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The recorder, or flute as it is usually referred to, makes only a minor appearance in Vermeer's oeuvre. Helen Hollis, formerly of the division of musical instruments at the Smithsonian Institute, believes that although the fipple mouthpiece is correctly indicated by the double highlight, the air hole below the mouthpiece is incorrectly aligned. As seen in the recorder hanging on the wall in a painting by Judith Leyster, it should lie on an axis with the upper lip of the mouthpiece. The finger holes seen below the girl's hand are turned even further off this axis, although such a placement would be allowable if the recorder were composed of two sections.
Scientific examination of the painting reveals that the finger which rests on the recorder was not by Vermeer's hand, suggesting that the flute did not exist in the original composition. Without the added finger, the flute could not be held.
However accurate or inaccurate the representation of the instrument may be, no one has advanced a plausible explanation of the combination of the young girl's Chinese hat and the instrument if, indeed, Vermeer ever intended one.
The identity of the androgynous girl is unknown, but her features are comparable to those of the Girl with a Red Hat, which many experts consider a pendant. In the present work, the rendering of the face appears far less refined than that of her counterpart. This may be due to the fact that some key passages of the painting are unfinished or overpainted by another hand. What we now see may be the so-called "working-up" phase, which was a common procedure that followed an initial monochromatic blocking in. Broad and simplified shifts of light and dark, define both the anatomical features and the fall of the light. Perhaps some of the rougher transitions would have been softened with the so called "badger brush," or "sweetener," a fan-shaped brush used not to apply, but to blend imperceptibly different tones.
But what most deprives the girl of her rightful expression has been overlooked by most experts. Vermeer's masterly highlights, crucial to the mysterious depth of the Girl with a Red Hat, here are totally lacking. This lacuna explains the uncustomary blurry gaze of eyes and dryness of the lips. Highlights are generally the last to be applied and may be vulnerable to overzealous restoration. All considered, it would be ungenerous to judge the painting in its current condition which is among the worst of Vermeer's surviving 35 or 36 paintings.
One writer has perceived the influence of the Far East not only in the girl's peculiar hat but in her physiognomy as well. However, even if Delft was one of the entrance ways for Far East trade, an exotic hat does not necessarily make for an oriental face. In the end, the girl, like many of Vermeer's female protagonists, have plain faces which one would not have noticed had they passed us by on a street. They become beautiful when seen through the painter's exceptional eye.
The juxtaposition of ordinary and extraordinary is one of the characteristics of the tronie genre (see Special Topic box below). In any case, the girl's partially open mouth automatically disqualifies the work as a portrait because the depiction of teeth or the tongue were always avoided in true portraiture, perhaps the most conservative category in 17th-century painting.
Some writers assert that the girl may have been one of Vermeer's daughters, entirely possible, but with no objective foundation whatsoever.
The unusual costume has parallels to contemporary dress of the times and seems to reflect Vermeer's taste for the satin, fur-trimmed garments which populate so many of his genre interiors. Although partially repainted, the jacket looks similar to one worn by the singer in The Concert, which might be the article of clothing annoted in Vermeer's death inventory as "an old green mantle with white fur trimmings."
X-radiography and infrared reflectography reveal that the front panel of fur trim was not a part of the original garment and was added at a later phase in the painting process by Vermeer, perhaps to enliven the work's compositional scheme. The fur trim of the left-hand sleeve has been repainted by a later hand and lacks the freshness of the vertical panel and the right-hand sleeve. Technical examination also proves that the right-hand sleeve once covered more of the figure's forearm.
Such a bizarre hat might appear incomprehensible in Vermeer's imagery unless if we fail to relate it to the painting's probable pendant, Girl with a Red Hat and the Dutch tronie tradition (see Special Topic box below). Among other elements, both of these works are united by improbable head gear sitting on top of an unusual face, a caprice which only a select few painter could transform into great works of art. The hat's broad brim casts a soft shadow over the model's eyes analogous to the one that can be observed in Girl with a Red Hat. Rembrandt had used this device in a series of early self portraits which could have been accessible to Vermeer, if not through the original, through many derivative works by Rembrandt's pupils.
The conical hat has no exact prototype in Dutch paintings of the time even though it reflects the contemporary vogue for oriental costume. One expert believes that the parallel stripes are not painted in conformity with the laws of perspective.
Those who criticize the present work point out the inferior quality of the lion-head finial in respects to the ones in the Girl with a Red Hat, a possible pendant to this work.
Vermeer expert Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. suggests that it may be by the hand of a painter within the "circle of Vermeer" even though there exists no concrete evidence of such a circle or even of an apprentice ever existed. On the other hand, Walter Liedtke believes that all considered the work deserves to be admitted to Vermeer's oeuvre. He points out that it exhibits many formal characteristics of paintings of the same period and that the stylistic anomalies and weak passages are due to the fact that it was left unfinished by the artist.
The background tapestry is yet another element that connects this work to the Girl with a Red Hat. The background tapestry is so approximately painted that it cannot be identified with any degree of certainty even though common sense would lead us to believe that it is of the similar type, if not the same tapestry displayed in The Art of Painting or the Allegory of Faith. One expert has suggested it may be of a Giant Leaf tapestry fabricated in the Spanish Netherlands, which evoked the forests of the New World. Obviously, Vermeer would have had no problems inventing such an elementary design from scratch.
The clumsy appearance of this hand and cuff are due to overpainting by another artist.
The Girl with a Flute is the only painting on panel....other than Girl with a Red Hat. Owing also to similarities in scale and subject matter, scholars frequently cited these works as pendants. Indeed, both girls look expectantly towards the viewer with eyes alert and half-open mouths. Each wears an exotic hat, sits before a tapestry in a chair with lion finials and leans on one arm. Light enters from the left in both compositions, striking the left cheek, nose and chin of both figures. A thin green glaze pulled over the flesh tone, moreover, indicates the shaded positions of the faces. Finally, colored highlights accent the lower lips of the slightly parted mouths, turquoise in the Girl with a Flute and pink in the Girl with a Red Hat.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., Johannes Vermeer, 1981
No signature appears on this work.
Click here to access a complete study of Vermeer's signatures.)
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., The Public and the Private in the Age of Vermeer, London, 2000
Walter Liedtke, Vermeer: The Complete Paintings, New York, 2008
Wayne Franits, Vermeer, 2015
(Click here to access a complete study of the dates of Vermeer's paintings).
The vertically grained oak panel support has beveled edges on the back. The panel has a slight convex warp, a small check in the top edge at the right, and small gouges, rubs, and splinters on the back from nails and handling. A very thin, smooth; white chalk ground was applied overall, followed by a course textured gray ground. A reddish-brown dead coloring exists under most areas of the painting and is incorporated in the design of the tapestry.
Paint is applied moderately thinly, forming a rough surface texture in lighter passages. Still wet paint in the proper right cheek and chin was textured with a fingertip, then glazed with a translucent green half-tone. In many areas of the whites, particularly in the proper left collar and cuff, a distinctive wrinkling is present, which disturbs the surface. Small irregularly shaped losses over much of the surface may have resulted from abrasion to similar wrinkles that occurred during old restorations.
* 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.)
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In classical times, stringed instruments were held in highest regards. The cithara, for example, was noble enough to be dedicated to Apollo, while the flute was dedicated to Dionysius because of his associations with drunkenness and orgies. Therefore, it was considered the most primitive of musical instruments and to a good extent, this view prevailed until the 17th century.
From its appearance in shepherd portraits and Dutch genre works, the flute may seem to have been little more than a decorative attribute, easily depicted. It plays well in both the tranquil domestic scene and the shabby open-air tavern. However, in the 17th century, the recorder had become more than a plaything: it was but one musical instrument amongst others, sometimes improved by the work of professional instrument-makers, heard by a varied audience, and played by both dedicated amateurs and professional musicians such as Jacob van Eyck.
The Girl with a Flute is a perfect example of the popular category of Dutch painting called tronie, an obsolete term that refers to a type of picture made familiar by Rembrandt and his followers. Tronies were based upon living models, including the artists themselves, relatives or colleagues. However, they were not intended as formal portraits—portraits were always commissioned—but were kept on spec in the artist's studio ready to stimulate the potential buyer's appetite. An old man, a comely young woman, a "Turk," or a dashing soldier were all standard tronies subjects. Artists favored garments that looked particularly exotic offering the opportunity to experiment and show off painterly technique, one of the strongest calling cards of the professional artist. Tronies, usually reduced in scale, dimension and price, were avidly collected.
The self portrait by Frans van Mieris, one of the most successful artists in the Netherlands, evidences the typical showiness of the Dutch tronie.
Vermeer is known to have painted three tronies in all, one of which, the famous Girl with a Pearl Earring.
Jacob Van Eyck was one of the most remarkable figures in Dutch musical life during the Golden Age. He was a nobleman, blind from birth, widely known as a carillonneur, leading expert in the field of bell casting and tuning, and admired as a brilliant recorder virtuoso. His demanding solo variations, preludes and fantasias from Der Fluyten Lust-hof (The Flute's Garden of Delight) are both loved and feared by recorder players today, all over the world.
It is said that Van Eyck used to improvise in the garden adjacent to the Sint Janskerk in Utrecht, entertaining by-passers and romancing young couples. Someone then must have listened his way through and transcribed what corresponds to almost ten hours of music, very much the way many a jazz musician still work today. The apparent popularity of van Eyck's music caused his publisher Paul Matthysz to edit several collections in van Eyck's lifetime. One can only imagine the troublesome procedures foregoing a publication of this kind, as the author couldn't write himself. Der Fluyten Lust-hof is an outstanding proof of a craft which is today a sadly neglected art form. To improvise was the true core of all music long before the invention of musical notation.
With about 150 pieces Der Fluyten Lust-hof is the largest solo collection for one single instrument ever printed. Van Eyck's output consists mainly of sets of variations on tunes that were popular during the Dutch Golden Age. Its themes are as diverse as Calvinist psalms, dances, the hits of the day and lewd songs.
For centuries, this kind of music belonged to the repertoire of an instrument of ancient origin which was played at the courts, in the streets, churches, brothels and pubs: the recorder. The work gives us a rare insight into the musical world of the late Renaissance and the early Baroque with its intricate and abundant use of variation techniques.
Even though Vermeer often retraced his steps and produced couples of work that are closely related in style or subject, there is no objective proof that any of these works were meant as true pendants intended to be hung side by side. Plausible candidates for a pendant, however, must be the present work and the Girl with a Red Hat (see images left). They are both executed on panel and are of similar dimension. Moreover, they both portray a similar young, opened-mouth girl wearing an outlandish hat—no comparable similar hats appear in Dutch painting of the Golden Age—which projects upon each face a soft shadow over the eyes. Both figures, with large pair-shaped pearl earrings, peer out directly at the spectator from an evocative penumbra and are seated on a Spanish chair while an anonymous tapestry hovers behind them. Furthermore, the best passages of each work are comparable in style and delicacy.
The most obvious argument against the case of the pendant is that the Girl with a Flute does not stand up to the overall technical quality as its counterpart. However, scientific examination reveals that the inconsistencies can be safely attributed to the poor state of conservation of the Girl with a Flute while the possibility that the work was left unfinished is also open.
performed by Marion Verbruggen
The prehistoric ancestors of the recorder (whistles for distance communication and ritual dances and the spirit calling) were of made of bone, ivory or wood and can be traced back to thousands of years. Probably the earliest specimen of a recorder- flute-like instrument dates back about 39,000 years and was recently been discovered in a cavern in southwest Germany making it the oldest musical instrument known. Portrayals of wind instruments ("pipes") which may be recorders, appear in medieval sculptures, carvings and paintings from the 11th century to the 14th century.
During the 15th and 16th centuries the recorder developed into the "renaissance" form and was produced in many sizes for consorts, blending easily with each other in "whole" consorts (consorts of recorders) or contrasting with other period instruments or voices. The first professional use of recorders is documented towards 1500 as one of the regular instruments of professional wind players, along with shawm, cornett, sackbut and trumpet. In 16th-century Venice the "pifferi" (pipers) of the Doge played recorders as well as other instruments for the large processions of the Scuola di San Marco.
Due to its relative ease of playing (practiced by children in numerous Dutch 17th-century paintings) the recorder became very popular with amateur musicians of all classes, including royal and noble households as is evident from inventories listing vast quantities of wind instruments. King Henry VIII of England owned no less than 76 recorders.
The most famous recorder player of the 17th century was no doubt the blind Jacob van Eyck, composer of Der fluyten lust-hof (Amsterdam 1646–1649), the largest collection of music ever published for a solo wind instrument by a single composer.
With the change of the musical taste in the late 16th and 17th centuries the recorder was redesigned for use as a solo instrument. It was now made in three pieces allowing a more accurate boring and had a fully chromatic range of two octaves. This new "baroque recorder" produced an reedy, penetrating sound of great carrying power, therefore, best suited for chamber music and even solo concerti. It remained a highly esteemed and popular instrument until the late 18th and early 19th century.
The essential feature of the recorder is the head with the internal plug ("block," hence the German name "Blockflöte"), leaving the windway (duct) to lead the player's breath to a rigid sharp edge or "lip" (voicing edge) at the base of the mouth ("labium").
The recorder has holes for seven fingers (the lower one or two often doubled to facilitate the production of semitones) and a single hole for the thumb on the back side which also serves as an octaving vent. A recorder consort usually consists of the "descant" or "soprano," the "treble" or "alto," the tenor and the bass instrument. Sopranino and great bass instruments are also fairly common.
In contemporary French and Dutch language the word "hat" could be used as a metaphor for a man while "coif" denoted a woman.
Women were largely discouraged from wearing the broad felt hats that men wore in public until the mid 1600s, when it had become more acceptable. Fashionable young women in Holland occasionally wore feathered hats during promenades to the country or seaside as a special protection against exposure to the sun.
On the other hand, wide-brimmed straw hats were worn by women everywhere in Europe of all classes. They had the same protective function as more expensive hats and must have had a charming effect on men. In painting they were often associated with country life.
The kind of hat worn by the woman in this painting by Vermeer is something out of the ordinary and was painted just for that reason.
The prominent role that music played in Dutch society was supported by the Dutch educational system which was probably the best in Europe at the time. Primary schools were available to all social classes and could be found in almost every village. Although the major focus was on reading, writing, arithmetic and Scriptures, music was sometimes offered as a supplemental instruction. At the secondary level, musical instruction was given to boys aged nine to seventeen. At Latin School, present in every major town, music instruction was continued and musical theory was introduced at the gymnasium (grammar school). However, serious study required a professional instructor. Lower-class children could earn their keep by assisting the master.
Other than giving musical lessons, various opportunities were available to aspiring musicians. Larger Dutch towns employed stadspeellieden (municipal musicians) who primarily played string or wind instruments. Their duties varied but the inevitably received little pay.
What was Vermeer's musical education like? As the only son of an innkeeper Vermeer grew up in taverns where drinking, smoking, business, cavorting and music-making all meshed together amid pictures from his father's art trade. Furthermore, music seems to have had some place in his family.
The stepfather of Vermeer's father Reynier, Nicolaes ("Claes") Corstiaensz. van der Minne, was a professional musician, a so-called speelman, aside from being a tailor. We know that Nicolaes had played on the occasions of public festivities or whenever he was called on. He possessed various instruments, and it is probable that Nicolaes had instructed his son to play some kind of musical instrument, perhaps a flute. Thus, Reynier grew up in a musical family. It would be only logical to suppose that he imparted to his own two children, Gertruy and Johannes, a hearty sense of enjoyment. Although there is no proof, the artist's family musical connections have something to do with the elevated number of musical themes he painted.