuel Woodburn sale, London (Christie's), 24 June, 1853, no. 128, to Smith or directly to Gibson;
  • Francis Gibson, Saffron Walden (d. 1858); his daughter, Mrs Lewis Fry, Clifton, near Bristol;
  • [Lawrie & Co., London]; [Knoedler, New York, 1901];
  • Henry Clay Frick, New York (1901-d. 1919);
  • The Frick Collection, New York (acc. no. 11.1.125).


  • London 1900
    Exhibition of Pictures by Dutch Masters of Seventeenth Century
    Burlington Fine Arts Club
    26, no. 23 as "The Music Lesson," lent by Lewis Fry, Esq., M. P.
  • St. Louis 1904
    St. Louis World's Fair
    73, no. 93, as "The Music Lesson" lent by Mr. Henrey C. Frick, Pittsburg
  • New York September 25–October 9, 1909
    The Hudson-Fulton Celebration
    Metropolitan Museum of Art
    no. 138, as "The Music Lesson" lent by Mr. Henry C. Frick, New York
  • New York June 3–November 2, 2008
    Frick's Vermeers Reunited
    Frick Collection
    no catalogue
  • DresdenSeptember 10, 2021
    Vermeer: On Reflection
    Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden

(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).

Girl Interrupted in her Music in scale, Johannes Vermeer


The Quack, Anonymous Dutch painter

The Quack (detail)
Anonymous Dutch painter
c. 1619–1625
Oil on panel, 67 x 90.7cm.
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Vermeer's compositions are full of so-called pictures-within-pictures and in a sense, art becomes its own subject. However, the abundance of pictures-within-pictures in Vermeer's works is not only a personal choice, it reflects a real-life situation: paintings were more abundant in the Netherlands than in any other place in the world.

Foreigners who visited the Netherlands in the 17th century were amazed by how many pictures they found. In an oft-quoted diary, British traveler Peter Mundy wrote in 1640: "As for the art of Painting and the affection of the people to Pictures, I think none other go beyond them." In fact, paintings were everywhere except in the Reformed churches. In addition to well-off merchants, Mundy reported that bakers, cobblers, butchers and even blacksmiths all possessed at least one painting.

Since painting was no longer primarily the preserve of church or aristocracy or even the very wealthy, the types of pictures produced and sold as well as their appearance was drastically altered. The newly empowered urban upper class had discovered that paintings, as well as luxury items, could become an effective symbol of power, objects to be avidly collected and proudly exhibited. Consequently, paintings could also become another form of easily transportable merchandise in Holland which had become the Mecca of world trade. The fact that they were easy to handle and were less bulky made it easier to place them on the market.

Dutch cleanliness

Room in a Dutch House, Pieter Janssens Elinga

Room in a Dutch House (detail)
Pieter Janssens Elinga
Oil on canvas, 61.5 x 59 cm.
The Hermitage, St. Petersburg

If Delft was considered Holland's cleanest town, Vermeer was Delft's cleanest painter.

In a detailed study of 17th-century Dutch hygiene, the historians Bas van Bavel and Oscar Gelderblom have noted that in more than 250 travel accounts of foreigners visiting the Northern Netherlands between 1438 and 1795 no less than 75 of these mostly German, English and French travelers wrote about Dutch cleanliness.

In one of the earliest known accounts of Dutch cleanliness (1517), the secretary of an Italian cardinal traveling in the Netherlands, already mentioned the mopping of floors and the wiping of feet before entering a private house. At times the Dutch were even mocked what was then considered a national obsession.

Visitors of Dutch towns noted a regular cleaning regime of the windows and doorsteps of private houses. Many observed that halls and stairwells, front rooms and furniture, and especially the kitchen, its hearth, and dishes, were very neat and clean. Visitors were bewildered by the habit of men and women who wore slippers inside, even forcing their guests to do so.

But it was not just private houses that were kept in order. The Dutch were concerned with cleanliness long before systematic improvement of public hygiene, or personal hygiene of the population at large, became a major issue in Western Europe, in the 19th century. Public spaces, markets, barges and inns were equally well cleansed. Several French and German travelers noted that stables and abattoirs were meticulously cleansed and that farmers in Holland washed and sponged their cows, cutting their tails to prevent them from fouling themselves. Streets were regularly cleaned and strewn with sand. In many towns and villages, the cleaning extended to canals and marketplaces.

Pieter de Hooch & Vermeer

Young Woman Drinking, Pieter de Hooch

Young Woman Drinking
Pieter de Hooch
Oil on canvas, 69 x 60 cm.
Musée du Louvre, Paris

Even if Vermeer's thematic intentions remain uncertain, it is clear he had a demanding intellectual program for his more complicated works. The theme of this picture, courtship and love, had already been pioneered by Dutch artists decades before. Vermeer's foray into the new field was probably inspired by Pieter de Hooch.

Although De Hooch is probably the direct source of inspiration for this particular composition, Vermeer's art distinguishes itself from De Hooch's because it addresses more complex compositional and thematic issues. Whereas Vermeer's figures are brought prominently into the foreground and appear naturalistic, often with considerable sensitivity to their psychological states, De Hooch's figures are stiff, even doll-like, and sometimes do not appear anchored within the painting's three-dimensional space. Their postures are less natural and their emotions are seldom as nuanced as those of Vermeer. Also, while Vermeer dealt with moral questions of a certain weight (e.g., Last Judgment, Vanitas and religious faith) De Hooch favored less lighter subjects, focusing on home and hearth contents. However, to De Hooch's credit the historian Simon Schama holds that the artist's interiors portray tender child-rearing, "the first sustained image of parental love that European art has shown us."

Art historian Peter Sutton adds the interesting proposition that the woman and child who appear in so many of De Hooch's works are likely the artist's own wife and son, and the familiar rooms probably those of his own house. None of Vermeer's sitters have been identified.

The Dutch emblem book: Amorum Emblemata

Great debate has ensued in the twentieth century regarding the extent to which Dutch genre painters employed literary sources as a means for enriching the message of their paintings. Most scholars agree that the imagery of two of Vermeer's paintings (The Art of Painting and The Allegory of Faith) are strongly related to Cesare Ripa's Iconologia while some of the props (perhaps the background Cupid in the present work) refer to figures in popular emblem books. Emblem books were published in outstanding numbers rivaling even the Sacred Bible.

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

In producing a book of love emblems, Van Veen was following a trend that began in Amsterdam in 1601 with the publication of Quaeris quid sit Amor, a compilation of twenty-four love emblem prints produced by the artist Jacques de Gheyn with accompanying Dutch verses by Daniel Heinsius.

Quaeris quid sit Amor, Jacques de Gheyn

Quaeris quid sit Amor (title page)
Jacques de Gheyn
Amsterdam University Library, Amsterdam

The Quaeris quid sit amor? was the very first love emblem book in the Dutch language. When this emblem book was first published, probably in 1601, it had no specific title. Consequently, these days it often carries two titles; either Quaeris quid sit amor?, after the first words on the title page, or Emblemata amatoria, after the title it was given in reprints. The author of the 1601 edition identified himself as Theocritus à Ganda. This turned out to be the pseudonym of Daniël Heinsius, a riddle most of his (literary) peers would probably be able to solve; in Greek, Theocritus means Daniël and à Ganda is the French translation of from Ghent, the native town of Daniël Heinsius. Van Veen's volume is far more comprehensive, consisting of 124 emblems. The amorous maxims which accompany and interpret the pictures are mostly, but not always, taken from Ovid. Addressed to young people, the book depicts love as an overruling power that should be followed to gain happiness.

The Dutch room

According to the architect Witold Rybczynski, "It was the opinion of more than one contemporary visitor that the Netherlands was the first country to build up a substantial middle class. Dutch families withdrew from the public thoroughfare of the medieval home. At the same time, the place of work began to be separated from the home, with the man dominating the workplace and the woman the home. Children remained home much more than they did in the Middle Ages. Rybczynski holds that Dutch women, who were concentrated on rearing children, began to dominate the household at the same time that men worked increasingly away from home.

The well-to-do Dutch had a wide array of household furnishings from which to choose. Solid, carved furniture was produced by local craftsmen, glassware was both imported from Germany and made in Holland, exotic carpets were brought from the Middle East, and porcelain was imported in huge quantities from China. One Englishman noted that Dutch houses were "not large, but neat, beautiful outside and well-furnished inside, and the furniture is so clean and in good order that it appears to be more an exhibition than for daily use."

Dutch songbooks

Girl Interrupted in her Music (detail), Johannes Vermeer

On the table lie a cittern, a ceramic Delft vase, an inconspicuous glass of wine and a sheet with musical score. In Vermeer's time, the cittern has regained popularity after centuries of disuse and became one of the most popular musical instruments of the mid-17th century and it was also the one most frequently depicted by Vermeer. While its form may recall the more familiar lute, it has a very different history and above all, it emits a very different sound. The cittern's brass strings produce a cheerful sound comparable to the modern banjo, although a good cittern sounds a bit like the virginal. The cittern achieved its apex in the 16th and 17th centuries and was held in high esteem both as an accompanying instrument for the singing voice or for dance music. Many compositions were written expressively for it, often intricate and difficult to play. The solo repertoire, however, required substantial technical virtuosity.

Music expert Albert P. de Mirimonde noted that the sheet music appearing in Vermeer's paintings does not make musical sense. Whether Vermeer's inaccuracy was accidental or deliberate cannot be known. Music songbooks flourished in the Dutch Republic. French and Italian models were popular since Dutch music was considered uninventive and undistinguished.

A linen cap

Marieke de Winkel, a Dutch costume expert, points out that the cap worn by the young woman was partly ornamental and served to protect the hairdo before and after dressing.

The Low Countries had been famous for cloth manufacture since the Middle Ages. It remained the most important part of the Dutch industrial economy, benefiting greatly from the emigration of large numbers of textile workers from the south.

Linen was Haarlem's most famous product. Workers specialized in bleaching and finishing locally woven cloth as well as cloth shipped in from other parts of Europe. The bleached linen was used to make clothing such as caps (mutsen), aprons, night shawls, collars, and cuffs which are often seen in Vermeer's paintings.

About Dutch music

Portrait of the Painter's Family, Jan Miense Molenaer

Portrait of the Painter's Family (detail)
Jan Miense Molenaer
c. 1636
Oil on panel, 62.3 x 81.3 cm.
Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem

Although we know nothing of Vermeer's tastes in music and the arts, the people he chose to represent would have ideally belonged to the haute bourgeoisie, who wrote and spoke several languages and who collected European poetry and songbooks. Songbooks, one of which can be observed on the table complete with musical notes, played a conspicuous role in the rituals of modern courtship.

Since Dutch music was in great part uninventive, Dutch songbooks contained as many French as native airs. Amateur musicians like the two which Vermeer represents in this painting probably collected them in numbers. Music making provided the ideal ground on which both parties could approach each other without the presence of parents or older guardians.

Young musicians had a vast choice of foreign and local songbooks, which were called liedboeken, or collections of love songs. The Dutch music expert Louis Peter Grijp pointed out how these books frequently reflected the local culture containing references to favorite meeting places for lovers, taverns, etc. Some songs proclaimed the beauty of local women over those of other towns while others demonstrated a growing affection for national Dutch identity. The dedicatory preface of Den Nieuwen Lust-Hof was to the Young Ladies of the Netherlands. One author from Utrecht complained that the local youth had not purchased his previous works because they had preferred the more richly songbooks of Amsterdam and Haarlem.

Some songbooks included risqué' lyrics while others were polite. In a single volume, one may occasionally find refined Petrarchan-inspired love songs, vulgar songs of prostitutes, festive drinking as well as pious hymns and even patriotic tunes. While many emphasized moral integrity, the readers themselves were never directly admonished assuming that they were already of impeccable character.

Interior setting & courtship imagery

By the time Vermeer created his well-known interiors, imagery of courtship situated in Dutch middle-class interior settings had already become an extraordinarily popular motif, although until the 1630s they had been primarily set in outdoor garden parties in which numerous young men and women caroused playfully.

Merry Company, Willem Buytewech

Merry Company
Willem Buytewech
c. 1620–1624
Oil on canvas, 103.5 x 84.3 cm.
Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen

The key innovator in this area was Willem Buytewech, nicknamed "Geestige Willem" (Witty Willem) although his surviving output as a painter is tiny. His pictures of dandies, fashionable ladies, soldiers, and lusty wenches are among the most spirited Dutch genre scenes, and instituted the category known as the "Merry Company."

When Buytewech lost interest in the garden motif he brought his foppish youths indoors. They are surrounded by fancy furnishings and such luxury decorative items as silverware, paintings and large-scale wall maps. The same items would eventually find their way into the compositions of Vermeer and his close colleagues The women too are dressed in the latest fashion sporting silk skirts and beautifully embroidered bodices. Although Buytewech's scenes might strike the modern eye as somewhat naïve, art historian Wayne Franits pointed out that "Buytewech's inventive scenes of elegant companies, however cramped, constitute the seminal examples in terms of indoor setting and subject matter of what would develop into one of the most popular themes in 17th-century Dutch genre painting."

Although Buytewech's figures seem to be psychologically and even comically disconnected from one another, they nonetheless set the stage for the finely nuanced dialogues and subtle control of body language by grouping the protagonists closely in age and social conditions within the confines of a restricted environment.

Dutch art historians are undecided on how Buytewech's subjects should be understood. In most current literature it is assumed that he is castigating the foolish young men and warning them of the transitoriness of mortal existence. Others suppose that they were essentially true-to-life characterizations of idle young men, depicted with humor and scarce moralizing intention—the Dutch already knew what was wrong and what was right. In any case, Buytewech may have drawn his imagery from farces in current popular literature and plays.

Although such imagery was generally disparaged by the traditional art establishment, the more open-minded art theoretician Gérard de Lairesse admitted that one might occasionally find "little dramas" in genre paintings that are comparable to the more noble subjects of grand historical events and religious themes which were considered the only proper subjects for the arts. In any case, buyers from the social elite snatched up great number of these new courtship-themed works despite their elevated costs.

Listen to period music

The Voice of the Ghost [1.62 MB]
Anthony Holborne
performed by Lee Santana

Italian Renaissance cittern

The Cittern

In Italian Renaissance humanist culture, the cittern was regarded as a classical revival of the ancient Greek kithara even though it seems to have its direct development from the medieval citole. It presents some similarities with the fiddle, as its plucked form.

The structure and tuning of the cittern varied almost from country to country. While in England, France and northern Europe the small four-course instrument was commonly used, Italian musicians preferred the larger six-course instrument.

The cittern achieved the height of its diffusion in the 16th and 17th centuries. Above all, in Italy and England it was held in high esteem both as an accompanying instrument for the singing voice or dance music. Many compositions written expressively for it, often intricate and demanding to play.

The great number of paintings depicting a cittern proves the instrument's great popularity in the 17th-century Netherlands. With its flat back, it was more robust in structure than the fragile lute, therefore cheaper and more portable. The cittern's easy playability made it the preferred instrument especially of the middle and upper classes for song accompaniment and dance music.

The cittern has a shallow round or pear-shaped body tapering from the bottom towards the neck. The body is carved from one piece of wood and only the soundboard and fingerboard were added separately. The use of metal strings plucked with a quill or plectrum gives the instrument its sprightly and cheerful sound, one of the reasons for the cittern's great popularity.

Vermeer inspires himself

The Glass of Wine, Johannes Vermeer

The Glass of Wine
c. 1658–1661
Oil on canvas, 65 x 77 cm.
Staatliche Museen Preußischer
Kulturbesitz, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

The present painting shares much with The Glass of Wine, a larger and more complex work. Both portray a gentleman of good society as he attends to a young lady in her well-to-do dwelling, captured, evidently, in a delicate moment of ritualized courtship. In the two works, the male stands behind the seated female, with a table with a few objects to the left and a turned chair that assumes a curiously similar "attitude" as if it was meant to signify something more than an inanimate piece of furniture. For some reason, Vermeer did not feel obliged to elaborate significantly on the "still life" composed of a simple piece of Delft ceramic, a few music books and a cittern except for the inclusion of a glass of wine in the Girl Interrupted in her Music.

It is impossible to establish which of the two pictures was painted first although The Glass of Wine is generally held as the superior work. Technically, The Glass of Wine is more brilliant but it should not be forgotten that the Girl Interrupted in her Music is in a near-disastrous state of conservation even though its best passages hint of a much finer work. From a formal point of view, both are wider than taller and seem to rely on a circular composition to bind the figures in an intimate dialogue. Even the solemn pictures on the background walls play a similar function as silent commentators of the action which takes place before them.

Perhaps the most significant difference between the two is that in the present painting the figures, the table and the standing chair are abruptly cut off by the lower edge of the painting. No pavement can be seen. Thus, the viewer feels he is much closer to the action of the scene. The girl's direct gaze makes it impossible for the observer to revert to the comfortable, disengaged viewpoint of The Glass of Wine. Perhaps Vermeer attempted to revitalize his own compositional formula or those which had been invented by Pieter de Hooch.

While the similarities between the two works are striking, no scholar has ever advanced the idea that they were more than consecutive attempts at a similar motif and composition which, however, were meant as independent works to be viewed separately.

Pictorial commentators

Loose Company, Dirck van Baburen

Loose Company
Dirck van Baburen
Oil on canvas, 108 x 153 cm.
Mainz, Landesmuseum

Leon Battista Alberti, who invented linear perspective, wrote what was to become one of the most influential art treatises in the western tradition, De Pictura, published in 1435. Alongside his discussions of perspective, Alberti also furnished detailed instructions for making paintings. Among these, he suggested that artists might include a "commentator" to guide the spectator where to look and what visual connections to make. This sort of knowledgeable "insider," who straddles two worlds—that of the painting and that outside the painting—is simultaneously in the work, but not of the work.

Although they may have had a somewhat less noble function, pictorial commentators were common in Dutch genre paintings. Semi-comical figures, often self portraits in the guise of a wily rake who is onto something more than his companions, appeared as a standard fixture in an unlimited number of bawdy bordello scenes painted by Utrecht Caravaggists. The far left-hand figure in Vermeer's own Procuress is one such example and is generally believed to be a self portrait. Whoever he may be, Vermeer's burlesque figure appears to serve no more than to encourage us to put aside our moral reserves, lift our spirits as he lifts his toast and join in merry-making.

However, when Vermeer turned his hand to the domestic interior of the haute bourgeois, the young ladies who look out of the picture to have more on their mind than a light-hearted pictorial diversion. In the present picture, the girl's gaze is far more enigmatic than that of her smiling counterpart in the Girl with a Wine Glass.

If she was meant to be a sort of pictorial ambassador of picture's quiet narrative, she seems unwilling or unable to tell us anything. Rather, the very vagueness of her expression allows

or even solicits the viewer to project his own reactions into the scene whose story.

Music making

Although Vermeer's courting young couple is not actively engaged in music making, the cittern on the table and the opened music book make it clear that the picture belongs to this popular motif. In the second half of the 17th century, the association between music and love was well established in the arts and the musical duet was a metaphor for an amorous relationship. Here, Vermeer dissimulates the cavalier's pressing, but polite, attentions by means of a momentary interruption of the girl's gaze directed outside the narrative structure of the painting towards the viewer. Walter Liedtke notes that the cavalier belongs to a type of man that appears often in Vermeer's compositions who "in the company of women are mere attendants. They seek possession and lose themselves." Music making was one of the activities which permitted young people to freely associate with each other.

One of the unique features of Dutch genre painting is its interest in creating realistic scenes of everyday life which, paradoxically, contain symbolic content indicating that there is more to the picture than what meets the eye. As Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. wrote, "Few artists created scenes as lifelike as those of Vermeer, and none were as capable of creating figures in these interiors whose mental states seem to transcend the everyday."

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