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The art historian Gregor Weber identified the picture-within-a-picture that hangs behind the guitarist's head as A Wooded Landscape with a Gentleman and Dogs in the Foreground by Pieter Jansz. van Asch. In Vermeer's version, Van Asch's composition has been cropped on the right and slightly on the top. The group of gentlemen and dogs is covered by the musician's head.
Van Asch's landscape may have been a possession of Vermeer at the moment of his death. Like many other Dutch artists, Vermeer dealt in paintings of his colleagues to augment earnings becasue most painters were not able of support themselves by painting alone. In his late years Vermeer's trade went poorly. Catharina Bolnes, the artist's wife, stated in a petition to her creditors that her deceased husband "during the long and ruinous war with France not only had been unable to sell any of his art but also, to his great detriment, was left sitting with the paintings of others he was dealing in. As a result and owing to the very great burden of his children, having no means of his own, he lapsed into such decay and decadence, which he had so taken to heart, as if he had fallen into a frenzy, in a day or day and a half he had gone from being healthy to being dead."
According to the scholar Elise Goodman, even though we know nothing of Vermeer's literary and musical predilections, the young girl that appears in the present painting is a member of the haute bourgeoisie who read, wrote, and spoke in several languages. She probably collected European poetry and had a taste for the lyrics of Dutch, French and even English songbooks which circulated in great numbers in 17th-century Netherlands. Her hairstyle, dress and guitar reflect the latest styles of the day.
The young girl's open expression is unusual for Vermeer's sitters who usually convey their emotion in a veiled manner. Perhaps her flirtatious expression suggests the presence of a male listener nearby. From a technical point of view, her physiognomy is rendered with such economy that it is almost impossible draw any conclusions as to an eventual resemblance to other figures in Vermeer's paintings.
In the 17th century, pearls were an important status symbol. In 1660 English diarist Samuel Pepys paid 4 1/2 pounds for a pearl necklace, and in 1666 he paid 80 pounds for another, which at the time amounted to about 45 and 800 guilders respectively. At about the same time the traveling French art connoisseur Balthasar de Monconys had been shown a single-figured painting by Vermeer which had been paid 600 guilders, which he considered outrageous.
Although the relatively homogeneous subject matter of Vermeer small oeuvre would suggest that the artist evolved little during his twenty-year career, a closer look reveals that he ceaselessly experimented new ways to enhance light, textures and space.
In the present work, the artist contrived a remarkably economic technique for rendering the pearl necklace that he later replicated in the Allegory of Faith. After having laid in the dark greenish shadows of the girl's neck, he superimposed a continuous, light greenish-gray band of paint to serve as the basis of the strand of pearls. At this stage, no attempt was made to define the shape of the individual pearls whose contours, instead, were left deliberately hazy in order to convey their natural translucence. Once the underlying layer of gray paint was thoroughly dry, he deftly applied a sequence of thick white spherical highlights which indicate the position, spherical nature and reflective quality peculiar to pearls.
This detail illustrates the evident tendency towards stylization in Vermeer's late works. Instead of continuously modeled form, objects are abstracted into a series of flat patches of differently toned paint, which, nonetheless, magically convey the play of light on the delicately formed fingers of the young girl.
The guitar was just coming into vogue in the 17th century as a popular instrument for solo accompaniment. The music it created was bolder than that of the lute, in large part because its chords produced a resonance not possible on the lute. By then, the lute had begun to take on associations with an idealized past, a sophisticated era where music had been enjoyed and contemplated for the purity of its sounds. As Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. observed, the bright and direct character of The Guitar Player spoke more to the modern world of music represented by the guitar than to the conservative and contemplative traditions of the lute.
The depiction of the guitar is a technical tour de force. Maximum attention was paid to the rendering of the decorative black and white inlay of its border whose visually "staccato" effect intensifies the painting's sparkling atmosphere and lends a rhythmic note consonant to the musical theme. The ornate hand-carved sound hole is rendered with pictorial shorthand of thick blobs of impasto paint which miraculously describes how light rakes across its shiny, uneven surface. But perhaps the most subtle technique was reserved for the painting of the instrument's strings. If carefully observed, some of them are blurred to suggest vibration in an unconventional manner which finds few parallels in 17th-century painting.
Why Vermeer so drastically simplified his technique is an open question. Some art historians believe the his creative powers began to wane under the weight of economic misfortunes or personal calamities. Others believe he was simply following the French influence that had begun to dominate high culture. Yet others believed that he simply wished to abbreviate the painting process in order to compete more advantageously in an extremely fickle art market which had all but collapsed due to the French invasion of the Netherlands in 1672.
Although satin and silk are widely used for their sheen and smoothness, they are different. Silk is a specific material that is used to make fabric while satin is a man-made with a variety of materials, including silk. Silk is made from cocoons of silk worms, whose fibers are made into threads and then woven. On the other hand, satin is a cloth that has been woven in a particular pattern that leaves one side dull and the other shiny. Both products originated in China. While silk was developed as early as 6000 B.C., satin was developed in the Middle Ages. Satin derived its name from the Chinese port of Zaitun (Quanzhou) in Fujian province from where the Arabs traders bought the fabric.
Satin was sometimes starched and ironed to stiffen the material. From the heavy hang of the folds, the dress in The Guitar Player appears to be made of starched satin.
In the 17th century, Dutch painters delighted in the depiction of the play of light on textures. In particular, the description of luxurious fabrics like silk, satin and velvet were considered a test of the painter's ability and the best never lost the chance to show off their technical prowess in this area. Philip Angel wrote in 1642, "A painter worthy of praise should be able to render this variety in the most pleasurable way for all eyes with his brushwork, distinguishing between harsh, rough clothiness and smooth satiny evenness..."
Finely rendered satin gowns were strong selling point on the competitive art market. Pieter Codde and Willem Duyster were particularly good at it but Gerrit ter Borch surpassed them all. So when Vermeer included this kind of luxurious garment in his painting, he was well aware that it would be compared to those of the most highly appraised and sought after painters of the moment.
Painting luxurious fabrics was particularly difficult and time consuming. Because the folds change with the movement of the body and painters could not usually finish them in a single session, life-size wooden manikins were dressed with the sitter's most costly clothes.
The three books which lie on the table impart an air of sophistication to the picture even though it is impossible to know their subject or title. Some critics have proposed that the bulky dimensions of the middle volume indicates it is a Bible. One critic has conjectured that the presence of the holy text in the worldly context represents a veiled admonition to the girl's vain pursuits. If the this is the case, the viewer will not fail to note that the lovely musician seems to have turned a deaf ear to the painter's moralizing advice.
Walter Liedtke, instead, posited that the three books "imply learning, a new but not unknown theme in Dutch paintings of fashionable young women."
It is not easy to understand the space that the young girl inhabits but she appears to be quite distant from the background wall even though the golden frame seems to bind her closely to it. The hidden window to the far right appears similar in structure to other windows found in Vermeer's interiors, with two lower and two upper casements. The upper casements had shutters that could be closed from the inside while the lower shutters were on the exterior of the house. The curtain in the present painting was employed to shield incoming light and, perhaps, indiscreet eyes. The light which shines upon the girl most likely comes from a second window nearer to the artist.
Although it can barely be made out, a dark silhouetted form represents the top of a lion-head finial of a so-called Spanish chair which Vermeer had portrayed throughout his career. These particular chairs probably derived their name from the use of leather instead of cloth commonly used in Spain. Such chairs were so prized that their makers' regarded themselves as a distinct and superior group within the craftsman guilds. Similar chairs can be seen countless times in genre interiors of Vermeer's time. One such chair can be advantagoulsy seen in the The Duet, by Jan Miense Molenaer.
A similar elegant fur-trimmed yellow morning jacket appears in five other paintings by Vermeer including the Mistress and Maid. One such article is listed among possessions of his beloved wife, Catharina. The folds of this jacket are handled so differently from picture to picture that it appears to be made of various kinds of fabric, although a side-by-side comparison of the shapes and the distribution of the spots on the fur trim of three paintings (A Lady Writing, Woman with a Pearl Necklace and Mistress and Maid) assures us that it is one and the same article. In the mid-1660s or after they were depicted in an enormous number of Dutch genre interiors, in a wide variety of colors. Very few examples of 17th-century jackets have survived.
In the present painting, the shimmering material of the jacket is broken down into an abstract pattern which seem almost unrelated to the actual tuck and fold of the garment. The fur trim too, once rendered with the utmost delicately, is transformed into to curious patches of thin gray paint. Why Vermeer had come to disregard the close transcription of visual experience in favor of a so heavily stylized treatment has never been fully understood.
Historians of costume tell us that the spotted fur trim of Vermeer's jacks was probably not precious ermine but cat, squirrel or mouse decorated with faux spots. In fact, even in the inventories of the wealthiest women, ermine is never mentioned.
A rarely discussed yet crucial component of Vermeer's motifs are the white-washed walls. These unobtrusive walls set the stage for the artist's quiet dramas and have multiple pictorial functions. Not only define the picture's spatial depth but establish with uncanny precision the lighting scheme and mood of the work. Moreover, as "negative spaces" they often play a key in compositional equilibrium. As in the work of no other Dutch interior painter do the walls have such a marked presence whose bland surfaces are investigated with the utmost care.
Vermeer employed sundry pictorial strategies to define each wall's particular illusionist qualities and suggest the transparency of cast shadows. The wall's precise hue, or color, establishes the temperature of the incoming light while chiaroscural values and brushwork signal the light's direction, intensity as well as the surface texture. Surprisingly, the pigment combinations Vermeer and other Dutch interior painters generally used for the task were few; mainly lead white, black and raw umber, a workhorse, but unexciting brown. The importance that Vermeer attached to evoking their luminosity is confirmed by the well-know findings that he deliberately introduced in some of his wall minute mixtures of natural ultramarine (sometimes perceived only subliminally) the most expensive pigment used by painters throughout Europe.
Wim Weeve, Delft building historian Wim Weeve, reports that since the Middle Ages, bare white walls were ubiquitously found in the interiors of Dutch houses, castles and churches. However, these walls were not simply "white washed" with a brush, but first covered with a thicker layer of lime putty, in Holland, where Vermeer lived and worked, made from burned seashells. After the putty layer was applied, the walls were repeatedly whitewashed as they become soiled. At times they were (partly) decoratively hand-painted, but by the 17th-century they were no longer in fashion among the upper classes. Walls could be whitewashed many times as many times as necessary to restore their pristine white condition. Bare brick walls could be kept only in industrial buildings or warehouses.
Signed right on the lower side of the curtain
(Click here to access a complete study of Vermeer's signatures.)
Albert Blankert, Vermeer: 1632–1675, 1975
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
(Click here to access a complete study of the dates of Vermeer's paintings).
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(Click here to access a complete, sortable list of the exhibitions of Vermeer's paintings).
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According to art historian Elise Goodman, Vermeer's Guitar Player belongs to a construct that may be called the "lady and the landscape" which was a popular, international convention for glorifying female beauty in the 17th-century painting, prints and literature. A typical example of this convention is Palma Vecchio's Lady with a Lute which represents a female musician in front of an idyllic landscape.
Goodman writes that the idea that a lady was a "masterpiece of nature" to be admired, possessed and displayed, appeared in countless poems, songs and tracts on women in the 17th century. In poetry, women's features were delicately entwined with their natural environment. The metamorphosis by which she was turned into a metaphorical tree or verdant meadow was popular in English and French 17th-century literature and was echoed in Dutch poems by Pieter Corneliszoon Hooft, Constantijn Huygens and Joost van den Vondel. Vermeer may have been aware of the convention when he recalls the dangling curls of the young girl's hair in the hanging branches of the idyllic landscape directly behind her head, first pointed out by Lawrence Gowing.
Since Vermeer was once consulted as an expert in matters of Italian artworks, he must have been familiar with this type of painting through Italian pictures and prints which widely circulated throughout Europe and were collected on the Dutch art market.
John Michael Montias, expert of Vermeer's life and extended family, mused that the yellow-jacketed girl has the characteristic jaw formation of the Study of a Young Woman. Assuming the date generally assigned to the picture (c. 1671–1672) is correct, the picture could represent Maria, Vermeer's eldest daughter, at the age of seventeen or eighteen. Elisabeth, born about 1657, is a less likely candidate since she was probably less than fifteen years old at the time the Kenwood picture was painted.
In any case, it is difficult to imagine how the father of eleven children was able ignore their presence while he painted. Many critics have noticed the apparent discrepancy between the artist's perfectly-ordered interiors and what may have been his daily life with a brood of children. Where are the cradles, beds and chairs, listed in the inventory of movable goods taken after his death, strewn out over the house? Contrary to many Dutch genre painters such as Jan Steen, Nicolaes Maes and Gabriel Metsu whose pictures frequently exhibit children, Vermeer gave them only two minor, albeit poetic, parts to play in front of the Little Street and in the foreground shore of the View of Delft.
The oddity, however, is not so difficult to explain. Simply put, Vermeer's paintings were not intended as biographical statements. Even though they do represent contemporary settings and modes, they were not meant to reflect the conditions of his personal life. As Walter Liedtke wrote, "the artist depicted a patrician ideal. Poverty disease, the deaths of children and other loved-ones, and the large-scaled calamities that occasionally afflicted Delft left no trace on his human subjects who are concerned with beauty, the arts and sciences, spiritual life, and worldly pleasures in moderation."
The radiant joy of The Guitar Player is perplexing in the light of Vermeer's private life. In the years when this work was painted, the artist faced grave financial difficulties brought on by an ever-growing family which was eventually exacerbated by an economic collapse and virtual evaporation of the art market of the Untied Provinces brought on by the French invasion in 1672.
Whether the unusual compositional formula and abbreviated technique of The Guitar Player was fruit of client's directives or the artist's attempt to overcome his personal hardships, it remains, nonetheless, the happiest of his works. In any case, Vermeer and his wife Catharina Bolnes must have treasured this canvas since it remained in Catharina's possession after her husband's untimely death in 1675. Some time later, she was forced to hand it over as collateral for a formidable debt accumulated with the Delft baker Hendrick van Buyten. In 1675, Vermeer had suddenly died leaving his wife with eleven children, ten of whom were minors.
For some unknown reason the light in this painting enters from the right-hand side of the picture rather of following the pictorial convention of light entering from the left. The origins of this pictorial formula may be linked with the fact that artists usually paint with the light source coming on their left so that the shadow cast by their working hand did not disturb the area on which they were painting. The fact that western spectators read from left to right also contributes to the success of the formula.
Conservator and Vermeer expert Jørgen Wadum has suggested that the few works of Vermeer in which the light enters from the right "may have been created to fit a collector's 'gallery' and how the light fell in that room. Is it conceivable that Pieter van Ruijven (Vermeer's patron) acquired paintings from his favorite artist with this in mind, equal to the manner with which the artist Jacob van Campen, working under the supervision of Constantijn Huygens, perceived the Oranjezaal outside The Hague? For this interior it was stated that within certain paintings the light should be painted entering from the left and in others from the 'wrong side' (the right). This was done in order to complete for the spectator the illusion of natural light and painted light following the same laws of nature."
Vermeer expert Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. pointed out the uniqueness of this bizarre composition. The girl is placed asymmetrically to the left, so much that her arm is cut off. The viewer intuitively enters the painting from the right and immediately confronts the guitar player's presence making it impossible to explore the remaining part of the painting aside from the gold-framed landscape. The rest of the composition remains dramatically empty. Despite the unusual composition, there is no way that the viewer can subtract himself from the arresting beauty of the boldly painted face, jacket, guitar and gown.
The composition is not without its compositional refineries. Vermeer skillfully aligned the gilt frame and its upright standing tree with center of the girl's body and the sound hole of the guitar forming a vertical axis that stabilizes the otherwise unusual composition (see diagram above).
Canvas relining of paintings is normally required every few generations becasue the fibers of linen weaken. The Guitar Player represents an exception in 17th-century painting in that it has not been relined and is still attached to its original strainer. This gives the picture a freshness and vibrancy often lost when canvasses have been relined by the application of heavy irons and heat. The unique state of this painting has sometimes led art historians to find the picture disconcerting. The canvas is still fixed to the strainer by wooden pegs, which were less costly than metal nails which in those times had to be produced by hand, one by one.
Although art historian Gregor Weber has identified the gilt-framed landscape as A Wooded Landscape with a Gentleman and Dogs in the Foreground by Pieter Jansz van Asch, Bert Meijer has recently pointed out strong affinities with a wooded landscape by Herman van Swanevelt.
Villanesque [2.14 MB], Guillaume Morlaye
performed by Michael Craddock
on a Renaissance guitar.
There are various different theories about the origin of the guitar. Some thought it was a remote descendant of the ancient Greek kithara, suggested by the etymological relationship of "kithara" and "guitar,." Others believe its early ancestors are among the long-necked lutes of Mesopotamia. From the 1st to the fourth century A.C., some examples of short-necked lutes with guitar shape were found in Central Asia.
In the early Middle Ages, the Arabs ("Moors") may have brought instruments which bore the cardinal features of the guitar to Western Europe while passing through Egypt on their way to conquer North Africa and Spain. Hence the name "Guitarra Morisca" for a kind of guitar with a long neck, an oval soundbox and several sound holes on its soundboard. Such instruments were depicted in medieval miniatures together with a "Guitarra Latina," with distinctive curved sides, which has been developed then into the form of the guitar known to us today.
By the 15th century, the four-course guitar emerged, but the number of courses (pairs of strings) became more and more variable. The four-course guitar remained very popular by the common people throughout the 17th and 18th centuries because its limited range of courses made it useful for playing light dance settings or simple accompanying chords for popular songs.
The five-course guitar was developed in the 16th century at first in Italy, as a transformation from the four-course instrument with the emphasis on brighter, higher-ranged music. It was used both for accompanying the voice and in continuo ensembles. From there, the five-course guitar spread increasing throughout Europe during the 17th century. Both four- and five-course guitars were rather small instruments compared to the today's Classical guitar.
The nature of the guitar changed noticeably in the middle of the 18th century along with the musical styles in general. An arpeggiated style similar to that of a keyboard instrument (harpsichord) required true bass notes and stressed the use of a bourdon on the fifth course. The guitar was becoming an instrument closer in character and playing style to the modern guitar.
The back of the "normal" guitar is flat. Along the fingerboard are complete gut frets tied round the neck. The bridge is similar to that of the lute, fixed on the table and with a typical decoration in form of a "moustache" on both sides. The strings were normally made of gut. From the 15th to the 18th century the sound hole appeared as a decorated rose, then it was open like at the modern guitar.
The technique of plucking the strings individually was called "punteado" in Spain (in Italian: "pizzicato"). Another technique is the strumming of chords by sweeping the hand back and forth over all the strings at once - the "rasgueado" (It. "battuto" or "battente"), providing a piece with a particular character.
Although before the 1650s images of upper-class Dutch women were represetned sober chastity, courtly conventions had begun to appeal to Dutch burgers in reaction to their former austere black clothing and stiff lace collars. This prosperous burger class, which had once known devastating wars and economic hardship, increasingly adopted the sumptuous, aristocratic tastes in architecture, interior decoration, clothing and art. In 1673, Sir William Temple, an English statesman and essayist, remarked, "The old severe and frugal way of living is now almost out of date in Holland."
The depiction of materials had always been a challenge to painters from the Renaissance onwards. Even the monotonous black dress of the burgers required great skill to render correctly since black pigment is notoriously difficult to model. Leonardo da Vinci recommended that draperies "should be drawn from the actual object" while closer to Vermeer, the art lover Philip Angels held one of the essential requirements of the accomplished painter was to "make proper distinction silk, velvet and woolen and linen stuffs..."
For painters, the enhanced luminosity of silk and satin posed a unique set of technical problems and cannot be rendered in the same manner as the opaque wool, linen or stiff cotton fabrics. As a rule of thumb, since more light is reflected than absorbed by its shiny surface, the contrast between the illuminated parts and the shadowed surfaces is more accentuated. Modeling is l fraught with abrupt breaks in tone. The relative stiffness of satin creates mirror-like planes that reflect the colors that surround them which, if rendered properly, are particularly charming. When competently depicted, these stuffs exert and almost magical power on even the most sophisticated viewer.
Among the many Dutch artist's who tackled the problem of painting silk and satin, Willem Duyster was one of the most successful. Only a few years later, however, Gerrit ter Borch surpassed him and made the works of his hitherto proficient colleagues appear naïve by comparison. Ter Borch's ability to portray not only the optical qualities of satin but its physical substance earned him a huge reputation in the Netherlands. With the assistance of his talented apprentices Ter Borch produced variations of his most popular compositions and in some cases the same satin gown was replicated verbatim. In order to keep up with demand for his work, his studio devised a way to mechanically transfer the drawings most successful satin gowns.
Art historian Robert Baldwin wrote that the Ter Borch's silk dresses functioned as "a decorous stand-in for the soft bodies concealed beneath" that simultaneously heighten and suppress male desire. "The extreme refinement of Ter Borch's beauty transformed the woman into a tantalizing prize dangled before masculine eyes and psyches. In court culture, the sublimation of desire went hand in hand with its exacerbation. Like late medieval and Renaissance courtly poems which competed to devise new extremes of male amorous torment, Ter Borch's paintings of beautiful maidens in silk dresses constructed a rhetorical female beauty maximizing the conflict between desire and decorum. That this new female beauty displayed a once-taboo courtly sensuality without violating burgher decorum made it all the more alluring."
Satin fabric was first made from silk in China. During the Middle Ages it was exported to Italy in the 12th century and by the 14th century, satin garments were greatly appreciated throughout Europe because of their high gloss, and were often the choice of royalty for both their feel and sheen. The name satin came from the Chinese port where Middle-Eastern traders obtained it, Zaitun (now Quanzhou) in Fujian province.
Traditional satin has a glossy and a dull side. While satin was once made exclusively of silk, it is now made with polyester, acetate, nylon, and rayon. The particular shine of satin is derived through its weave. Some weft or weave yarns are brought to the surface in a process called floating, which allows some of the yarn to reflect light, thus producing the shine and gloss. Sometimes satin was starched and ironed to give it more body. This procedure creates angular folds somewhat like those seen in Vermeer's Guitar Player.
In the final years of activity, Vermeer's approach to painting technique abruptly veered from naturalism towards a crisp abstraction.
Upon close inspection, the ornate carvings of the French gilt have been decomposed and skillfully transformed into a series of simplified, but rhythmic brush strokes. These little bits of calligraphy suggest rather than describe the frame's form and texture. Such a lively treatment may have been meant to recall the cheery sound of the guitar but nonetheless simultaneously produces a spectacular effect of light as it bounces off shiny gold.
In the present picture, as with The Love Letter and Lacemaker of the same years, contours are no longer varied as in the mid-career works but uniformly sharp. The variation of contours was recommended in order to produce a natural sense of roundness. Karel van Mander, who wrote Den Grondt der edel der schilder-const as guide for painters, urged to always keep the lightest and darkest shades distant from the contours lest the image appear flattened recommending edges which blur with the background to convey the sense of roundness more effectively.
Furthermore, the introduction of true lines along the contours' edges, which never appear in Vermeer's paintings, must be kept to a strict minimum. Willem Goeree wrote that "in natural life there are no lines to be seen only an end, or a certain stopping of the breadth and length of all physical things that on all sides seem to push past or against each other...so where color stops it indicates the described form, without lines." Although lines were used to differentiate two colors of the same chiaroscural value, they were inappropriate to define the boundary of forms because they destroy the sense of depth, one of the principal preoccupations of Dutch painting.
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During a past annual inspection by conservators, the painting was set on a large table in the Kenwood House where the painting is housed and a strong light was projected onto the canvas from a strongly raking angle in order to inspect the surface for eventual anomalies. This revealed the presence of two finger prints set in the light gray paint along the upper edge of the canvas that had hitherto been unnoticed. Although there is no way to demonstrate the fact, the fingerprints may be those of Vermeer or, perhaps more, likely someone belonging to Vermeer's household who had picked up the painting while it was still in the artist's studio unaware that the paint was still not sufficiently dry.