Girl Interrupted in her Music
(Onderbreking van de muziek)
oil on canvas
15 1/2 x 17 1/2 in. (39.4 x 44.5 cm)
The Frick Collection, New York
Much has been written about the Cupid painting which hangs in the background. Until the painting was restored in 1907, however, the picture-within-a-picture 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 upraised hand was probably adopted from a popular emblem book by Otto van Veen which advises that one must have only one lover. Vermeer expert Walter Liedtke points out that Vermeer's version 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 poor state that the painting's story may never be entirely clear.
This rather large 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 fashionable cavalier bends over a young girl and politely props up the sheet music in her hands. Although cavalier's eyes are lowered, his attempt to let 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 (see image left) although it is apparent that he reworked the body language and facial expressions of the figures to convey a more restrained atmosphere.
The gentlemen who appears in Vermeer's paintings 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.
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 Wineglass, Vermeer introduced a pictorial device which 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, 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 restorations. Of the two figures, perhaps, only the youn g woman's face has maintained some of its original subtlety.
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 which is the theme of the present work.
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 calledliedboeken, 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 and 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.
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 one of the principal centers of porcelain production in the Netherlands. Similar blue and white porcelain was originally imported in great number from China by the VOC, the first company of public holding which extended its trading routes all over the world. By 1645, imports stagnated which triggered 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 since its former beer breweries could accommodate 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.
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 as an addition by a later hand. This kind of birdcage was a popular feature in Dutch painting and had various symbolic meanings, all of which are irrelevant to the original concept of the present work by Vermeer.
In this picture Vermeer included 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 are sculpted with globular flicks of thick light paint that strongly recall the characteristic "circles of confusion" produced by the camera obscura, a kind of precursor to the modern photographic camera. On the seat lays a cushion with a deep blue velvet covering.
Both the brass studs and the lozenge patterns of the background chair appear innumerable times in genre interior painting of the time testifying the popularity of this kind of furniture.
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 a depth and see-through transparency.
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 figures (frequently elaborately dressed) 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 scenes, were associated in the 17th century with love.
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.
Along with the black and white marble flooring, one of the most characteristic features of Vermeer's interiors is the leaded, multi-paned window which 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 Glass of Wine, 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 are set almost flush against the background wall. Such dissimilarities indicate that different room are portrayed, naturally, if we are to believe in the artist's absolute the fidelity to his motif.
Although it is not possible to understand from reproductions, the window and its decorative elements are executed with firm, uncanny precision. This passage, one of the best preserved in a picture heavily damaged by time, betrays a stylistic 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-figured 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.
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 by 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 the Virginal.
No signature appears on this work.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. Vermeer: The Complete Works, New York, 1997)
Walter Liedtke Vermeer: The Complete Paintings, New York, 2008)
- 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 (1811-20); 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).
- St. Louis 1904
St. Louis World's Fair.
- New York September – November 1909
The Hudson-Fulton Celebration. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
no. 138 as " The Music Lesson" lent by Mr. Henry C. Frick, New York.
- New York 3 June – 2 November 2008
Frick’s Vermeers reunited. Frick Collection.
In this period, the Saint Luke's guild was probably the center of Vermeer's public life.
Vermeer may have began distancing himself from his family or origin. This fact is seen in his failure to name any of his children after his mother or father as was common practice of the time. His first two daughters, born before 1658, Were named Maria and Elizabeth after his mother-in-law and her sister.
In Vermeer's Procuress a Chinese bowl appears in the still-life. Between 1602 and 1657 the Dutch had imported millions of pieces of porcelain. Native Delft artisans began feverishly producing everything from elaborate imitations of Chinese porcelain to the humble floor tiles seen in some of Vermeer's interiors.
Pieter de Hooch: paints Courtyard of a House in Delft, one of finest works. De Hoogh's courtyards may have influenced Vermeer's The Little Street.
Frans van Mieris paints The Duet.
Adriaen van de Velde paints Farm with a Dead Tree.
|european painting & architecture||Bernini: church at Castel Gandolfo (-1661). Bernini did not build many churches from scratch, preferring instead to concentrate on the embellishment of pre-existing structures. He fulfilled three commissions in the field; his stature allowed him the freedom to design the structure and decorate the interiors in coherent designs.|
|music||Apr 22, Giuseppe Torelli, composer (Concert Grossi op 8), is born in Italy.|
|literature||Moliere was anointed with the patronage of King Louis XIV. Molière left behind a body of work which not only changed the face of French classical comedy, but has gone on to influence the work of other dramatists the world over. The greatest of his plays include The School for Husbands (1661), The School for Wives (1662), The Misanthrope (1666), The Doctor in Spite of Himself (1666), Tartuffe (1664,1667,1669), The Miser (1668), and The Imaginary Invalid (1673).|
|science & philosophy||Amsterdam naturalist Jan Swammerdam, 21, gives the first description of red blood cells. He will complete his medical studies in 1667 but devote himself to studying insects, tadpoles, frogs, and mammals rather than practicing medicine.|
|history||Sep 3, Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the New Commonwealth, i.e. ruler over England’s Puritan parliament , dies at age 59. Richard Cromwell succeeded his father as English Lord Protector.|
Around 1659 or 1660, Vermeer's brother-in-law Willem Bolnes left his irascible father's house in Gouda to live on one of the family's properties in Schoonhoven. Willem incurrs in debts and borrowing money from his mother, Maria Thins, since his father had become too impoverished to help. Willem apparently had no kind of work. He was later to become a serious problem for Vermeer and his wife.
In the late 1650s Vermeer, paints two exceptionally luminous interiors, inspired by genre models of the time. In both Officer and Laughing Girl and The Milkmaid he uses his famous "pointillist" technique (thick points of light colored paint in the most intensely light areas of the composition called pointillés. This technical artifice conveys a sense of brilliancy rarely seen in any other of his works. Vermeer never again painted a humble sitter, such as the common milkmaid.
Jan van der Weff is born. Johan Willem, Elector Palatine, whom he had met in 1696, appointed him Court Painter in 1697 at a salary of 4,000 guilders on condition he work for him six months of the year. In 1703 this was increased to nine months, and he was made a knight. He remained in Rotterdam, making trips to Düsseldorf to deliver pictures and paint portraits.
Jan Janz de Heem ( d. 1695) is born. Son of the celebrated still-life painter Jan Davidsz de Heem he was baptized on 2 July I650 in Antwerp. From 1667 to 1672 he worked in Utrecht with his father who sometimes retouched the son's work. There has undoubtedly been much confusion between the work of father and son. Jan Jansz is last recorded in a document of 1695.
|european painting & architecture||1659-1661 Michael Sweerts, Flemish painter, created his rosy Portrait of a Youth.|
|music||Mar 7, Henry Purcell, English organist, composer (Dido & Aeneas), was born. Purcell was one of the greatest composers of the Baroque period and one of the greatest of all English composers. He wrote fantasias for viols, masterpieces of contrapuntal writing in the old style, and some at least of the more modern sonatas for violins, which reveal some acquaintance with Italian models. In time Purcell became increasingly in demand as a composer, and his theatre music in particular made his name familiar to many who knew nothing of his church music or the odes and welcome songs he wrote for the court.|
|literature||Oedipus (Oedipe) by Pierre Corneille 1/24 at the Hôtel de Bourgogne, Paris|
|science & philosophy||
Christiaan Huygens of Holland used a 2-inch telescope lens and discovered that the Martian day is nearly the same as an Earth day. He also discovers the rings of Saturn. He also constructs a chronometer for use at sea; however, it is influenced by the motion of the ship and does not keep correct time.
English physician Thomas Willis, 38, gives the first description of typhoid fever.
Elementa curvarum by Jan De Witt gives an algebraic treatment of conic sections using the newly developed analytic geometry. It appears as part of an edition of Schooten's Geometria a Renato Des Cartes.
|history||The Spanish infanta Marie Therese introduces the French court to cocoa, which will be endorsed by the Paris faculty of medicine and received with enthusiasm until it becomes surrounded with suspicion as an aphrodisiac in some circles and as a mysterious potion in others.|
Vermeer is appointed one of the headman of the Saint Luke's Guild to a term of two years. This fact has been interpreted as a testimony of the high esteem in which the artist was at the time held. However, by the time Vermeer was elected headmaster, many of the painters resident in Delft had left for the more prosperous Amsterdam and so his election may have had less significance than usually thought.
Vermeer and his wife bury a child in the Old Church in Delft. The same document states , Vermeer and his wife were then living in the house of Maria Thins on the Oude Langendijk in Delft. At the time, the household included Vermeer, his wife, his mother-in-law, and three children, not counting an infant who had died and at least one female servant. The house had a basement, a lower hall with a vestibule, a great hall, a small room adjoining the hall, an interior kitchen, a little back kitchen, a cooking kitchen, a washing kitchen, a corridor, and an upper floor with two rooms, one of which was taken up by Vermeer's studio.
Vermeer's family situation was unusual. Very few married men in the Netherlands lived with a parent or parent-in-law for an extended period of time. Vermeer's marriage too, must be considered exceptional in as much as he married outside his own family's religion and social class. He moved from the lower, artisinal class of his Reformed parents who lived on the Delft Square to the higher social stratum of the Catholic in-laws who instead lived in the somewhat segregated "Papist Corner," the Catholic quarter of the city.
The burial of his child is the earliest known record of the artist's residence in Maria Thin's house.
Jan van Mieris is born. Son of the famous Frans van Mieris, Jan painted principally history subjects, but his earliest works were apparently genre scenes in his father's manner.
Jacob van Ruisdael paints Jewish Cemetery. The painting's ruinous, glowering scene exemplifies the trend toward turbulence in Dutch landscape at mid-century.
Adriean Coorte is born. Coorte devoted himself to the precise rendering of simple objects in small paintings. His paintings often have strong illumination that gives the composition an enchanting stil
|european painting & architecture||Diego Velázquez, Spanish painter, dies.|
|music||Alessandro Scarlatti, Italian musician and composer, father of Domenico is born.|
|science & philosophy||
Marcello Malpighi discovers that the lungs consist of many small air pockets and a complex system of blood vessels. By observing capillaries through a microscope he completes the work of Harvey in describing the circulation of the blood.
Robert Boyle announces in New Experiments Physico-Mechanical Touching the Spring of Air that removing the air in a vacuum chamber extinguishes a flame and kills small animals, indicating that combustion and respiration are similar processes.
|history||May 28, George I, king of England), is born.
May 29, Charles II, who had fled to France, is restored to the English throne after the Puritan Commonwealth. Charles made a deal with George Monck, a general of the New Model Army, and with the old parliamentary foes of his father. The British experiment with republicanism came to an end with the restoration of Charles II.
Dec 24, Mary I Henriette Stuart (29), queen of England, dies.
The Dutch crafted an early version of a boat they called a "yacht."
1660s The British began to dominate the trade in port wine from Portugal after a political spat with the French denied them the French Bordeaux wines. Brandy was added to the Portuguese wines to fortify them for the Atlantic voyage.
In Dec. Maria Thins, Vermeer's mother-in-law, purchases a grave in the the Nieuwe Kerk in Delft. Originally from Gouda, at this time she probably had come to understand that her son-in-law had become an inseparable part of the family she headed.
Willem Bolnes, brother of Vermeer's wife Catharina, showed up on several occasions at Vermeer's house and made trouble. Several witnesses, including Tanneke Everpoel, Vermeer's servant which some scholars believe to have posed for The Milkmaid, claimed that Willem created violent commotion, causing people outside to come to the front door and listen. He swore at his mother Maria Thins, with whom Vermeer and his family resided, and called her an "old popish swine," a "she-devil," and other words "that could not be decently mentioned." He pulled a knife on his mother and tried to stab her. He also once threatened Catharina with a stick although she was pregnant "to the last degree." The stick, added a neighbor Willem de Coorde, had an iron spike on one end. Tannake prevented Willem from hitting her with it. None of this violence seems to have worked its way into the world of Vermeer's art.
Willem Bolnes, like his father, is prone to moments of uncontrollable violence. He soon after had another serious incident which left Maria Thins with a 74 guilder fee to pay two surgeons and wine necessary to help him recover.
In the estate inventory of an innkeeper named Cornelis de Helt who died in 1661, the first item listed is as "a painting with a black frame by Jan van der Meer."
Rembrandt depicted himself in a painting as the Apostle Paul.
Apr 20, Gerard Terborch, the elder, painter, dies.
Rembrandt paints The Syndics of the Cloth Hall.
Jacob van Ruisdael paints Landscape with Watermill.
Jan Steen paints Easy Come, Easy Go.
|european painting & architecture||
The Tent of Darius by Charles Le Brun, now 42, who has been commissioned by Louis XIV to create a series of subjects from the life of Alexander the Great. Le roi de soleil fancies himself a latter-day Alexander and makes Le Brun first painter to the king, giving him a huge salary.
The Château Vaux-le-Vicomte is completed for France's minister of finance Nicolas Fouquet with a two-story salon. Architect Louis Le Vau has designed the structure (his Collège des Quatre-Nations is also completed this year), and landscape architect André Le Nôtre, now 48, has created its gardens. Le Nôtre will begin work next year on the gardens of Versailles.
|music||The Paris Opéra Ballet has its beginnings in the Royal Academy of Dance (Académie Royale de Danse) founded by Louis XIV|
|science & philosophy||
The Sceptical Chymist by Robert Boyle discards the Aristotelian theory that there are only four basic elements (earth, air, fire, and water) and proposes an experimental theory of the elements. Boyle will be called the "father of chemistry" but he holds views that will encounter skepticism from later chemists, e.g., that plant life grows by transmutation of water, as do worms and insects since they are produced from the decay of plants.
Christiaan Huygens invents a manometer for measuring the elasticity of gases.
Mar 9, Cardinal Jules Mazarin, the chief minister of France, dies, leaving King Louis the 14th in full control.
Apr 23, English king Charles II is crowned in London.
Henry Slingsby, master of the London Mint, proposes the "standard solution" a mix of flat rules and free markets, to resolve the ongoing problem of money supply and coin value. Britain adopts the idea in 1816 and the US follows in 1853.
Water ices go on sale for the first time at Paris under the direction of Sicilian limonadier Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli from Palermo. Fruit-flavored ices were originated by the Chinese, who taught the art to the Persians and Arabs
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 Wheelock 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."
If Delft was considered Holland's cleanest town, Vermeer was Delft's cleanest painter.
In their research, 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 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 man and women who wore slippers inside, and even forced 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 market places.
Vermeer took on the popular theme of courtship many times. However, both the postures and facial expressions of the protagonists of his compositions rarely give us a clue as to what they are thinking and feeling. This ambiguity, intentional or unintentional as it was, has aroused sundry interpretations by art specialists concerning both the explicit narrative or presumed hidden meaning of each work.
Art historian Rodney Nevitt points out in his "Art and the Culture of Love in the 17th century" that Dutch literary texts generally describe courtship as a perilous activity in which the possibility of sin lurked beneath the surface of a seemingly polite activities. Men and women hid their feelings even as they sought to discern those of the loved-one.
How should a lover and loved one of the 17th century behave? Dutch literature provides an extremely wide range of answers.
Jacob Cats, diplomat, poet and author of immensely influential moralistic literature, believed that the young woman should assume a passive role in courtship and not actively seek out male companionship. Without the presence of a chaperone she might receive love letters but she herself must not write them. On the other hand, Johan van Heemskerck, who drew guidance from antique love literature (Ovid's Ars Amatoria, The Art of Love), encouraged young people to actively seek each other out and gave tips on how to attract the attention of admirers and how to impress young ladies with witty conversation. He even considered churches as favorable places for young people to meet members of the opposite sex. Music making, of course, would have been an excellent manner to encapsulate the expression of reciprocal emotions between two lovers.
In any case, Dutch youth generally had an increasing choice in their marriage partners even though they had to some degree accept the of medaling of their parents. Then as now, issues of class, religion, age and money were all factors to be considered.
Great debate has ensued in the last 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 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 which 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.
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 titlepage, 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 which should be followed to gain happiness.
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."
On the table lie a cittern, a ceramic Delft vase, an inconspicuous glass of wine and an opened sheet with musical score. Although the cittern has regained popularity after centuries of disuse, it cittern was 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 century 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 a substantial technical virtuosity.
Music expert Albert P. de Mirimonde noted that the sheet music which appear 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.
Marieke de Winkel, Dutch costume expert, points out that such caps were 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.
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 and 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.
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.
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 this successful garden motifs he brought his foppish youths indoors. They are surrounded by fancy furnishings and such luxury decorative items as elaborate silverware and large-scale wall maps. The same items would eventually find their way into the compositions of Vermeer and his close colleagues decades later. 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. Other suppose that they were essentially true-to-life characterizations of idle young men, depicted with humor and little 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 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 theme despite their elevated costs.
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 in England it was held in high esteem both as an accompanying instrument for the singing voice or for 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 reason for the cittern's great popularity.
The present painting shares much with the Glass of Wine (see left), 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 and 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 both rely on a circular composition to bind the figures in their 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 strongest difference between the two is that in the present painting, the figures, the table and 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 viewing position 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 these 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.
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 painting's viewer 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 staple 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 (see image above) 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 measured interiors 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 quite 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, although clearly defined in terms of drawing, space and light, cannot be fully understood.