The Guitar Player

(De gitaarspeelster)
c. 1670–1673
Oil on canvas
53 x 46.3 cm. (20 7/8 x 18 1/4 in.)
Kenwood House English Heritage as Trustees of the Iveagh Bequest, London
inv. 88028841
there are 11 hotspots in the image below
The Guitar Player, Johannes Vermeer

critical excerpt

The Guitar Player (facsimile of signature), Johannes Vermeer
signed right on the lower side of the curtain

Albert Blankert, Vermeer: 1632–1675, 1975

c. 1670
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., Vermeer: The Complete Works, New York, 1997

c. 1670–1672
Walter Liedtke, Vermeer: The Complete Paintings, New York, 2008

c. 1672–1673
Wayne Franits, Vermeer, 2015



Johannes Vermeer's Guitar Player with frame

  • ?) Pieter Claesz. van Ruijven, Delft (d. 1674)
  • (?) his widow, Maria de Knuijt, Delft (d. 1681)
  • (?) their daughter, Magdalena van Ruijven, Delft (d. 1682)
  • (?) her widower, Jacob Abrahamsz Dissius (d. 1695)
  • Dissius sale, Amsterdam, 16 May, 1696, no. 4
  • ?Jan Danser Nijman, Amsterdam (before 1794)
  • Henry Temple, 2nd Viscount Palmerston, London (1794-d.1802)
  • his son, Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston, London and Broadlands, Hampshire (1802-d.1865)
  • his stepson, William Francis Cowper-Temple, 1st Baron Mount Temple, Broadlands, Hampshire (1865-d.1888)
  • his nephew, (Anthony) Evelyn Melbourne Ashley (in 1888, sold to Agnew)
  • [Agnew, London, 1888–1889, sold to Guinness]
  • Edward Cecil Guinness, (from 1919) Earl of Iveagh, London (1889-d.1927)
  • The Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood House, London (inv. 88028841)
  • London 1871
    An Exhibition of the Old Masters, Associated with Works of Deceased Masters of the British School
    Royal Academy
    no. 266, as "The Lute Player," lent by LR. T. Hon. W. Cowper-Temp
  • London 1892
    Exhibition of Works by the Old Masters and by Deceased Masters of the British School including a Collection of Watercolour Drawings, Studies, and Sketches from Nature
    Royal Academy
    no. 46, as "The Lute Player," lent by Lord Ivea
  • The Hague June 25–September 5, 1966
    In het licht van Vermeer
    no. VIII.
  • London July, 2012–2013
    "The Guitar Player"
    National Gallery
  • London June 26–September 8, 2013
    Vermeer and Music: Love and Leisure in the Dutch Golden Age
    National Gallery
    68, no. 24 and ill.
Johannes Vermeer's Guitar Player in scale
vermeer's life

Vermeer's mother is buried in the Nieuwe Kerk in Delft, February 13.

Geertruijt Reynier Vermeer, Vermeer's sister, is buried at the beginning of May in the Nieuwe Kerk in Delft.

Vermeer inherits Mechelen from his mother, July 13. He rents it to a shoemaker caller Van Ackerdyck.

Vermeer is appointed for a second time headmen of the Guild of Saint Luke. He continues to paint in an "abstract" mode paying greater attention to pattern and the compositional structure of his works. Scholars have asserted that Vermeer may have been following the popular French mode of painting.

Delft pop. 15,000
The Hague pop. 6,000
Amsterdam pop. 219,000

dutch painting
european painting & architecture

Louis Le Vau, Fr. architect, d. (b. 1612)

Landscape architect André Lenôtre lays out the Champs-Elysées at Paris.


Molière's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme includes a ballet with music by court composer Jean Baptiste Lully, 38, who has come to France from his native Florence and changed his name from Giovanni Battista Lulli. The ballet is so popular that four performances are requested in the space of 8 days.


Feb 10, William Congreve, English writer (Old Bachelor, Way of the World), is born.

John Ray prints a book of aphorisms such as: "Blood is thicker than water..." and "Haste makes waste."

science & philosophy

Italian scientist Giovanni Borelli attempts to use artificial wings to flying.

London clockmaker William Clement improves the accuracy of clocks by inventing anchor-shaped gadgets (escapements) that control the escape of a clock's driving force.

Parts of Baruch de Spinoza's Tractatus Theologico-Politicus are published anonymously. Spinoza shows that the Bible, if properly understood, gives no support to the intolerance of religious authorities and their interference in civil and political affairs. The book creates a furor. It will provoke widespread denunciations as it goes through five editions in the next 5 years, and Spinoza moves to The Hague to gain the protection of influential friends. Now 37, he suffers from tuberculosis after years of inhaling glass dust produced by his lens-making.


Cardinal Emilio Altieri becomes Pope Clement X.

May 2, The Hudson Bay Co. is chartered by England's King Charles II to exploit the resources of the Hudson Bay area.

Oct 13, Virginia passes a law that blacks arriving in the colonies as Christians cannot be used as slaves.

The Dutch merchant marine has become larger than that of England, France, Spain and Portugal combined.

Minute hands first appear on watches.

Cafe Procope, the first cafe in Paris, begins serving ice cream.

France's Louis XIV founds Les Invalides at Paris to house up to 7,000 disabled soldiers.

vermeer's life In July Vermeer appears before the notary Nicolaes van Assendelft to acknowledge that he had received an inheritance of 148 guilders from his sister's estate.
dutch painting Adriaen van Ostade paints Travelers Resting.
european painting & architecture

Lionel Bruant: Hôtel des Invalides, Paris.

Christopher Wren: The Monument to commemorate the Great Fire of London in 1666


Feb 19, Charles-Hubert Gervais, composer, is born.

Dec 1, Francesco Stradivari, Italian violin maker and son of Antonius, is born.

Paris Opera opens with Robert Cambert's opera Pomone.

The French Académie de Royale Musique opens March 3 in the Salle du Jeu de Paume de la Bouteille. Jean Baptiste Lully will take over the Paris Opéra beginning next year and run it until 1687, rebuilding the house after fires that will destroy it in 1678 and 1681


Apr 6, Jean-Baptiste Rousseau, French playwright, poet (Sacred Odes & Songs), is born.

Molière writes his farce Les Fourberies de Scapin (The Wiles of Scapin or Scapin the Cheat).

science & philosophy

In Germany Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz devised a mechanical calculator to add, subtract, multiply and divide.

Astronomer Jean Picard visits the observatory of the late Tycho Brache on Hven Island, Sweden, to determine its exact location in order that observations there can be compared with precision to those made elsewhere. He returns to Paris with copies of Brahe's work and will use them to help him obtain an accurate measurement of the length of a degree of a meridian (longitude line) for use in computing the size of the Earth.

history c. 1671 first printed reference to an alphabet rhyme, a rhyme composed to help children learn their letters.

Apr 22, King Charles II sits in on English parliament.

Colonel Thomas Blood, Irish adventurer, steals the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London.
vermeer's life

Vermeer leases Mechelen to an apothecary for six years.

In May, Vermeer travels with two other headmen of the Saint Luke guild of Delft to The Hague in order to appraise a collection of disputed Italian paintings. Since one of the members of the expedition, Johannes Jordaens had spent many yeas in Italy, and Vermeer probably never left the Netherlands, it is likely that he was chosen for his importance as the headmaster of the guild. They testify before a notary that the works are "great pieces of rubbish and bad paintings."

Vermeer's earnings from his paintings after the French invaded the Netherlands of this year was probably considerably lower that those of the 1660s. His family was also very large by Dutch standards where only two or three children were expected. His economic problems may have been worsened because of low rate of production and restricted clientele and consequentially high prices of his paintings.

The refined sense of balance in Vermeer's compositions of the 1660s have given way to a new dynamic direction in the early 1670s. In The Guitar Player, Vermeer rejected balance in favor of a highly asymmetric compositions. The figure of the young girl seems to literally burst off the canvas. The music of the guitar, much bolder than that of the lute, had become popular in these years.

dutch painting
european painting & architecture Christopher Wren: Saint Stephen's, Walbrook, London

Apr 6, Andre Ardinal Destouches, composer, is born.

First public concert at Whitefriars, London, given by violinist John Banister.

The baroque guitar begins to become popular in Holland. A fine example can be seen in Vermeer's Guitar Player. The lute, by this time, had begun to take on associations with an idealized past.

The Académie Royale de Danse is founded by Louis XIV in 1661 and amalgamated with the Paris Opéra becoming the Paris Opéra Ballet.

literature William Temple: Observations upon the United Provinces of the Netherlands.
science & philosophy Flexible hose for use in fighting fires, is constructed by Jan van der Heyde and his son.

Feb 8, Isaac Newton reads his 1st optics paper before Royal Society in London.

Christian Huygens of Holland discoveres white polar caps on Mars.

Apr 29, King Louis XIV of France invaded the Netherlands. The beginning of economic decline in the Dutch Republic and the art market collapses

Jun 9, Peter I (d.1725), "The Great," was born. He grew to be almost 7 feet tall and was the Russian Czar from 1682 to 1725 and modernized Russia with sweeping reforms. He moves the Russian capital to the new city he built, St. Petersburg.

Jun 15, The Sluices are opened in Holland to save Amsterdam from the French.

Jul 4, States of Holland declares "Eternal Edict" void.

The Royal African Co. is granted a charter to expand the slave trade and its stockholders included philosopher John Locke. The operation will supply English sugar colonies with 3,000 slaves annually.

Peter Stuyvesant dies on his farm in NY. In 1959 Henry H. Kessler and Eugene Rachlis authored Peter Stuyvesant and his New York. In 1970 Adele de Leeuw authors Peter Stuyvesant.

Political lynching of the statesman Johan and Cornelis de Witt by Orange supporters in the Hague

Netherlands's third war with England and starts an economic decline in Holland. The art market collapses.

The Dutch organize a system of relief for the poor, who had been provided for up to now by prosperous merchants. With Dutch trade declining and the country at war, the merchants can no longer afford to be so generous.

Lady with a Lute, Palma Vecchio

Lady with a Lute
Palma Vecchio
Oil on canvas, 96.5 x 73.7 cm.
Alnwick Cle, Alnwick

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 (see image left) 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.

Details of Johannes Vermeer's Guitar Player and Study of a Young Woman

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 (see image left). Assuming the date generally assigned to the picture (c. 1671–1672) is correct, the pciture 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."

The Guitar Player (diagram), Johannes Vermeer

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.

Riverscape with Travelers, Herman van Swanevelt

Riverscape with Travelers
Herman van Swanevelt
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Grenoblex-Arts,

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 (see image left).


music icon Villanesque [2.14 MB], Guillaume Morlaye

performed by Michael Craddock
on a Renaissance guitar.

Baroque 5-course-guitar, attributed to Matteo Sellas, Venice

Baroque 5-course-guitar,
attributed to
Matteo Sellas, Venice, c. 1630–1650
Richly decorated with ivory,
bone and various woods.
Metropolitan Museum of Art,
New York

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.

Soldiers Fighting over Booty in a Barn (detail), Willem Duyster

Soldiers Fighting over Booty in a Barn (detail)
Willem Duyster
c. 1623–1624
Oil on oak, 37.6 x 57 cm.
Natioanl Gallery, London

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 (see detail above). 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.

The Guitar Player (detail), Johannes Vermeer

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 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.