Music in the Time of Vermeer

The Music Lesson, Johannes VermeerThe Music Lesson
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1662–1665
Oil on canvas, 73.3 x 64.5 cm.
The Royal Collection, The Windsor Castle

A painting is a world without change and without sound. Vermeer's paintings, instead, are full of musical instruments and people making music. In almost one third of his paintings, music is present in one way or another. The fact that Vermeer portrayed so many musical themes is not surprising in itself, "at least ten percent of all seventeenth-century paintings, music makes its appearance in one way or another. In genre pieces, in which category Vermeer's work is generally placed, the percentage is even higher. For example, about 20 per cent of Frans van Mieris' works, 25 per cent of Pieter de Hoogh's and almost half of Jacob Ochtervelt's deal in some way with music."1

Dutch painting experts generally believe that underneath Vermeer's seemingly straightforward portrayals of young people engaged in a pleasurable pastime lies another level of meaning which can be understood only with consultation of period emblematic literature and other historical references. But to appreciate the full significance of music in Vermeer's paintings, it is not only important to understand related iconographical meaning however fascinating and informative it may be. We must also know something about the musical milieu in Vermeer's time, the musical instruments in his compositions, their history and playing technique and lastly, the particular sound made by each instrument and the music that was performed on them. The following multi-media project investigates many of these issues.

  1. Edwin Buijsen, "Music in the Age of Vermeer." in Dutch Society in the Age of Vermeer, Zwolle: Waansers, 1996, 106.