Vermeer and Music

A common subject in Vermeer's works

The Frick Collection

Girl Interrupted at Her Music (ca. 1658-59) by Johannes VermeerThe Frick Collection

Vermeer and Music

Music was a common subject of Dutch Golden Age pictures, thus, it is not surprising that the oeuvre of Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) contains many depictions of instruments and choral ensembles. Such imagery is found in twelve paintings by Vermeer, a substantial number since only 35 or 36 paintings attributed to him survive.

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

The Procuress, 1656
Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden

The man at left, perhaps a self-portrait of the artist, grasps the neck of a cittern, a string instrument that was popular during the seventeenth century. While citterns could suggest harmonious relationships, its presence here—in this brothel scene—is more likely meant to evoke erotic overtones. Music was regularly performed in taverns to lure customers and dance halls frequently doubled as brothels. Additionally, music halls customarily provided musical instruments for use by their patrons, who were urged to join in the performance. Vermeer’s meticulous depictions of the glittering buttons on the fur coat at left and the reflections on the glasses and stoneware wine jug, demonstrate his superlative technical skill.

Girl Interrupted at Her Music (ca. 1658-59) by Johannes VermeerThe Frick Collection

Girl Interrupted at her Music, ca. 1658-59
The Frick Collection, New York

Paintings featuring musical themes likely resonated with Vermeer’s wealthy clientele, many of whom would have received musical instruction as part of a typical upper-class education. The woman and man depicted are engaged presumably in a music lesson, as suggested by the cittern and open songbook. However, the familiarity of the hatless man, presence of a glass of wine, and the watchful Cupid in the painting on the wall hint at a courtship in progress. Paintings depicting musical themes often contained subtle references to romantic intrigues, further adding to their appeal. The woman’s disdainful gaze suggests that we have interrupted a private moment.

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

The Music Lesson, ca. 1662-1665
The Royal Collection, Windsor Castle

Although seemingly focused on playing the virginal, a costly keyboard instrument, the woman’s reflection in the mirror implies her surreptitious interest in the gentleman, whose parted lips suggest that he is speaking to her or singing in accompaniment to her playing. One wonders if he will soon take up the gamba da viola that lies on the floor and join her in a duet. Inscribed in Latin on the virginal is a motto which reads, “Music is the companion of joy, balm for sorrow,” an allusion to both music’s restorative powers and the vicissitudes of love. Perhaps Vermeer intended it as a tantalizing reference to the relationship in progress before us.

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

Woman with a Lute, ca. 1662-1663
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

This fashionable and contemplative woman gazes out a window as she tunes her lute, an instrument that appears in innumerable seventeenth-century paintings. She is likely anticipating the arrival of a duet partner and possible love interest, whose presence is implied by the viola de gamba lying on the floor and the scattered songbooks

The Concert (About 1665) by Jan VermeerIsabella Stewart Gardner Museum

The Concert, ca. 1663-1666
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston (lost)

The painting’s title suggests that we are privy to a musical recital: the seated woman plays a harpsichord, the man a barely visible theorbo-lute, and the standing woman sings from the sheet of music in her hand. The picture on the wall visible at far right however, may suggest otherwise. Identifiable as Dirck van Baburen’s Procuress, the painting was owned by Vermeer’s mother-in-law, Maria Thins, with whom Vermeer and his family lived. Is the image intended to stand in contrast to the chaste trio or does it imply that we are voyeurs at a high-class bordello as some scholars have suggested?

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

The Art of Painting, ca. 1665-1667
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

The female model clad in a voluminous swathe of blue fabric and standing before the artist, who may depict Vermeer, represents Clio, the muse of history. Her laurel wreath signifies glory and eternal life, and her trumpet denotes fame. These attributes were prescribed by Cesare Ripa in his Iconologia, a sixteenth-century book of emblems intended as an allegorical source for artists and poets. Vermeer seems to have referred to Ripa’s publication for occasional inspiration.

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

Girl with a Flute, ca. 1665-1675
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

The woman’s open mouth suggests that she is about to speak, perhaps to chastise us for disturbing her music practice. She wears a conical, striped hat that is not typical Dutch attire and would have appeared quite exotic to seventeenth-century viewers. Although referred to as a flute the instrument she holds is a recorder, whose appearance may have been altered by a later hand. Recorders often connoted pastoral or erotic themes, but here it seems to be simply an amusement for the fashionable young woman.

A Young Woman standing at a Virginal A Young Woman standing at a Virginal (about 1670-2) by Johannes VermeerThe National Gallery, London

A Lady Standing at a Virginal, ca. 1670-1672
National Gallery, London

This highly embellished virginal—with its “marbleized” painted exterior and a landscape adorning its interior lid—was likely fashioned by the Ruckers family of Antwerp, who were renowned creators of harpsichords and virginals. The presence of the Cupid implies that romance is in the air and, not surprisingly, virginals traditionally represented love and harmonious relations. Is this sumptuously-bedecked woman playing for a suitor located outside the picture frame, or is her cheerful gaze inviting us to take the empty seat beside her?

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

A Lady Sitting at a Virginal, ca. 1670-1675
National Gallery, London

In contrast to the previous work to which this may be a pendant, a lady is seated at a virginal in the midst of an evening performance as suggested by the dimly-lit interior. In place of the empty chair, a viola da gamba and bow stand at the ready. Baburen’s lute-playing Procuress is again apparent, though Vermeer has exchanged the previous ebony frame seen in The Concert for a gilded one. While it is unclear what significance, if any, Vermeer intended us to glean from this painting-within-a-painting, he was quite familiar with the picture, which was owned by his mother-in-law. The original painting resides today in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Young Woman Seated at a Virginal (ca. 1670-72) by Johannes VermeerThe Leiden Collection

A Young Woman Seated at the Virginal, ca. 1670-72
The Leiden Collection, New York

The image of a figure playing a virginal is familiar, yet here we see its portrayal executed in simplified terms. The forms of the girl and the instrument are abridged and the setting minimal compared to Vermeer’s related scenes. Still, the young woman’s elaborate hairstyle and rich costume along with her apparent musical skills convey a sense of refinement. Vermeer’s prowess for rendering light is revealed in the skirt’s subtle sheen, the glint of a pearl necklace and the faint reflections cast against the virginal’s case.

Credits: Story

This exhibition is part of the Google Vermeer Project.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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