Girl with a Flute (probably 1665/1675) by Attributed to Johannes VermeerNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC
This painting occupies an important place in Vermeer’s oeuvre, together with Girl with the Red Hat. They are the smallest paintings that we know of by the master, and the only two to be painted on panel. Both depict a young woman wearing an unusual hat and with a tapestry in the background. This explains why the two paintings were once believed to have been conceived as a pair, though their different sizes makes it unlikely.
Since the preparatory paint layer and painting style deviate from Vermeer’s other paintings, there are doubts whether this painting was executed entirely by the master himself. The painting seems to have been extensively revised in the seventeenth century, making its authorship difficult to judge. Such difficulties are why the painting is currently not placed among the master’s oeuvre but is instead – as they say – attributed to Johannes Vermeer.
Slightly parted lips
The painting is a so-called tronie, meaning that shows a character or type rather than a specific person. Just like Vermeer’s most famous tronie, Girl with a Pearl Earring, the sitter’s lips are slightly parted. Small white brushstrokes convey the plumpness of her lips and a suggestion of teeth.
On her head, which is slightly tilted to one side, the young woman wears an unusual hat seldom seen in seventeenth-century Dutch paintings. It may be from the East, where hats were generally made from woven bamboo. However, this hat also appears to be covered with a striped grey material.
The young woman wears two magnificent pearl earrings. They are built up from a thin, translucent layer of grey paint and a dab of white to conveys the reflection of the light.
With her left arm the girl leans on the table in front of her. In her hand she holds a flute. Musical instruments often feature in Vermeer’s paintings, but this is the only time that we see a flute.
A wall tapestry appears in the background of the painting. Tapestries like this are often seen lying on tables in Vermeer’s compositions, only depicted in much greater detail. Here we only see only a fragment of the tapestry. Thanks to the large planes of colour, the background has the air of a modern painting. Unlike Girl with the Red Hat, where Vermeer’s monogram appears on the tapestry, this work is unsigned.
Colour rather than line
As in most of Vermeer's painting, colour is more important than line in this work. However, here it has been implemented to an extreme degree. It can be seen in the girl’s face, for example, where the transition between the various parts is indicated by areas of colour. As a result, this oil painting is almost reminiscent of a watercolour.
On the trim of the girl’s blue jacket Vermeer added small white highlights to create the impression of fur.
These small dabs of white have also been applied to the blue fabric, which gives it the appearance of gleaming satin without depicting it in any detail.
The chair has the same lion’s head finial as the chair in Girl with the Red Hat. The reflection of light plays a greater role than the ornament’s form, which is why some experts believe that an optical instrument was used when making this painting. Using the lens in a so-called camera obscura, a painter could project an illuminated image of a composition on a surface. It is possible that the reflections of light on the lions’ heads were painted based on such a projected image.
It would also explain why the depiction seems slightly out-of-focus.
This exhibition is part of the Google Vermeer Project.