Vermeer's Music

Johannes Vermeer is one of the most famous painters. He is also one of the most musical ones: no less than 13 of his paintings depict musical instruments. Let's meet them!

Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman, 'The Music Lesson' (c.1662 - 1665) by Johannes VermeerRoyal Collection Trust, UK

In the lives of the citizens of Johannes Vermeer's hometown Delft, or any other 17th-century city in the Low Countries, there was music, whether in church, at the inn, at parades and parties, or at home. 

In Vermeer's paintings, musical instruments sometimes are background accessories that give further meaning to what is depicted. And sometimes Vermeer's scenes are even completely constructed around the instruments.

The Procuress (1656) by Johannes VermeerOld Masters Picture Gallery, Dresden State Art Museums

Musical instruments were part of everyday life. But paintings are rarely (only) an exact representation of reality. In 17th-century paintings, instruments often carry an extra meaning.

For example, instruments can refer to the licentiousness of a wild dance, to the pride of the music virtuoso, to the harmony required in marriage, or even to the sensuality of a brothel scene, as in Vermeer's The Procuress. It is up to the viewer to decode the precise meaning.

Lute or mandora (1747) by Joannes Christophorus AnderlandMuseum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

The lute

Around 1600 the lute was one of the most popular instruments among wealthy burghers in the Low Countries. 

Young Woman with a Lute (ca. 1662–63) by Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, Delft)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The lute is a versatile instrument that can be played gracefully and is suitable as a solo instrument, as part of a music ensemble or to accompany a voice.

Interestingly, in Johannes Vermeer's Young Woman with a Lute, the musician isn't playing the instrument, she is tuning it, trying to bring order to chaos, even though she seems distracted by what is happening outside.

In this clip, recorded at Museum Vleeshuis, Justin Glaie plays an arrangement of the song Mille regretz by Josquin Desprez on a 7-course lute.

The Guitar Player (c.1672) by Johannes VermeerOriginal Source: KENWOOD

The guitar

In the 17th century the guitar conquered a place next to the lute. The guitar is associated with Spain, but the instrument became extremely popular with the elite in Italy and France, and eventually even the Netherlands. 

Often guitars were lavishly decorated with expensive materials such as ivory and mother of pearl and with a complex rose in the sound hole, as is the case in Vermeer's The Guitar Player.

Guitar (1675/1700) by AnonymousMuseum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

Demonstration of a baroque guitar (copy of an anonymous instrument from Museum Vleeshuis)

The instrument shown here is very similar to the guitar Vermeer depicts, both in shape and decoration.

In the audio excerpt, recorded live at Museum Vleeshuis, a copy of a Baroque guitar from the museum's collection is demonstrated.

The Glass of Wine (around 1661) by Jan Vermeer van DelftGemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The cittern

Another instrument that was very popular, especially in the Netherlands, was the cittern.

Thanks to its flat-back design (which can be seen in Vermeer's The Glass of Wine), the cittern was easier and cheaper to construct than the lute.

The Love Letter (Around 1669) by Johannes VermeerRijksmuseum

The cittern was also easier to play and less delicate. Unlike the lute, which has strings made of sheep gut, the cittern had metal strings, giving it its distinctive sound.

In this clip, Justin Glaie plays an Almande by Pierre Phalèse, a composer, arranger and music printer from the Southern Netherlands.

A Young Woman seated at a Virginal A Young Woman seated at a Virginal by Johannes VermeerThe National Gallery, London

The viol

The viola da gamba, or viol, emerged in the late 15th century. The instrument is played with a bow. It has a warm sound and can be played both as a solo instrument and as part of an ensemble. 

The tuning of the strings shows some similarities with that of the lute, which made it easier for amateurs to change between these instruments.

In Vermeer's A Young Woman seated at a Virginal, a viol is waiting to be played, perhaps by a gentleman caller?

Viola da Gamba (bass viol) (1665) by Gaspar BorbonMuseum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

Leonora Duarte, Sinfonia de Primi toni (excerpt)

Thomas Baeté and his viol ensemble play a sinfonia by the 17th-century Antwerp composer Leonora Duarte. The Duartes were not just music lovers, they were also avid art collectors, and their collection included a painting by Vermeer. The instrument shown was made by Gaspar Borbon.

Girl with a Flute (probably 1665/1675) by Attributed to Johannes VermeerNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

The recorder

The painter of Girl with a Flute—possibly Vermeer—depicts a girl with a small recorder. The recorder was a popular instrument in the Netherlands, as it was cheap to make and easy to play. 

Jacob van Eyck, Pavane Lacryme

The most famous Dutch collection of recorder music is Der Fluyten Lust-hof (1644) by the Utrecht composer Jacob van Eyck.

Flageolet (flute) (1675/1700) by Sebastian Schell (attributed)Museum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

However, the recorder did not have a very good reputation, and it wasn't a suitable instrument for women: after all, playing it made your face contorted. However, sometimes whistles were also used to teach songbirds new melodies.

Natural trumpet (1850/1900) by Charles MahillonMuseum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

The trumpet

The trumpet was not an indoor instrument. It was a military instrument, suitable, among other things, for giving signals in battle. 

The Art of Painting (1666/1668) by Jan VermeerKunsthistorisches Museum Wien

But the trumpet was also the symbol of Fama, the personification of fame and renown. This is the meaning Vermeer references in The Art of Painting.

Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman, 'The Music Lesson' (c.1662 - 1665) by Johannes VermeerRoyal Collection Trust, UK

Harpsichords and virginals

Between the middle of the 16th and the middle of the 17th century, Antwerp-built harpsichords and virginals were in high demand. And a prosperous 17th-century burgher owned a harpsichord or virginal, preferably from the workshops of the famous Antwerp Ruckers family.

Johannes Vermeer lived at a time when the Antwerp harpsichord and virginal makers lost popularity in favor of emerging French builders. Yet most of Vermeer's instruments are recognizable as Antwerp instruments.

Virginal (muselar) (1611) by Joannes RuckersMuseum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

This is an actual Antwerp virginal, built in 1611. The decoration is identical to that seen on Vermeer's The Music Lesson.

Virginal (muselar) (1650) by Joannes CouchetMuseum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

“Almande” (Susanne van Soldt Virginal Book) (excerpt)

Mario Sarrechia plays an Almande from the Susanne van Soldt virginal book on a so-called muselaar, a virginal with the keyboard on the right. The instrument you hear is a copy of a 17th-century Antwerp instrument from the collection of Museum Vleeshuis.

Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman, 'The Music Lesson' (c.1662 - 1665) by Johannes VermeerRoyal Collection Trust, UK

"Wt de diepte o Heere" (Susanna van Soldt Virginal Book) (excerpt)

Vermeer's Music Lesson may not show a music lesson at all, but simply two people making music together, with the man singing and the woman playing. In this recording, Lieselot De Wilde sings the psalm Out of the depths I cry, while Mario Sarrechia accompanies her on a virginal.

Credits: Story

All instruments shown in this story come from the collection of Museum Vleeshuis. 
All audio and video recordings were commissioned by Museum Vleeshuis.

Special thanks to the musicians:
Justin Glaie
Adriaan Lauwers
Frederike Van Lindt
Mario Sarrechia 
Lieselot De Wilde
Thomas Baeté & Ensemble Transports Publics

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