Woman with a Lute

(De luitspelster)
c. 1662-1664
Oil on canvas
51.4 x 45.7 cm. (20 1/4 x 18 in.)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
there are 12 hotspots in the image below
Woman with a Lute, Johannes Vermeer

Vermeer's ladies who hold a lute or guitar are not occupied with music making. They turn away; there is some momentary distraction in the air to draw their attention. They are near discovered playing and they never confront us. The fact is of interest for it illustrates not only Vermeer's temperamental preference, his distaste for anything obtrusively purposeful or demonstrative in his subject, but also the way in which it governed his use of the resources of his school.

Lawrence Gowing, Vermeer, 1952

No signature appears on this work.

c. 1664
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. Vermeer: The Complete Works, New York, 1997)

c. 1662-1663
Walter Liedtke Vermeer: The Complete Paintings, New York, 2008)



Johannes Vermeer's Woman with a Lute with frame

  • Philippus van der Schley and Daniel du Pré sale, Amsterdam (Roos, De Vries and Brondgeest), 22 December 1817, no. 62, to Coclers;
  • [Paris, before 1900; sold to Huntington];
  • Collis P. Huntington, New York (until d.1900);
  • his widow, Arabella D. Huntington; (from 1913) Mrs: Henry E. Huntington (1900-d.1924);
  • their son, Archer Milton Huntington (1924-terminated in 1925);
  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Collis P. Huntington, 1900 (acc. no. 25.110.24).
  • New York September – November 1909
    The Hudson-Fulton Celebration. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
    no. 135 (lent by Mrs. Collis P. Huntington, New York).
  • New York 8 May – August 1920
    Fiftieth Anniversary Exhibition. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
    unnumbered cat. (p. 8, lent by Mrs. Henry E. Huntington).
  • Philadelphia 4 November, 1950 – 11 February, 1951
    Museum of Art. "Diamond Jubilee Exhibition: Masterpieces of Painting.
    no. 42.
  • New York 5 October – 10 November, 1971
    The Painter's Light. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
    no. 13.
  • Leningrad [St. Petersburg] 22 May – 27 July, 1975
    100 Paintings from the Metropolitan Museum. State Hermitage Museum.
    no. 24.
  • Moscow 28 August – 2 November, 1975
    100 Pa1intings from the Metropolitan Museum. State Pushkin Museum.
    no. 24.
  • Philadelphia 18 March – 13 May, 1984
    Sutton, Peter. Masters of Seventeenth-Century Dutch Genre Painting. Philadelphia Museum of Art.
    no. 117.
  • Berlin June 8 – August 12, 1984
    Sutton, Peter. Masters of Seventeenth-Century Dutch Genre Painting. Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz.
    no. 117.
  • London 7 September –18 November, 1984
    Sutton, Peter. Masters of Seventeenth-Century Dutch Genre Painting. Royal Academy of Arts.
    no. 117.
  • Stockholm 2 October, 1992 – 6 January, 1993
    Rembrandt och Hans Tid. Nationalmuseum.
    no. 128.
  • Athens 13 December, 1992 – 11 April, 1993
    From El Greco to Cézanne: Masterpieces of European Painting from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. National Gallery Alexandros Soutzos Museum.
    no. 14.
  • Osaka 4 April– 2 July, 2000
    The public and the private in the age of Vermeer. Municipal Museum of Art.
    178-181, no. 32 and ill.
  • New York 8 March – 27 May, 2001
    Vermeer and the Delft School. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
    no. 72.
  • London 20 June – 16 September, 2001
    Vermeer and the Delft School. National Gallery.
    no. 72.
  • Rotterdam 23 October 2004 – 9 January 2005
    Senses and Sins: Dutch Painters of Daily Life in the Seventeenth Century. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen.
    no. 68.
  • Frankfurt 10 February – 1 May, 2005
    Senses and Sins: Dutch Painters of Daily Life in the Seventeenth Century. Städelsches Kunstinstitut und Städtische Galerie.
    no. 68.
  • New York 18 September, 2007 – 6 January, 2008
    The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
    no catalogue.
  • Tokyo 2 August – 14 December, 2008
    Vermeer and the Delft Style. Metropolitan Art Museum.
    no. 29.
  • New York 9 September – 29 November, 2009.
    Vermeer's Masterpiece "The Milkmaid". The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
    no. 8.
  • Pasadena 8 July, 2011 – 26 September, 2011
    The Norton Simon Museum Presents Vermeer's "Woman with a Lute,"
    On Loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Norton Simon Museum.
  • Rome 27 September, 2012 - 20 January, 2013
    Vermeer. Il secolo d'oro dell'arte olandese. Scuderie del Quirinale.
    214, no. 48 and ill.
  • Naples 21 November - 9 February, 2016
    Museo Capodimonte
  • Paris 22 February - 22 May, 2017
    Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivaly, Musée du Louvre, Paris
Johannes Vermeer's Woman with a Lute is scale
vermeer's life

Vermeer's income in the 1660s was probably higher than in the 1670s. In the1660s, sales of paintings and especially his mother-in-law's (Maria Thins) substantial financial contributions together probably ranged from 850 to 1,500 guilders a year. A mason earned about 500 guilders.

Vermeer is elected for the first time headsman of the Guild of Saint Luke in Delft at the age of 30 for a two year term. However, by this time many artists resident in Delft had left for the more prosperous Amsterdam and so his election may have had less significance than once believed. He was the youngest artist to become headmaster since the guild was organized in 1611.

Many of the luxury items seen in Vermeer's interiors such as the virginal seen in The Music Lesson were economically out of reach of the artist. They may have been lent to him by affluent men of culture or clients such as Diego Duarte, a rich Antwerp banker, in whose important art collection was cited "a young lady playing a clavecin, with accessories, by Vermeer." The virginal seen in Vermeer's Music Lesson was built by Johannes Ruckers. These rare instruments were sold at about 300 guiders, about half the cost of Gerrit Dou, a Frans van Mieris. An averge Dutch house might cost 1,000 guilders. In Delft, hese instruments were owned by the official town musician Scholl.

dutch painting

Pieter Saendredam ( b. 1597) dies in Haarlem.

Despite its decline, Delft remained and important city of passage for artists passing from Haarlem, Utrecht and Amsterdam. It contained a number of fine art collections. Ferries parted many times a day to the nearby The Hague and Amsterdam was less than a days away on an inexpensive horse-towed barge.

european painting & architecture André Le Nôtre designs park and gardens of Versailles Louis XIV begins to build palace of Versailles; he makes Charles Lebrun his chief artistic adviser.
music Composer Henry Lawes dies at London October 21 at age 66.

science & philosophy

New Amsterdam colonist John Bowne is arrested for permitting Quakers to hold meetings in his Flushing house, completed last year at what will become 37-01 Bowne Street, Queens (see Mathematician-physicist-philosopher-theologian Blaise Pascal dies at the Jansenist Port-Royal monastery in Paris August 19 at age 39.

Publication of a world atlas in eleven parts by Joan Blaeu in Amsterdam.

Remonstrance, 1657). Bowne is convicted of having violated Governor Peter Stuyvesant's ban on Quaker assemblies. He is jailed and banished, but when he reaches Holland and appeals to the Dutch West India Company, it acquits him of all charges, frees him, and rebukes Governor Stuyvesant, thereby establishing the right to free practice of religious worship.

Blaise Pascal proposes the introduction of a public transport system in Paris. Coaches would travel along predetermined routes and take passengers for a small fee. The first coach goes into service during the following year.

Founding of the Academia Leopoldina in Vienna

The Royal Society receives charter from Charles II.

Holland and France form an alliance against possible attack by England.

vermeer's life

In the early and mid-1660s Vermeer paints a series of extraordinary pictures of single women in the corner of a room absorbed in their activity. Even their most striking passages of observation are always subordinated to the impression made by the whole composition.

A French diplomat and art connoisseur Balthasar de Monconys visits Vermeer in Delft. In his diary he notes that he was unable to see any paintings there and had to visit the house of a baker where he saw a painting with a single figure.

De Monconys comes initially as a tourist, evidently unaware of Vermeer's presence. A few weeks later, he went to pay his respects in The Hague to Constantijn Huygens, an important art connoisseur and theorist of Dutch culture. De Monconys admired his art collection and described it in detail. However, one can only imagine how amazed Huygens must have been to hear that the Frenchman had been in Delft, without visiting Vermeer. It seems a reasonable assumption that Huygens urged de Monconys to meet with the Delft painter, given the Frenchman's predilection for fine art. Not long afterward, de Monconys did indeed visit with Vermeer at his house, and wrote the following account in his diary journal, which was published in 1665, the year of his death: "In Delft I saw the painter Verme(e)r who did not have any of his works: but we did see one at a baker's, for which six hundred livres had been paid, although it contained but a single figure, for which six pistoles would have been too high a price." Simply put, de Monconys thought the painting he saw was worth less than a tenth of the price mentioned.

c. 1663 a son named Johannes, named after himself, is born to Vermeer.

dutch painting

Rembrandt depicts himself as a bit player in his painting The Raising of the Cross.

Jan Steen paints The Drawing Lesson.

Pieter de Hooch: At the Linen Closet.

Adriaen van de Velde paints Cattle near a Building.

Pieter de Hooch, who had moved away from Delft to Amsterdam to seek more patronage, returns to Delft at least once in this year.

european painting & architecture

Bernini: Scala Regia, Vatican, Rome

Building of Castle Nymphenburg, near Munich.

Nicolas Poussin paints The Four Seasons.

France's minister of finance Jean-Baptiste Colbert appoints painter Charles Le Brun director of the Gobelins, which will grow under Le Brun's direction from a small tapestry manufactory into a vast enterprise that supplies all of the royal houses. The Academy of Painting and Sculpture is reorganized, with Le Brun as its director.


Mar 7, Tomaso Antonio Vitali, composer, is born.

Pascal: L'Equilibre des liqueurs (posth.)


The Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres (the Academy of the Humanities) is founded in Paris.

John Milton marries Elizabeth Minshull.

science & philosophy

Isaac Newton discovers the binomial theorem.

Physicist Otto von Guericke invents the first electric generator. It produces static electricity by applying friction against a revolving ball of sulfur, and Guericke will show in 1672 that the electricity can cause the surface of the sulfur ball to glow.


Dutch forces hold the best pepper ports of India's Malabar Coast, giving them a virtual stranglehold on the spice trade once controlled by Portugal.

A Third Navigation Act adopted by Parliament July 27 forbids English colonists to trade with other European countries. European goods bound for America must be unloaded at English ports and reshipped, even though English export duties and profits to middlemen may make prices prohibitive in America.

vermeer's life

In a death inventory of the English sculptor Jean Larson, who lived in the Hague, is listed "a head by Vermeer." Some critics believe it may have bee the Girl with a Pearl Earring.

In the early to mid-1660s Vermeer refined all the qualities of his mature style. In his orderly designs, Vermeer gave new life to familiar patterns of contemporary genre painting by closely studying the subtleties of appearance.

dutch painting

Pieter de Hooch paints Young Woman Weighing Gold

Jan Steen: paints The Christening Feast.

Frans Hals, one of the most fashionable portraitists of his time and now in his late sixties, paints two of his most significant group portraits, the Regents and Regentesses of the Old Men's Alshouse at Haarlem. Owing to his dire poverty he will be given a small allowance by the town of Haarlem.

european painting & architecture

Nicola Poussin paints Apollo and Daphne

John Vanbrugh, Eng. architect and dramatist, is born.

Christopher Wren: Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford.

Francisco de Zurbaran, Spanish painter, dies.


The French horn becomes an orchestral instrument.

Oratorio: Christmas Oratorio by Heinrich Schütz at Dresden.


William Shakespeare - the second impression of the Third Folio, which added seven plays to the thirty-six of the First Folio and the Second: Pericles, Prince of Tyre and six works from the Shakespeare Apocrypha.

Thomas Killigrew and the King's Company stage Killigrew's The Parson's Wedding with an all-female cast. Killigrew attempts a similar all-female production of his play Thomaso, though the project is never realized.

science & philosophy

Robert Hooke discovers the Great Red Spot (an extremely persistent storm) on Jupiter and uses it to determine the period of Jupiter's rotation, which is astonishingly less than ten hours despite Jupiter's great size.

Giovanni Alfonso Borelli, calculates the orbit of a comet and finds that it is a parabola (not a circle, ellipse, or line as expected in various earlier theories).

Descartes' Traité de l'homme et de la formation de foetus (treatise on man and the formation of the fetus), printed posthumously, describes animals as purely mechanical beings; that is, there is no "vital force" that makes animals different from other material objects.

Christiaan Huygens proposes that the length of a pendulum with a period of one second should be the standard unit for length.


Aug 29, Adriaen Pieck/Gerrit de Ferry patented a wooden firespout in Amsterdam.

New Amsterdam handed over by Peter Stuyvesant to the English, who renames the city New York

Amsterdam passes a regulation banning the sale of "rotten, spoiled, or defective spinach, cucumbers, and carrots, ears of corn, radishes, or other fruits [vegetables] because pride could not be taken in or from such things."

Slavery is introduced into the Caribbean island of Montserrat and will not be abolished until 1834.

The Black Death kills 24,000 in old Amsterdam while the English are taking Nieuw Amsterdam. The plague spreads to Brussels and throughout much of Flanders, and in December it kills two Frenchmen in London's Drury Lane. Men who put the dead into the deadcarts keep their pipes lit in the belief, now widespread, that tobacco smokers will somehow be spared.

Samuel Pepys buys forks for his household, but most Englishmen continue to eat with their fingers and will continue to do so until early in the next century lest they be considered effete or, in the opinion of some clergymen, even sacrilegious. A man going out to dinner has for centuries brought his own spoon and knife, the spoon being folded into the pocket and the knife carried in a scabbard attached to the belt; more men now carry folding forks as well.

The Kronenbourg Brewery founded in Alsace will continue into the 21st century to produce beer.

A Young Woman Playing a Harpsichord to a Young Man, Jan Steen

A Young Woman Playing a Harpsichord
to a Young Man
Jan Steen
c. 1659
Oil on oak, 42.3 x 33 cm.
National Gallery, London

Because Dutch music was mostly uninventive and undistinguished, Dutch song books contained as many French as native airs. Song books were collected passionately by amateurs of the well-to-do burgers typified by the young lute player in this picture. Dutch songbooks (see left) features gezelschapslied (a social lyric set to musical accompaniment) containing French and to a lesser degree English and Italian pieces.

The principal explanation for the lack of inspiration in Dutch music during the Golden Age of painting has been attributed to diverse circumstances, among them, the dampening role of the dominant Calvinist religion which frowned on all music during church services except for unaccompanied congregational singing. Thus, without significant church and aristocratic patronage, there was little incentive for major artistic innovations. Dutch music expert Pieter van Grijp wrote, "As we see it today, strength of Dutch art lies not so much in its history pieces as in still-lives, landscapes, marines, portraits, and genre painting and suchlike. Similarly the strength of Dutch music lies not in the intricate, polyphonic or Baroque compositions, but in that simplest of all genres—the song, which enjoyed an incomparable bloom here. This musical strength lay in the sheer delight in singing found among people of all classes, in an appetite for music that was fed and stilled not so much by composers as by poets."

Portrait of Joan Blaeu, J. van Rossum

Portrait of Joan Blaeu
J. van Rossum
Netherlands Maritime Museum, Amsterdam

In a seminal study of Dutch realism The Art of Describing, art historian Svetlana Alpers focused on what she believes to be a distinguishing and overlooked characteristic of Dutch visual and scientific culture, the "mapping impulse." According to Alpers, in no other time and place did mapping and picturing have such a strong coincidence as in 17th-century Holland. Map makers and map publishers were referred to as "world describers." The Dutch painter and map maker had in common the will to capture a great range of knowledge and information about the world on a flat surface.

To be sure, map-making reached a hitherto unprecedented production and level of accuracy. Maps were produced in great numbers for both practical and decorative use and could be found on the walls of even common Dutch homes. And while they appeared frequently in the paintings of the time, no other artist rendered them with such accuracy or invested them with such pictorial importance as Vermeer.

Joan Blaeu, who belonged to a prosperous Amsterdam family of map makers, turned out an extraordinary flow of decorative maps, some of which are represented by Vermeer. After having joined his father's business Joan published the Atlas Novus (full title: Theatrum orbis terrarum, sive, Atlas novus) in two volumes. Joan and his brother Cornelius took over the studio after their father died in 1638. Joan then became the official cartographer of the Dutch East India Company.

Around 1649 Joan Blaeu published a collection of Dutch city maps named Tooneel der Steeden (Views of Cities). In 1651 he was voted into the Amsterdam council.

A cosmology was planned as the Blaeu's next project, but a fire destroyed the studio completely in February 1672 at the main printing press at Gravenstraat. There are conflicting accounts of the episode, but it is clear that the damage was enormous, destroying not only thousands of paper sheets and printed maps, but also copper plates and metal for type, both of which melted in the heat. Although his other press at Bloemgracht continued, the loss for Joan Blaeu must have been considerable. Joan Blaeu died in Amsterdam the following year.

Qvid Non Sentit Amor, Jacob Cats

In 17th-century European culture, music and love were closely related and a subject for an endless number of works of art. In particular, music was used metaphorically to suggest the harmony of two souls in love. In a familiar emblem the popular Dutch writer Jacob Cats shows a lute player in an interior before an open window with the caption "Qvid Non Sentit Amor" (see left). Beside the man lies another lute, unused. The motto explains that in tuning one lute the strings of the other instrument begins to resonate just as two hearts resonate with love even at a distance. In this painting, the woman's music may resonate on the unattended viola da gamba, a common masculine symbol.

Cats' first book, Sinne- en minnebeelden (1618; "Portaits of Morality and Love"), contained engravings with text in Dutch, Latin, and French. Each picture has a threefold interpretation, expressing what were for Cats the three elements of human life: love, society, and religion.

Dutch interior paintings of the time predominantly represent the left side of the room. The origin of this compositional formula may be linked to the fact that artists usually painted with the light source coming from their left in order that the shadow projected by their working hand did not obscure the area on which the painter was working (unless they were left-handed). The fact that western spectators read visually from left to right also contributes to the success of the formula: when a group of figures is located on the left of the image, we read that element as the beginning of the composition, allowing our imagination to extend into the space in a rightwards direction.

While painting, Vermeer probably positioned himself near a second window that cast sufficient light on his canvas and working area. The structure and disposition of the windows in the room were Vermeer painted the Woman with a Lute are probably analogous to that of The Music Lesson. However, the painting's dim light would seem incompatible with an eventual second window opened wide enough to allow incoming light sufficient for the purpose of painting. Most likely Vermeer partially isolated the illuminated working area from the scene he was portraying by use of a hanging curtain similar to the one seen in The Art of Painting.

The Golden Age witnessed a profound evolution in the function of the home and its furnishing. Houses began to be filled with a great range of sophisticated goods: elaborately carved linen cupboards, tables of all sorts including extendable tables, tea tables and gaming tables to say nothing of imported Turkish carpets, Chinese porcelain, Venetian mirrors, Japanese lacquer-work and quilts from India. Local production, spurred by foreign competition, also soared in quality and variety far beyond anything seen before.

Late medieval furniture tended to be heavily constructed and limited in number. There were only three basic types of seatings: the simple bench (at times with storage capacities) a small three-legged stool (driestal) and in wealthier homes, a large, throne-like arm chair for the head of the family. In the 17th century, the Spanish chair could be found in almost any home. It was elegant, lighter and more comfortable than previous seatings.

17th-century oak table

Many modern concepts of domestic life evolved in the Netherlands in this period: devotion to family life, a sense of privacy and pride which were reflected in a notable order and cleanliness typical of the new Dutch household. However, historian A. J. Schuurman argued that the concept of home comfort as we know it today, was only fulfilled later in the 19th century with the introduction of the stove and gas light which significantly improved the quality of daily life. The depictions of thousands of comfortable Dutch interiors appear to be somewhat at odds with Schuurman's opinions.

Another popular piece of furniture which can be found in Vermeer's painting was the extendable oak table, which appears a great number of times in Dutch interior paintings. Its characteristic bulbous legs can be made out with some difficulty in this work. To the left is an exemplar in the Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem.

Throughout the centuries the lute has been one of the most frequently depicted instruments with the largest variety of iconographical interpretation.

The lute is rich not only in repertoire but in symbolism. Its refined sound has given it courtly associations in East and West. Conversely, it could be an emblem of lust or lasciviousness: in the hands of an older man it symbolized scandal and degeneracy.

Duet, Hendrick ter Brugghen

Hendrick ter Brugghen
Oil on canvas, 101 x 81 cm.
Musée du Louvre, Paris

If the lute's sensuous yet delicate tones evoked the pleasures of love, the fleeting nature of its sound, and the fragility of the instrument made it a fitting emblem of transience and death: it is often included, sometimes alongside a skull, in Dutch still life paintings of the Vanitas variety, illustrating the vanity of worldly existence.

On the other hand, the lute with its multiple courses (pairs of strings which have to be carefully tuned) could symbolize the concord and harmony in matrimony and family made evident by numerous family portraits with musical instruments.

In this painting, Vermeer chose not to furnish a clear-cut explanation for the woman's attitude, preferring instead to suggest a mood that has universal resonances. However, he provided two indications that the woman's musing revolves around a distant lover: the map of Europe, which may well allude to foreign travels, and the dimly viola da gamba under the table. The presence of this second instrument relates to an emblem by Jacob Cats, which describes metaphorically how the resonance of the strings of one musical instrument are felt in another, just as the heartstrings of two lovers sound as one, even when they are separated.

Unfortunately, due to the poor state of conservation of this picture, none of its details, which were so lovingly portrayed by a host of Dutch painters, can be made out. All indications of the instrument's strings or frets have disappeared and the delicately carved ornamental soundhole has been reduced to a few unintelligible smudges of paint.

Self-Portrait as a Lutenist, Jan Steen

Self-Portrait as a Lutenist
Jan Steen
55 x 44 cm.
Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Until the invention of the piano, the lute was the dominant solo instrument. Shakespeare was only one of many writers of his day who attributed to the lute the power to transport the listener into a kind of ecstasy; for throughout the Renaissance the lute's ravishing tone made it the most esteemed and admired of all musical instruments. The fame of the greatest players spread through all Europe, and the doors of royal courts and palaces were open to them (a number were consequently employed as spies) while instruments by the most famous makers could fetch astronomical sums.

It is not hard to comprehend the appeal of the instrument. Light and portable, a harmonizing instrument cheaper and easier to maintain than keyboards, it was (and is) enormously versatile; it was used to play dance music, popular tunes, arrangements of vocal music and song accompaniments, and soon generated a solo repertoire of its own, in the form of preludes, passemezzi (a sort of Renaissance twelve-bar blues) and the most refined and expressive fantasias.

The lute had been painted an almost innumerable number of times in European painting. Other than being a handy source of iconographical inspiration, the lute was frequently used as a training ground for learning the intricacies of drawing objects in perspective. Examination of Dutch genre works in particular show that a number of painters clearly kept it as a studio prop and, naturally, a few (certainly Jan Steen - see image left) must have actually played it. In some cases, an artist featured the same lute in several paintings. Lutes or even theorbos appear as part of studio furniture in self portraits as well. For example, in Michael Sweerts An Artist's Studio, a lovely Italian theorbo (closely related to the lute) lies propped in one corner.

There exist many 16th-century engravings which show the lute being drawn, usually in the difficult three-quarter or end-on views (the full face view of the soundboard is relatively straightforward to draw), and at times with the aid of camera obscura or other optical devices utilized by artists of the time. The lute was also an important ingredient in Vanitas painting which represented the transient nature of life. At times the ephemeral nature of music was conveyed in an even more graphic manner via a broken string or two, or the instrument portrayed face down with obvious finger marks in heavy dust on its glossy back ribs.

Sarabande [4.99MB], Jean Mercure (c. 1600-1660)

performed by Thomas Berghan

Canaris [4.16 MB]

from the M.L. Lutebook, 26r
performed by Thomas Berghan


A former bass lute, ca. 1600,
probably built by the Paduan
lutemaker Wendelin Tieffenbrucker,
converted 1734 into a 13-course
Baroque lute by the German
lutemaker Thomas Edlinger,
working in Prague. National Music Museum,
Vermillion, South Dakota (Ex coll.
Carl Des Fours Walderode,
Hrubý Rohozec Castle, Bohemia,
Czech Republic).

The Lute

The name and form of the European lute derives from its early ancestor, the Arab "al 'Ud," literally meaning "wood," probably because the instrument is almost entirely made of various kinds of wood.

Early forms of the lute's ancestors - in various forms and sizes, often with long necks - were found in the former Mesopotamia and Asia Minor (c. 2nd millenium B.C.), later in Egypt. The short-necked lute appeared at first in East Asia (China, 5th century A.C.) and as the 'Ud in Arabia (7th-8th century). From there it was brought to Europe, probably by the Moors to the Iberian Peninsula (8-9th century), later (c. 1100) by the Saracens to Sicily. The form of the European lute with the turned back pegbox as a substantial characteristic (presumably to help hold the low-tension strings firmly against the nut) had been developed in Spain during the 13th century. By the 14th century it was widespread throughout Italy and had made significant inroads into the German-speaking areas.

From the 15th to the early 18th century the lute was the most favoured instrument, at first for the accompaniment of the singing voice or part of the continuo, but with the appearance of the great lutenists and composers (Vincenzo Capirola, John Dowland, Alessandro Piccinini or Nicolaes Vallet) and the publication of numerous lutebooks also used as a solo instrument.

The Western lute has a pear-shaped vaulted back (later rather longer and smaller, like an almond), made up of a number of separate ribs of wood, bent over a mould and glued together edge to edge to form the deep rounded body. At the back of the top end of the neck the housing for the pegbox is cut out, with the slender tapering hardwood tuning-pegs inserted from the sides.

From c. 1580 onwards almost all surviving lutes have separate ebony fingerboards, set flush with the soundboard. The soundboard or belly is a flat thin plate of softwood, often made from two halves joined along the centre line. An ornamental soundhole - the 'rose' - is carved into the soundboard (rare instruments may have several little roses). The bridge, holding the strings, was consistently made of a light hardwood and was glued directly to the surface of the soundboard.

The strings, made of gut, are arranged in pairs - the courses, being tuned either in unison or at the octave. The number of courses grew from four or five in the Middle Ages up to fourteen in the Baroque era, requiring some innovations in the lute's structure.

The medieval lute mainly served for the accompanying chords to the songs and was plucked with a quill as plectrum. During the Renaissance era the players begun to pluck the strings with the thumb and the following three fingers, thereby gradually turning from the earlier "thumb-in" position to the "thumb-out" position gaining a greater stretch to be able to reach the encreasing number of courses.

Woman with a Lute (diagram), Johannes Vermeer

The Lute Player is one of Vermeer's most simple yet powerful compositions. The robust play of four rectangles frames a moment of the life of a finely dressed young girl as she glances out the window distractingly tuning (not playing) her lute. The air of fragility which surrounds her slight figure cannot be fully appreciated by those who are not familiar with the melancholy strains of the lute or its astounding lightness made of thin strips of wood artfully glued together.

The large wall map of Europe occupies the upper right-hand quarter of the composition. The ball of the hanging rod fits neatly into the crevice between the girl's hairdo and fur trim of her jacket. The upper tip of the lute's neck is caressed by the horizontal black hanging rod.

Below, the massive dark area created by the chair, table and tablecloth contemporarily protects and sustains her from below and offsets the map's visual weight. A long vertical rectangle described by the window and its cast shadow is echoed to the lower right by a chair set flush to the wall.

Vermeer's girl remains wonderfully enclosed in a balanced pictorial world which she will inhabit for our contemplation for many years to come.

The incredible lightness of the lute contrasts with its formidable weight as a carrier of symbolic meaning in the visual arts. When picking up a lute in hand, any number of associations would have sprung to mind to Dutch citizens of the highest and lowest social rungs. In Vermeer's time, an image of a woman with a lute inevitably opened to erotic interpretations unless it did not belong to an allegorical series (the Muses or the Liberal Arts).

Girl with a Lute, Gerrit van Honthorst

Girl with a Lute
Gerrit van Honthorst
83 x 67 cm.
Private collection

Even though the present painting was not construed as an invitation or comment on erotic love, Vermeer must have nonetheless been aware that his image could have been interpreted in this light and deliberately composed his work to make clear the spiritual nature of the meek girl's musical interests. While the lute could connote the vita voluptuosa, with its illicit gratification, it could likewise symbolize voluptas in the positive sense of the term that is, music-making as a pleasant pastime, as solace, as a source of mind-body equilibrium. The latter was almost surely the artist's intentions.

In the Netherlands, the lute had a particularly strong sexual connotation owing to the fact that the word lute (luit) meant vagina which explains a host of pictorial images from the Low Countries representing prostitutes holding lutes (see image left). As Sir Thomas Wyatt observed, the "ideal mistress" described in Pierre de Ronsard's ode to Peletier Du Mans was graced with a lascivious hand, equally well suited to either lute-playing or love-making:

[With] a naïve spirit, and naïve grace: A lascivious hand, whether she [or it] embraces Her lover, lying in her lap, Or whether [she/it] plays her lute, And with a voice that even surpasses her lute.

Musicologist Albert de Mirimonde believes that because of this type of lewd insinuation, Saint Cecilia is seldom depicted as a lutenist in sixteenth-and seventeenth-century art. Other than its name, the lute's "anatomy," with its rounded belly, reinforced connections with femininity and especially fertility, by evoking pregnancy. The lute also played a prominent role in comedy. The heroines of Thomas Dekker's The Honest Whore and John Marston's The Dutch Courtesan are "professional" lutenists. Shakespeare describes Katharina's ill-fated lute lesson in The Taming of the Shrew.

The lute's belly is made of pine, often only one-sixteenth inch thick. Some are so thin that they allow light to pass through. The pear shaped back is constructed from several ribs, shaped and bent over a mold, and then glued together edge to edge. These ribs may be made of sycamore, cedar, yew, or cypress. Stringing is light since the body is not able to withstand twelve or more strings at high tension. Plucking is done with the soft part of the fingers and thumb, not the nails. The best lute players use little motion of either hand. During the Baroque period, the lute was replaced by various keyboard instruments which could more easily accommodate the new virtuoso solo and continuo style playing typical of that period.

A Lady Playing a Lute in an Interior, The Master of the Female Half-Lengths

A Lady Playing a Lute in an Interior
The Master of the Female Half-Lengths
Active 1530s-1540s
Oil on panel, 54.7 x 42 cm.
Private collection

The number of Dutch paintings of the 1600s featuring a solitary women or man playing a lute cannot be counted. Already in the 1530s and 1540s the Master of the Female Half Lengths painted various versions of a stylishly dressed young lady seated behind a table intent of playing a lute. The lute, as a musical instrument but also as a hand-made object was so suggestive that various artist portrayed themeslve playing a lute in their studios are composed still lifes with lutes. The Italian artist Evaristo Baschenis, who specialized in portraying musical instruments, painted a number of meticulously rendered still lifes with lutes, and was particularly skilled in depicting the effect of dust on their overturned, ribbed bellies. The simple yet elegant structure of the lute would serve as an inexhaustible source for exercises in foreshortening, seemingly generation after generation.

Woman Playing a Theorbo-Lute, Frans van Mieris

Woman Playing a Theorbo-Lute
Frans van Mieris
Oil on panel, 22 x 17 cm.
National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh

Various compositional precedents for Vermeer's Woman with a Lute have been proposed but none as stringent as the Woman Playing a Theorbo-Lute by Frans van Mieris, recently proposed by Adriaan E. Waiboer. In Waiboer's words, "Vermeer scholars seem to have overlooked the painting's relationship to Frans van Mieris's Woman Playing a Theorbo-Lute. The Leiden artist represented a three-quarter-length figure playing a theorbo-lute and dressed in a flamboyant outfit. He placed her in an interior with a green curtain, a marble floor, and a classical pilaster. She looks sideways to read the score on the table, which creates a remarkable balance between the woman's gaze directed to the left and the neck of the lute extending to the right. Although van Mieris's woman tunes rather than plays the lute, her pose bears a striking resemblance to that of Vermeer's musician. In fact, it cannot be a coincidenc+e that the Delft artist, who appropriated a number of figure poses from Van Mieris's work in the first half of the 1660s, painted a woman playing a lute in a remarkably similar position. ' Moreover, as Waiboer states, despite the fact that "contact between the two artists has not been documented, they unquestionably knew each other personally-their respective residences, Delft and Leiden, were located merely twenty kilometers apart. Vermeer was three years older than van Mieris, but there is little doubt that he looked up to the latter's social and financial status."

The lute is rich not only in repertoire but in symbolism. Its refined sound has given it courtly associations in East and West. Conversely, it could be an emblem of lust or lasciviousness: in the hands of an older man it symbolized scandal and degeneracy.

Until the invention of the piano, the lute was the dominant solo instrument. Shakespeare was only one of many writers of his day who attributed to the lute the power to transport the listener into a kind of ecstasy; for throughout the Renaissance the lute's ravishing tone made it the most esteemed and admired of all musical instruments. The fame of the greatest players spread through all Europe, and the doors of royal courts and palaces were open to them (a number were consequently employed as spies) while instruments by the most famous makers could fetch astronomical sums.

It is not hard to comprehend the appeal of the instrument. Light and portable, a harmonizing instrument cheaper and easier to maintain than keyboards, it was (and is) enormously versatile—it was used to play dance music, popular tunes, arrangements of vocal music and song accompaniments, and soon generated a solo repertoire of its own, in the form of preludes, passemezzi (a sort of Renaissance twelve-bar blues) and the most refined and expressive fantasias.

The lute had been painted an almost innumerable number of times in European painting. Examination of Dutch genre works in particular show that a number of painters clearly kept it as a studio prop and, naturally, a few (certainly Jan Steen—see image left) must have actually played it. In some cases, an artist featured the same lute in several paintings. Lutes and theorbos (closely related to the lute) appear as part of studio furniture in self portraits as well. For example, in Michael Sweerts An Artist's Studio, a lovely Italian theorbo lies propped in one corner.

Duet, Hendrick ter Brugghen

Hendrick ter Brugghen
Oil on canvas, 101 x 81 cm.
Musée du Louvre, Paris