A Lady Standing at a Virginal
Oil on canvas
51.7 x 45.2 cm. (20 3/8 x 17 3/4 in.)
National Gallery, London
While most Dutch interior painters delighted in showing bits and pieces of city life (see detail left) through the windows, Vermeer never once gives alludes to the world outside his carefully assembled mise-en- scène. This must have been a deliberate choice since even though his studio was above the street level, some sort of architectural element would have been visible.
A Vermeer critic wrote that the artist permits us to see on the opened lid of the virginal what we cannot see through the closed window. In fact, the size and shape of the window's lower casement reflects to a fair degree the size and shape of the lid. Moreover, the gradation of pale blue to light lemon yellow of the window, which is far more apparent when viewing the original painting, recalls the color scheme of the landscape. Vermeer may have intended some sort of visual pun or musical echo to reinforce the painting's evident symmetry and musical theme.
This intricately-carved French gilt frame is the only object which stands by itself and does not overlap with any other on the picture plane. Its luminous sparkle seems to purposely contrast with the somber geometry of the Cupid's ebony frame.
The conventional-looking landscape has been associated with a Mountain Landscape with Travelers by the Delft artist Pieter Groenewegen, a friend of Vermeer's father, who Vermeer must have known well. If Vermeer did use Groenewegen's landscape, and not some lost work as a starting point, he freely adapted it to his needs. One can see that only the right half of Groenewegen's painting was utilized, perhaps to make it fit into the gilt frame which had visual priority. Some billowing clouds were added, perhaps to echo the silk sleeves of the mistress. A castle which silhouettes against the sky was removed. A highly stylized version of Groenewegen's landscape appears again in full on the lid of the virginal.
Until recently, experts had more or less passed off the landscapes in Vermeer's interiors as a sort of decorative filler unable to make any significant iconographic connection with the scenes which unfolded beneath them. However, art historian Elise Goodman reveals that like versifiers and composers of the 17th century, Vermeer utilized his framed landscapes to comment and enhance the meaning of the figures. The idea that woman was a "masterpiece of nature" to be admired, possessed and displayed appeared in countless poems, songs and tracts on beautiful women in the 17th-century Europe.
What seems at first glance to be a patient rendering of a gold frame is, on close observation a series of quickly applied dots and dabs, a sort of painted Morse code made of thick lemon yellow paint which literally dances upon a deeper ocher toned base. Vermeer expert Walter Liedtke has likened the rendering to "the lady's rhythmic curls, pearls, ribbons and the lace trim on her sleeve (its billowing combination of blue and white is echoed in the landscape's sky)." One might also envisage a certain musicality not far from the staccato effect of virginal music.
Dutch art historian Eddy de Jongh was the first to point out that the Cupid with a raised arm was derived from an engraving of Otto van Veen's popular emblem book Amorum Emblemata published in 1608 in Antwerp. The Cupid holds aloft a card on which appears a number one which visually echoes the engraving's caption: "a lover ought to love only one." By including it, Vermeer most likely alludes to the concept of love which includes fidelity.
We know that Vermeer's Cupid may be the one mentioned in the inventory of his widow's possessions in 1676. It cannot be excluded that Vermeer was aware of the Van Veen emblem or even that painting itself was based on the same. In any case, the figure strongly recalls the classicist style of Cesar van Everdingen.
The almost obsessive search for an iconographic meaning in Dutch genre paintings in recent decades has proven particularly problematic in Vermeer's case. Moreover, it may be that the painter did not wish to ascribe clear-cut meanings to his works. Some critics have begun to believe that Dutch artists, including Vermeer, may have left their paintings' meanings deliberately ambivalent to leave room for variety interpretations according to each viewer's personal and cultural inclinations. In any case, eventual symbolic meaning should not preclude our appreciation of a picture's purely visual beauty.
The same Cupid appears in two other paintings by Vermeer so it must have had a particular value to him although such an ungainly work hardly is in tune with modern sensibilities. In the Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window it was represented much larger than in the present work but evidently did not satisfy the artist who subsequently painted it out.
We have no record of who might have posed for this picture. In any case, it was not meant to function as a portrait because Vermeer did not define the young woman's individual physiognomy with any precision even though her inflexible expression draws us into the hollow cube of space that she confidently inhabits.
Curiously, the deep shadows of her face are painted with a dull green tone readily visible when observing the original. Vermeer used the same green tone in other late paintings in an analogous manner. Painters of the time invariably employed warm browns for darker flesh shadows although this unusual technique had been experimented by a few nearby Utrecht Caravaggists. Vermeer specialist John M. Montias hypothesized that the young Vermeer may have studied in Utrecht but still, this specific technical/stylistic tie is tenuous at best.
As a painter and consummate observer, Vermeer must also have been fascinated by the pearl's visual qualities since he experimented with different and surprising technical solutions to paint them. Perhaps the most daring technique can be seen in this picture. If carefully observed, the outer edge of the necklace has barely been indicated by a band of thin grayish paint. The blurred contour suggests the pearl's transparency while the thick globular highlights inform us of the reflective quality, spherical form and the position of each individual pearl.
Since ancient times, the pearl has been the most valuable of all gems and a potent symbol of unblemished perfection. In a manner analogous to the pearl's origin in an oyster, Aphrodite, the goddesses of beauty, love and sexual desires, was born from a marine conch. In classical Rome, pearls were worn for their curative powers and only persons above a certain rank were allowed to wear them. The Latin word for pearl literally means "unique," attesting to the fact that no two pearls are identical. And last but not least, throughout history, pearls have been worn as a symbol of wealth.
The present work, as iconographers frequently pointed out, seems much to do with love. Cupid is represented two times, once, conspicuously in the background picture and a second time, hardly noticeable, on a Delft tile just to the left of the lady's silk gown. The virginal and its music also were strongly associated with love. And although Vermeer must have understood the pearl as an important status symbol, he hardly could have ignored its noble lineage. But without recurring to hidden symbolic reading, it remains difficult for the viewer to withdraw himself from the combined gaze of the woman and her allied Cupid.
As the rediscoverer of Vermeer, Thoré Bürger, who owned the picture for some years wrote: "Happily, with Vermeer, one only discovers these small allegorical niceties after one has understood everything simply from the expressions of the personages."
The young lady wears a formal silk garment called a tabbaard, a combination of a stiffened gown and a matching bodice called a tabbaardslijft. These bodices were heavily boned making them very uncomfortable and were thus worn only in formal occasions. The strange calligraphic brush strokes of the silk sleeve and lacey red ribbons are characteristic of the artists later works.
Vermeer's late compositions are strangely devoid of all incidentals which are so noticeable in his earlier paintings. Light and shade are more clearly defined and contours become sharper lending these works a crystalline quality. The young woman's elegant silk gown has a unique pale-yellow tone different from the icy gray of the bodice. Vermeer's wife Catharina Bolnes possessed one such gown made of black cloth which was probably meant for mourning.
One critic, noting the utmost simplicity with which it is rendered, wrote that it recalls the flutes of a classical Greek column.
The virginal was an instrument greatly admired by the Dutch upper class during the mid-17th century. The lyrical yet restrained tones that resonated from its keyboard underscored the refinement in taste that accompanied the increase of wealth and influence enjoyed by this society.
Even though Vermeer enjoyed economic security for most of his career, in his later years when this picture was painted, he had encountered serious economic difficulties due to the French invasion and subsequent crash of the art market. Thus, it is unlikely that the artist possessed such a luxury item at that time. However, the resourceful painter had opened a number of channels where he might be able to observe or even borrow a virginal.
Circumstantial evidence links the painter to one the most illustrious art connoisseurs and men of culture in the Netherlands, Constantijn Huygens, who was himself a composer of great stature. Diego Duarte, whom in turn was connected to the illustrious Huygens family, was an immensely rich Antwerp banker and possessed a "a young lady playing the clavecin, with accessories, by Vermeer." Duarte was an accomplished organist.
This particular kind of chair with a light blue (velvet?) covering was represented only one time in Vermeer's interiors even though similar chairs appear in other Dutch genre interiors such as those of Frans van Mieris (see detail left).
Critics believe that the noticeable number of empty chairs which populate Vermeer's single-figured interiors may allude to an absent male counterpart, most likely a lover. The blue natural ultramarine pigment employed in the darker areas of the chair's shadows has somewhat deteriorated and now appear excessively light.
Art historian Gregor Weber, who has long been involved in research into the paintings Vermeer incorporated in the background of his masterpieces, was the first to point out that both the landscape on the lid of the virginal and the landscape in the golden frame on the back wall are derived from a single painting (see image left). Other than the overall composition and the successive light and dark layers of rocks and trees, the roofs of the houses and the waterfalls of two landscapes are virtually identical. Weber concluded that they were both based on the same painting.
By coincidence, Weber saw a photograph of Groenewegen's Mountain Landscape with Traveler and informed the two art dealers from The Hague, John and Willem Jan Hoogsteder, of his finding who were amazed when they discovered they were the owners of the very picture in question.
Using computer montage, Weber further analyzed the two depictions in Vermeer's painting in reference to the real Groenewegen. And although it was evident that Vermeer had used some poetic license in adapting Groenewegen's landscape to his expressive exigencies, the coincidences were so compelling that they swept away any reasonable doubt of Weber's original conjecture.
What remains to be understood is the scope of Vermeer's pictorial trickery. It may be that the two landscapes were meant to deliberately "echo" each other in order to suggest a visual analogy to the musical theme which is at the heart of Vermeer's composition. Visual "echoes," some obvious and some more subtle, seem to be a standard tool in Vermeer's pictorial repertoire. One example is the curling locks of the youthful Guitar Player which closely well echo the dangling foliage of the landscape behind her. Another is the snow-white cap of the maid and the billowing clouds of the landscape behind her in the Love Letter.
In his late years, Vermeer moved away from a faithful recording of natural phenomena towards stylization. The remarkably free-flowing brush strokes of the veins of the marble floor tiles reveal the painter as he indulges himself the movement of his own hand rather than recording the appearance of the tiles.
Other than two simple white jugs seen in his earlier compositions, these hand-painted baseboard tiles were the only homage Vermeer paid to the renowned Delft porcelain production. The humble tiles, which were so cheap that they sometimes served as ballast in ships sailing abroad, protected the plaster walls from brooms, mops and scrubbing brushes. Each tile was hand-decorate with scenes of daily life including children's games such as walking on stilts or flying kites.
Art historian H. Rodney Nevitt Jr. pointed out that the Cupid tile just to the left of the woman's skirt resembles to a print of Hooft's Emblemata amatoria which plays on the conventional comparison between fishing and courtship. Other elements which reinforce the theme of love are the large painting of Cupid in the black frame and the virginal, traditionally associated with pure love.
The puffy silk sleeve of the mistress constitutes a veritable tour de force of brushwork. On close examination, the brilliant chiaroscural effect of the silken material is evoked by deftly placed dots, dabs and dashes of light-toned paint over a light gray base. Such a daring approach is not unusual in the artist's very latest works.
Some critics believe that this technical innovation was a consequence of the artist's need to abbreviate the painting process for commercial motives while others see an accommodation to the growing taste for French mannerism which had begun to influence Dutch interior painting.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. Vermeer: The Complete Works, New York, 1997)
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)
- (?) 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;
- Jan Danser Nijman sale, Amsterdam, 16 August 1797, no. 169 (to Bergh);
- (?) Edward Solly, Berlin and London, before 1844;
- Edward William Lake sale, London, 11 July 1845, no. 5 (to Farrer);
- J.T. Thom sale, London, 2 May 1855, no. 22 (to Grey);
- Thoré-Bürger (Etienne Joseph Théophile Thoré), Paris (before 1866-d.1869);
- Paul Lacroix, Paris (1869-1884, inherited from Thoré-Bürger);
- widow Lacroix, Paris (1884-1892);
- Thoré-Bürger sale, Paris, 5 December 1892, no. 20 (to Bourgeois Frères, Paris, and/or Lawrie & Co., London);
- purchased in 1892 by The National Gallery, London (inv. 1383).
- 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.
- Rome 27 September, 2012 - 20 January, 2013
Vermeer. Il secolo d’oro dell’arte olandese. Scuderie del Quirinale.
224, no. 51 and ill.
- London 26 June - 8 September, 2013
Vermeer and Music: Love and Leisure in the Dutch Golden Age.
(65, no.22 and ill.)
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
|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 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.
|european painting & architecture||Christopher Wren: St. 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 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.
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 15, The Sluices are opened in Holland to save Amsterdam from the French.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Not all critics agree that the present painting and the Lady Seated at a Virginal were conceived as a pendant, although, following Walter Liedtke's reasoning, the National Gallery in London has equipped them with identical frames and now exhibits them side by side.
To be truthful, there exists much more evidence that joins the two works than separates them. In favor of the pendant hypothesis, firstly, are their near identical dimensions. The two young women play music on a finely crafted standing virginal decorated with faux marble side panels. Both perform in the right-hand corner of a room and are dressed in stylish clothing of the day. They both turn to look at the viewer as if they had been interrupted by someone outside the picture. Both rooms exhibit fine marble flooring with diagonally-set black and white slabs. A picture-within-a-picture hangs on the background wall presumably as a visual comment on the scene below.
Obviously, the pendant format does not imply identical treatment of a given motif. In fact, Dutch painters relished the opportunity to reveal opposing qualities of the same subject. Many facts suggest that they represent opposite aspects of a single concept such as Sacred and Profane Love.
The overall atmosphere and compositional dynamics of each work are markedly different. The standing woman plays erect, her pose recalling the perfection of a classical column, bathed in sunlight which floods the room through an open window. Oppositely the seated woman crouches ever-so-hesitantly over her virginal shrouded in near obscurity. The blue curtain catches whatever light might have leaked through the closed shudders of the window.
Key indicators of the opposing forms of love are the background pictures. The heads of both paintings occupy the extreme corner of each large-scale painting which curiously remind the modern viewer of cartoon speech balloons. The painting of the Cupid, encased in its austere rectangular frame, is generally interpreted in the light of a 17th-century emblem from Otto van Veen's Amorum Emblemata advising that one must have only one lover (in Van Veens version the Cupid holds aloft a card with a Roman numeral I while in Vermeer's version, the same card is inexplicably empty).
In the other work, a low-life bordello scene painted by the Utrecht artist Dirck van Baburen in a gaudily painted gilt frame suggests, as Walter Liedtke wryly observes, "something more like one love and hour than one for life." Liedtke further posits that while the seated lady is certainly not a prostitute, her attitude about amorous affairs is illustrated by her relaxed demeanor and the "Arcadian landscape - the easy path - painted on the virginal lid." Her standing counterpart may have chosen the steep and rocky but virtuous road (chosen by Hercules) of the landscape lid.
In Dutch 17th-century painting, the most common subjects for pendants were the five senses and the four seasons which were repeated in endless variations. Portraits of husband and wife were equally created as a pendant although the portrait category was the most conservative of all and left relatively little latitude for experimentation even in the hands of the most component masters like Rembrandt or Frans Hals.
The 1531 the publication of first emblem book (Emblematum liber) of the Italian jurist Andrea Alciato, launched a literary fashion would last for two centuries and touch most western Europe countries and in the last half of the 1600s, provide inspiration for some of the works of Vermeer. Vermeer experts have often cited the emblem "Perfectus amor non est nisi ad unum" (a lover ought to love only one) in Amorum emblemata (1608) by the humanist Otto van Veen, as a possilbe link to the Cupid with upheld hand in the repesent picture. The sentiment of Vermeer's painting is reinforced or put into focus by the emblem's caption, "a lover ought to love only one" with which an educated Dutchman would have been familiar. However, critics have noted that the upheld card in Vermeer's painting is blank and does not contain the number "one" which appears in Van Veen's illustration. Since one of the principal characteristics of Vermeer's art is the play between visual and virtual credibility, it is most likely the exclusion is deliberate. The two 1608 editions of Amorum emblemata were followed by a third in 1659.
An "emblem" in this sense refers to a didactic or moralizing combination of picture and text intended to draw the reader into a self-reflective examination of his or her own life in a interesting manner. Emblems generally consist of three parts: a short, often Classical, motto (lemma, inscriptio), a pictorial representation or icon (pictura) and the explanation of the link between them in an epigram (subscriptio). More complicated associations of emblems could transmit information to the culturally-informed. However, the aim of the emblem was essentially to make morality more attractive although emblematic art also constituted a sort of "pattern book" with a broad influence on all the arts occupies a central place in recent research.
Emblem books were published in vast quantities. Alciato's Emblematum liber was reprinted 49 times, and 90 translations and adaptations all over Europe. Their popularity is often thought to reflect the seventeenth-century mind-set with its tendency to think in analogies and allegories.
Love emblems, mainly Petrarchist in tone and content, were particularly successful in the Netherlands, from c. 1600 onwards. Typical emblems were the half-moralizing and half-playful. The perspective of the male lover is dominant, although his role is that of ecstatic victim.
Many emblem books were intended for the "courting youth" young men and women in search of a spouse a topic which obviously made them fecund resources for interior painters who explore ritualized, burger courtship and love letter motifs. Some contained both emblems and songs. Hooft's Emblemata amatoria is one example (with 71 pages devoted to emblems and 73 to songs and sonnets).
Eddy de Jongh has shown the major influence of the emblem on Dutch 17th-century painting, and recently the impact of the love emblem on occasional poetry has been demonstrated by P. van Huisstede en H. Brandhorst. The resulting insights in textual and pictorial symbols shared between different art forms make comparative emblem studies useful to scholars in a number of disciplines. Besides this, studying the emblematic tradition provides us with knowledge about concealed aspects of the cultural and mental history of the period.
Critics have frequently underlined that Vermeer's late works show no trace of the years of disaster that tormented the Dutch Republic whose long run with good luck came to an end. In 1672, Louis XIV overran the lowlands sending waves of shock throughout the country. The Dutch defense had been poorly organized and some towns capitulated without firing a shot. In Vermeer's hometown Delft, the citizens rioted. To impede the advance of the French troops, large areas of the countryside were flooded as had been done against the Spanish years before. This year had been named rampjaar or "year of disaster."
Fortunately, the city walls of Delft were never attacked although Vermeer's household, with numerous children to support, was severely tested by the collapse of the art market. His wife would later testify that the artist had hardly earned anything from his own work and that he was forced to sell the works of other artists in which he dealt in at a great loss. He may have painted very little in his final years distracted by his service in the civic guards and his own bad health.
Vermeer's characteristic monogram was carefully painted with light toned pigment on the shadowed side of the virginal as indicated above. However, it cannot usually be distinguished in reproductions.
Such is the power of Vermeer's work that each detail, no matter how minute, has been subjected to intense scrutiny by art historians. Like no other artist, he seems to have possessed an almost magical power which allowed him to imbue the breath of humanity in even the insignificant object of his compositions.
Rodney Nevitt has singled out the small Delft wall tile to the left of the lady's satin gown and has identified it as a fishing Cupid. Such motifs were frequently drawn from popular literary sources. The present Cupid is similar to the fishing Cupid in a print from Hooft's Emblemata amatoria (see left) which plays on the conventional comparison of courtship to fishing. In Vermeer's tile, the fishing rod is visible, the proportions of the figure are consistent with Cupid, and the dark shape on his back can only be his stubby wings. No doubt, contemporary viewers would have been familiar with such designs on their own walls and would have responded to the Cupid in Vermeer's tile. They may have been amused by the close proximity of Cupid who seems to arouse with a discreet poke the austerely posed lady rather than keeping his mind to his fishing.
The theme of love seems to concord with the presence of the virginal. One vryerijboek (manual for young lovers) advises young women: "Learn ...to steal hearts/ With Clavecimbel-playing."
Considering the confrontational gaze of the lady and the large-scale painting of a Cupid on the background wall, Nevitt, therefore, submits that Vermeer's Lady Standing at the Virginal "fishes for us, we fish for her, or Cupid fishes for us both."
Vermeer exploited every aspect of the painter's technical repertoire in order to strengthen the thematic content of his compositions. In this work, the orthogonals of the linear perspective converge at the vanishing point located near the breast of the standing young musician. Consequentially, the observer's eye is subliminally led to the thematic heart of this painting as well, love, which issues from the heart. In fact, art historians have long known that not only Cupid (who is portrayed in the large ebony-framed picture in the background) but music had direct associations with love in 17th-centuy Netherlands.
In 1435/1436 Leon Battista Alberti wrote De pictura, a treatise on proper methods of showing distance in painting in which the basic of linear perspective were for the first time codified. Alberti's breakthrough not only made it possible to construct the illusion of coherent three-dimensional spaces in painting, but to requalify the art of painting which had been relegated to the mechanical arts from classical times.
The practice of perspective was still highly esteemed in Vermeer's time. One of the few instances his name was mentioned in contemporary writing, he was noted for his skill in perspective.
Almande De Symmerman [236 KB] very likely Almande The Carpenter (anon.) from The Susanne van Soldt Manuscript (1599)
Malle Symen [236 KB] "Silly Simon"
(Jan Pzn. Sweelinck) from The Leningrad Manuscript (1646)
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 virginal (or virginals), together with the harpsichord, has its origin probably in the medieval psaltery with a keyboard applied for playing polyphonic music (i.e. melody with accompanying chords). The virginal is mentioned for the first time c. 1460 in a treatise by Paulus Paulirinus of Prague. Although limited in its tonal resources, the virginal occupied a crucial position in the musical life in the 16th and 17th centuries because it was smaller, simpler and cheaper to make than the harpsichord, rarely represented in paintings.
The main center of virginal- and keyboard production was undoubtedly Antwerp, with the renowned Ruckers and Couchet families. Italy was the second most important center. After King Henry VIII purchased five virginals it enjoyed considerable appreciation in England as well. Until the 18th century the virginal remained in use both as solo instrument (even in music making private circle) as well as for accompaniment of the singing voice or melodic instruments, like the viola da gamba.
The virginal nromally had a rectangular case, although polygon forms in various sizes were also built. The metal strings, only in single choir, runs roughly parallel to the keyboard. They are plucked by plectra mounted on jacks. The jacks (one for each key) are arranged in pairs and placed along the line running from the front of the instrument at the left to the back at the right. They pluck in opposite directions so that the pairs of jacks are separated by closely spaced pairs of strings. Each pair of jacks is usually served by a single slot in the soundboard, together with another slot below in a thin guide above the keys. Leather on the soundboard and lower guide provides a quiet bearing surface for the jacks.
The typical Flemish "muselar" type (probably invented by Hans Ruckers) has the keyboard to the right side, their strings plucked at a point near the centre for virtually their entire range, producing a powerful, flute-like tone. Since the jacks and keys for the left hand are inevitably placed in the middle of the instrument's soundboard, mechanical noise from these is amplified. The central plucking point in the bass strings makes repetition difficult because the still-sounding motion of the string interferes with the ability of the plectrum to connect again. Thus, the muselaer is better suited to chord- and melody-music without complex bass parts.
The spinet virginal has its keyboard placed off-centre to the left. The jacks run in a line close to the left-hand bridge; therefore the point at which the jacks pluck the strings is close to the mid-point in the treble and well away towards the left end in the bass. Thus the timbre of the spinet gradually changes from flute-like in the treble to reedy in the bass.
One of the curious features of Vermeer's rendering of light is the double shadow. Double shadows are caused by the overlap of two shadows cast by light entering the room through two different windows. The first time they appear in Vermeer's oeuvre is in the Music Lesson where they are plainly visible to the right of the hanging mirror and to the right of the erect virginal lid. Double shadows rarely appear in the works of other artists and imply how closely Vermeer studied the optical reality that was before him in his studio. Painters were recommended to eliminate them lest they confuse the viewer. However, Vermeer did not adhere blindly to the reality he observed but utilized its most distinguishing aspects to exalt the pictorial and thematic reality of the work at hand. One scholar has noted that in respects to the shadows produced by a scale reproduction of the room depicted in the Music Lesson, the shadows in Vermeer's painting are narrower.
The double shadows in the present work are more clearly defined than those in the Music Lesson which could be caused either by greater intensity of light or by stylistic considerations. They appear on the right-hand side of the gilt frame and the large ebony framed Cupid. P. T. A. Swillens, who first noted double shadows in his monographic study of 1950, included a diagram which illustrates how the longest shadows are cast by light entering through the window farther from the viewer (the one nearly attached to the background wall) while the second is cast by a second window nearer to the viewer. This second window appears in the Music Lesson but is only implied by the double shadows in the Lady Standing at the Virginal.