A Lady Seated at a Virginal

(Zittende virginaalspeelster)
c. 1670-1675
Oil on canvas
51.5 x 45.5 cm. (20 1/4 x 17 7/8 in.)
National Gallery, London
there are 12 hotspots in the image below
A Lady Seated at a Virginal, Johannes Vermeer

critical excerpt

Facsimile of the signature on Johannes Vermeer's A Lady Seated at a Virginal
inscribed at left below the upper edge of the virginal: IVMeer (IVM in ligature)

A Lady Seated at a Virginal (detail of signature), Johannes Vermeer

c. 1675
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. (Vermeer: The Complete Works, New York, 1997)

c. 1670-1672
Walter Liedtke (Vermeer: The Complete Paintings, New York, 2008)

The fine, plain-weave linen support has a thread count of 14 x 14 per cm². The original tacking edges have been removed. Cusping is visible along top and bottom and very faintly along both sides. The support has been lined. The double ground consists of a pale gray beneath a pale, warm gray buff. The first layer contains lead white, chalk and charcoal black; the second contains lead white, chalk, and a red-brown earth.

The flesh color was painted with green earth over a pink layer; the shadows with two additional layers, a mixture containing green earth followed by a deep red shadow. The blue upholstery was underpainted with a gray-blue layer; the highlights were modeled with a blue, then a pale blue layer and the shadows with gray. The outlines of the tiles at the- bottom of the wall were scratched in the wet paint. A pinhole by which Vermeer marked the vanishing point is visible in the paint layer on the sleeve of the woman's dress.

There is some abrasion in the three paintings within the painting, in the lady's right cheek and the dark blue of her tunic, and in the blue upholstery. The ultramarine pigment in the darker blues of the chair has deteriorated.

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

literature

Johannes Vermeer's A Lady Seated at a Virginals with frame

  • (?) Diego Duarte, Antwerp (1682, sold before 1691), or (?) Dissius sale, Amsterdam, 16 May 1696, no. 37, or (?) Nicolaes van Assendelft, Delft (before 1692) and widow Van Assendelft, Delft (1711);
  • (?) sale, Amsterdam, 1714, possibly no. 12;
  • Lothar Franz von Schönborn, Schloß Weissenstein, Pommersfelden (c. 1714-1729);
  • Count von Schönborn sale, Paris, 17ff. May 1867, no. 78 (to Thoré-Bürger);
  • Thoré-Bürger (Etienne Joseph Théophile Thoré), Paris (1867-d.1869);
  • Paul Lacroix, Paris (1869-1884, inherited from Thoré-Bürger);
  • widow Lacroix, Paris (1884-1892);
  • Thoré-Bürger sale, Paris, 5 December 1892, no. 32 (to Sedelmeyer);
  • [Sedelmeyer, Paris, 1892-93];
  • [Lawrie & Co., London, 1893, from Sedelmeyer];
  • [T. Humphry Ward, London, 1894];
  • George Salting, London (before 1898-d.1910);
  • The National Gallery, London, Salting Bequest, 1910 (inv. 2568).
  • London 1894
    Exhibition of Works by Old Masters and by Deceased Masters of British School. Royal Academy of Arts.
    22, no. 93.
  • Paris 1898
    Illustrated catalogue of 300 Paintings by Old Masters of Dutch, Flemish, French, and English School Being Some of the Principal Pictures Which Have at Various Times Formed Part of Sedelmeyer Gallery. Sedelmeyer Gallery.
    102, no. 85.
  • London 1900
    Exhibition of Pictures by Dutch Masters of Seventeenth Century. Burlington Fine Arts Club.
    24, no. 15.
  • London 1976
    Brown, Christopher. Art in Seventeenth-Century Holland. The National Gallery.
    93, no. 117 and ill.
  • Modena, Italy 15 April – 15 July, 2006
    Vermeer. La ragazza alla spinetta e i pittori di Delft. Galleria Estense.
    134-135, no. 18.
  • Cambridge, England 5 October, 2011 – 15January, 2012
    Vermeer’s Women: Secrets and Silence. The Fitzwilliam Museum.
    206, no. 27 and ill.
  • London 26 June - 8 September, 2013
    Vermeer and Music: Love and Leisure in the Dutch Golden Age.
    70, no. 25 and ill.
Johannes Vermeer's A Lady Seated at a Virginals in scale
1670
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.

music

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.

literature

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.

history

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.

1671
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

music

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

literature

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.
1672
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
music

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 The 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.
history

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.

1673
vermeer's life

June 27, another child of Vermeer is buried in the family grave in the Oude Kerk.

Vermeer rents family inn Mechelen that he had rented to his namesake an apothecary, for six years at 180 guilders a year, which was 10 guilders less that what was obtained from the shoemaker.

July 21, Vermeer sells two bonds totaling 800 guilders, one of which, worth 500 guilders, is in the name of Magdalena Pieters, daughters of Pieter Claesz van Ruijven, from whom Vermeer had barrowed money in 1657.

dutch painting

Willem van de Velde paints Three Ships in a Gale.

Adriaen van Ostade paints The Violin Player.

Mar 28, Adam Pijnacker, Dutch landscape painter, etcher, is buried.

european painting & architecture

Salvator Rosa, Spanish painter, dies.

Christopher Wren is knighted.

music Buxtehude begins at Lubeck his famous Abendmusiken concerts.

Lully: Cadmus et Hermoine, opera, first given in Paris.
literature Feb 17, Molière, French author Tartuffe, Le Malade Imaginaire, dies.
science & philosophy

Dec 28, Joan Blaeu, Dutch cartographer, who published Atlas Major, dies.

Leibniz conceives a calculator that uses Pascal's adding machine as its basis but that can also multiply and divide. He finally builds the device some 20 years later.

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek has by this time developed simple, single-lens microscopes with magnification up to 275 times (a device with a biconvex lens he grinds himself) and begins to send the English Royal Society letters on his discoveries.

history

Willem III of Orange saves Amsterdam and the province of Holland from France's Louis XIV by opening the sluice gates and flooding the country, an operation directed by mathematician and Amsterdam burgomaster Johan van Waveren Hudde, now 45 (see Leyden, 1574). Willem is supported by Friedrich Wilhelm, elector of Brandenburg, who concludes a separate peace with Louis and retains most of his possessions in Clèves.

University of Innsbruck is founded.

Feb 20, The first recorded wine auction was held in London.

Dutch forces retake New York and Delaware

1674
vermeer's life

Pieter van Ruijven, prominent Delft citizen and Vermeer's principal patron, dies. Van Ruijven had purchased about 20 of Vermeer's works, almost half of his total artistic output.

Vermeer's name appears on the register of the Delft militia. He was described, third on the list, as a schutter or marksman of the first rotten or squadron of the third company or vendel. This was the Orange company whose members were recruited from the quarter of the city that contained Oude Langedijk, where Vermeer and his family was living with his step-mother, Maria Thins. Leonaert Bramer, friend of the Vermeer family for many years and noted painter of Delft, was a member of the same company. The fact that Vermeer was accepted in the Delft militia testifies to his high social standings.

June, Maria, Vermeer's eldest daughter, and Catharina, now about 20, marries the son of a prosperous Delft silk merchant Johannes Gilliszoon Cramer, who followed his father's profession. The wedding was held in Schipluy, as Maria's parents' wedding had been, and presumably with Catholic sacraments.

Reynier Bolnes, Vermeer's father-in-law, dies. Vermeer travels to Gouda to settle the estate.

Delft tax register more than 200 houses worth more than 20,000 guilders. A carpenter or mason earned about 500 guilders a year.

dutch painting  
european painting & architecture

Philippe de Champaigne, French painter, dies.

Jun 21, Sir Christopher Wren begins to rebuild St Paul's Cathedral in London, replacing the old building which had been destroyed by the Great Fire.

music

Feb 21, Johann Augustin Kobelius, composer, is born.

Lully: Alceste, opera Paris.

literature

Jun 20, Nicholas Rowe, poet laureate of England, is born.

Nov 8, John Milton (65), English poet (Paradise Lost), dies. His work included Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes. Milton lost one eye at 36 and the other when he was 44. In 1952 Prof. Sensabaugh authored In That Grand Whig, Milton, an examination of Milton's political tracts.

The Great Historical Dictionary, or Anthology of Sacred and Secular History (Le grand Dictionnaire historique ou Mélange curieux de l'histoire sacré et profane) published at Lyons had been compiled by clergyman Louis Moréri, 31. It focuses on biographical and historical article, and will be translated into German, Italian, and Spanish as well as English, and it will appear in 20 editions by 1759

science & philosophy

Louis Moreri: Le Grand Dictionnaire historique, first encyclopedic reference work on history.

Mar 4, John Flamsteed is appointed first Astronomer Royal of England.

Newton delivers his Discourse on Light and Colour to the Royal Society.

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek of Delft discovers "invisible" small animals using the first of more than 400 simple microscopes that he will produce. Chamberlain since 1660 to the city's sheriff, Leeuwenhoek has sufficient income to devote considerable time and attention to his avocation of grinding lenses and using them to study tiny objects which he has isolated from ponds, rainwater, well water, and other sources

history

Feb 9, English reconqueres the city of New York from Netherlands.

Feb 19, Netherlands and England sign the Peace of Westminster. New York becomes English.

May 20, John Sobieski becomes Poland's first King.

The Treaty of Westminster February 9 ends the two-year war between England and the Netherlands. It returns New York and Delaware to England, freeing the English to expand their trade and grow prosperous while Europe becomes embroiled in depleting warfare.

England's Charles II begins to wear long waistcoats, introducing a fashion that encourages men to wear their watches in their waistcoat pockets instead of from their necks.

1675
vermeer's life

Vermeer borrows one thousand guilders, a considerable sum equivalent to about two year's earnings of a mason or an average Dutch house, from an Amsterdam merchant.

Maria Thins empowers Vermeer to collect and administer money owed to her son.

Vermeer is buried in the Oude Kerk, July 20. He leaves an impoverished widow and eleven children, ten of whom are still minors. Vermeer probably painted very little in his last years. His death, three years later, at the age of forty-three, was described by his wife, "as a result and owing to the great burden of his children, having no means of his own, he had lapsed into such decay and decadence, which he had so taken to heart that, as if he had fallen into a frenzy, in a day or day and a half had gone from being healthy to being dead."

The burial registers of the Oude Kerk mention on December 15, 1675: "Jan Vermeer, artist of the Oude Langedijk, in the Oude Kerk." Catharina was left with ten children and an enormous debt. She was able to survive only through the loving help of her mother Maria Thins. A plea to her creditors some time after her husband's premature death strikes a final sad note in Vermeer's brief life: "during the ruinous war he not only was unable to sell any of his art but also, to his great detriment, was left sitting with the paintings of other masters that he was dealing in."

dutch painting

Jacob van Ruisdael paints Jewish Cemetery.

The Dutch painter, Gerrit Dou, dies. He was especially of genre paintings and influenced Vermeer.

Allart van Everdingen, Dutch painter and printmaker in etching and mezzotint, dies (b. 1621).

Cornelis Norbertus Gysbrechts or Gijsbrechts, Flemish painter dies.

european painting & architecture Sir Christopher Wren begins rebuilding St. Paul's Cathedral, London.
music

In France Lully composed Thesee.The librettist was Philippe Quinault. This work established the tragedie lyrique operatic form.

Antionio Vivaldi, Italian composer, is born. He was the greatest master of Italian baroque, particularly of violin music and the concerto grosso. Vivaldi received his early training from his father, a violinist at St. Mark's, Venice, and later studied with Giovanni Legrenzi. Ordained a priest in 1703, Vivaldi spent most of his life after 1709 in Venice, teaching and playing the violin and writing music for the Pietà, one of Venice's four music conservatories for orphaned girls. Although he produced quantities of vocal music (including 46 operas), he is remembered chiefly for his instrumental music - sonatas; concerti grossi, including four famous ones known as The Four Seasons; and 447 concertos for violin and other instruments.

literature John Wilkins - Of the Principle and Duties of Natural Religion.
science & philosophy Spinoza finishes his Ethics (begun 1662)

Jun 22, Royal Greenwich Observatory was established in England by Charles II.

Romer calculates the speed of light one year later in 1676.
history

Jun 28, Frederick William of Brandenburg crushed the Swedes.

Oct 4, Christian Huygens patented a pocket watch

Woman at the Clavichord (detail), Gerrit Dou

Woman at the Clavichord (detail)
Gerrit Dou
c. 1665
Oil on panel, 37.7 x 29.8 cm.
Dulwich Picture Gallery, London

In 17th-century Dutch, both virginals and clavichords were called clavecijn, clavesingel or clavecimbael, which understandably leads to confusion. The virginals portrayed in Vermeer's painting is of the muselar type. Because the keyboard is fairly high up, it was not unusual to play standing; the seated lady is not ergonomically sound, her elbows lower than her hand.

The origin of the word virginals is obscure but it is usually linked to the fact that the instrument was frequently played by young women. In the late 16th and early 17th century, muselar virginals were appreciated for their unique sound quality. They were made only in Northern Europe.

The placing of the keyboard to the right enables the playing mechanism to create a rich and full sound by plucking the strings right in the middle of their sounding length but this places the action for the left hand in the exact middle of the highly resonant soundboard. This occasionally results in inevitable clicks, faithfully amplified by the soundboard and make rapid left-hand scales somewhat problematic. In addition to mechanical noise, the central plucking point in the bass makes repetition difficult, because the motion of the still-sounding string interferes with the ability of the plectrum to connect again. A rather prejudiced 18th-century comment goes so far as to say that instruments "which have the keyboard on the right-hand side are good in the right hand, but grunt in the bass like young pigs."

Some virginals were mounted onto a self standing box like the one in the present work. Other Dutch genre painters portrayed the box-like version (see detail above) which was set on a table.

A Lady Seated at a Virginal (detail), Johannes Vermeer

The designs on the tiles in this picture are difficult to make out since the precious blue paint (made of crushed lapis lazuli imported from Afghanistan) which Vermeer used to paint them has lightened considerably. However, it would appear that there are two ships and two standing figures, perhaps the fishing Cupids seen in other painting s by Vermeer. The same lightening defect is common in paintings of the time and is known as ultramarine sickness. It is now believed that the fading is caused by deterioration of the binding medium and not the blue pigment itself.

Quid Non Sentit Amor, Jacob Cats

Jacob Cats
"Quid Non Sentit Amor"
Proteus, ofte, Minne-beelden verandert in sinne-beelden
1627
National Gallery of Art Library, Washington D.C.

Female keyboard players were a popular subject in 17th-century Dutch art. Music making was often associated with love and at times with amorous seduction. For example, in verses by Jacob Westerbaen we read: "learn to play the lute, the clavichord. The strings have the power to caress the heart." The virginals, however, had highly civilized connotations since it was habitually played by a woman in the context of family or musical gatherings, thus, being used most often by artists as a symbol of harmony and concord.

The unattended viol da gamba in the foreground further strengthens the association with harmony. The woman, like the male musician in Jacob Cats' well-known emblem "Quid Non Sentit Amor" (see detail above), plays her instrument while a second lies unused. The emblem's text explains that the resonance of one lute echoes onto the other just as two hearts can exist in harmony even if they are separated.

Woman at the Clavichord, Gerrit Dou

Woman at the Clavichord
Gerrit Dou
c. 1665
Oil on panel, 37.7 x 29.8 cm.
Dulwich Picture Gallery, London

The remarkable similarity between this painting and Gerrit Dou's Woman at the Clavichord c. 1665 proves that Vermeer derived his composition from the work of the Leiden fijnschilder (fine painter) who was one of the most sought after and highly paid artists of the time. The pose, the pulled-back curtain, the viola da gamba and even the girls' faces have a great deal in common.

This kind of artistic borrowing of successful motifs was quite common among Dutch painters who were always strained to produce enough works for the voracious art market. In the 17th century, intellectual property was an unknown concept and everyone could draw on the storerooms of tradition. However, the difference in execution between the two paintings can be easily discerned even at first glance. Dou spared no pain to render each and every detail with the utmost fidelity while Vermeer broadly applies paint which suggests, rather than describes, form, texture and light. Vermeer improved on Dou's composition by moving the viewpoint closer to the subject which draws the observer into closer contact with the girl who has just turned her head away from her music in order to engage the viewer's attention.

Although genre painters generally worked for the open market, they were not closed to collaboration with their elite patrons who sometimes compensated leading artists with considerable sums. The present work may be an example of such practice. In particular, some critics have seen the influence of Diego Duarte, an immensely wealthy Antwerp jeweler and banker, on Vermeer's choice of subject.

We know that Duarte maintained contact Constantijn Huygens, who, like the sculptor Johan Larson, lived in The Hague. Larson possessed a tronie by Vermeer presumably bought on a trip to Delft in 1660.

However, Duarte's ties with the picture may have to do as much with artistic affinity as friendship. Duarte's father had a clavecin made for Huygens, and Duarte corresponded with Huygens about music. He also was an accomplished organist and composer. With the musical interests it is appropriate that Duarte's Vermeer represented in his inventory number 182 "a small painting with a lady playing the clavecin, with accessories."

Vermeer's picture was valued at 150 guilders, not a great sum for a picture at the time when Gerrit Dou was getting ten times that amount for a similar-sized painting.

Although Dutch music was considered rather conventional, a few musicians such as Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck composed music of quality. He is noted for his compositions for the flute, virginals and organ. It is tempting to imagine the young girl playing one of Sweelink's delightful pieces such as Malle Symen "Silly Simon," a popular "hit" of the time.

A Lady Standing at a Virginal, Johannes Vermeer

A Lady Standing at a Virginal
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1670-1673
51.7 x 45.2 cm.
National Gallery, London

Vermeer scholars have been unable to decide if this picture was intended as a pendant to the Lady Standing at a Virginal. The two pictures are almost precisely the same size; both represent a stylishly dressed young woman playing a virginal in an elegant setting. If hung side by side, the virginals would be placed back to back and the light airiness of one is complimentary to the darkness of the other. This play between complimentary values is characteristic of the Dutch pendant and Dutch painters rarely lost the chance to cleverly investigate the underlying psychological and aesthetic diversities between similar subjects. In particular, the background paintings would seem to reinforce the complimentary nature of the pair. The standing woman is accompanied by a picture of a standing Cupid drawn from a popular emblem book which encourages faithfulness in love while the seated woman rests in front of a low-life scene which alludes to illicit lovemaking.

The theme of Sacred and Profane Love would have inevitably come to mind to an educated 17th-century Dutch viewer trained to look at pictures' and images' concealed moral meanings. However, the two works differ in technique to such a degree that a few critics have dated the seated lady four years later than her presumed companion. We cannot rule out that they were simply variations on a same theme. In any case, destiny has it that after more than 300 years the two have once again been joined in the National Gallery of London.

Diego Duarte, an immensely wealthy Antwerp jeweler and banker, may have purchased this picture directly from Vermeer. We know that Duarte maintained contact with Holland through Constantijn Huygens, who, like the sculptor Johan Larson, lived in The Hague. Larson possessed a tronie by Vermeer presumably bought on a trip to Delft in 1660.

However, Duarte's ties with the picture may have to do as much with artistic affinity as friendship. Duarte's father had a clavecin made for Huygens, and Duarte corresponded with Huygens about music. He also was an accomplished organist and composer. With the musical interests it is appropriate that Duarte's Vermeer represented in his inventory number 182 "a small painting with a lady playing the clavecin, with accessories."

The picture was valued at 150 guilders, not a great sum for a picture at the time when Gerrit Dou was getting ten times that ammount for a similar-sized painting.

music icon Almande De Symmerman [236 KB] very likely Almande The Carpenter (anon.) from The Susanne van Soldt Manuscript (1599)

music icon Malle Symen [236 KB] "Silly Simon"
(Jan Pzn. Sweelinck) from The Leningrad Manuscript (1646)

"music icon Courante Daphne [236 KB] The popular melody Daphne as a French "Courante" dance (anon.) also from The Leningrad Manuscript (1646)

* all three music files were kindly selected and performed for the Essential Vermeer website by Joop Klaassen, contributor to the Stichting Clavecimbel Genootschap Nederland.

The virginals are a kind of harpsichord. Mr Klaassen's muselar virginals were built by Louis van Emmerik, after the Ruckers virginals of 1611 in "Het Vleeshuis," a museum in Antwerp, Belgium. The muselar virginals have the keyboard on the right, and they have a richer sound than the spinet virginals, which have the keyboard on the left. The virginals in Vermeer's paintings are of the muselar type.

For more information on Vermeer and the virginals, click here.

music icon Solfaing Song à 5 [3.45 MB]
by Thomas Tallis
from: Ancient Instruments – Tuxedo (various artists)

Viola da Gamba

The Viola da Gamba

The viol, or viola da gamba, has its early ancestors in medieval waisted fiddles and rebecs played like viols: with the instrument held downwards resting on the lap or between the knees and the bow held above the palm.

Iconographic evidence from the Renaissance period suggests that the viol was the result of applying the traditional Aragonese technique of rebec-playing to a new bowed instrument whose size and construction was similar to those of the vihuela de mano (a plucked instrument, similar to the guitar), so that the term "vihuela de arco" for such an instrument seems appropriate.

This bowed instrument quickly spread from Spain to Italy. The Italian instrument makers with their excellent craftsmanship developed the vihuela into the viol form, and the "viole grande" enjoyed lasting popularity at the European courts.

The most famous viol player in the 17th century was undoubtedly Sainte-Colombe who introduced the silver-covered strings and added a seventh low string, as well as his pupil Marin Marais, who even surpassed his master and brought the viol to its highest point of perfection, both with his outstanding virtuoso playing and with his most excellent compositions.

During its history the viol appeared in many different sizes: "pardessus." treble, alto, small tenor, tenor, bass and violone (contrabass), but only the treble, tenor and bass viols belong to a usual consort.

The distincive shape of the viol shows characteristic down-sloping shoulders and a narrow upper body. Together with deep ribs, middle bouts, a gently arched belly but a flat back this form became fairly standard during the 17th and 18th centuries. The viol has usually six strings, but the solo bass viol played on the Continent during the Baroque period often had seven (invented by Sainte-Colombe).

The frets, made of streched gut, are tied round the neck in a special fret knot. There are usually seven frets placed at intervals of a semitone.

The early viol bow is rather convex and is held in an underhand grip which enables the player to control the bow's pressure on the strings at will.

The musicologist Marin Mersenne once considered the viol as the instrument which most perfectly imitated the human voice.

Vermeer's tomb marker in the Oude Kerk, Delft

The records of the Oude Kerk in Delft fixes Vermeer's burial on 15 December 1675. The once prosperous painter left 10 minor children and momentous debts to his wife, Catharina. In an effort to free herself of her creditors, she lamented her lack of financial resources caused by her husband who had lapsed into "decay and decadence." Decadence may have indicated the artist had lapsed into drink, a virtual plague in the Netherlands, or perhaps just a sudden physical decline such as a stroke or a heart failure. Catharina stated that the artist had become so burdened by his economic problems that "as if he had fallen into frenzy and in a day and a half had gone from being healthy to being dead." Although there is a tomb marker of Vermeer's grave in the Oude Kerk, its original location has been lost through the centuries.

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