A Young Woman standing at a Virginal A Young Woman standing at a Virginal (about 1670-2) by Johannes VermeerThe National Gallery, London
A richly dressed young woman standing at a virginal is looking expectantly at the viewer.
She has her back turned to the window at the left, from which cool daylight is flooding in.
Vermeer has created subtle light effects on the picture frames on the wall...
... the floor tiles...
...the empty chair in the foreground...
... and most importantly on the woman’s satin skirt.
Although only one corner of the room is visible, the paintings on the wall, the marble-tiled floor and the skirting with blue-and-white Delft tiles identify this interior as a prosperous Dutch home.
In addition, the musical instrument is a particularly luxurious model of virginal with a painted landscape decorating the inside of the lid.
One of the paintings on the wall shows Cupid holding up a card, providing the scene with additional meaning and affirming the common association of music with love in Dutch paintings. The figure derives from a popular emblem, which alludes to faithful love.
As with most of Vermeer's work, the painting is undated. However, painting style and the woman’s costume indicate that this is a late work of about 1670.
Vermeer has a compositional preference for single figures in a corner of a room with a window at the left. But here, instead of the warm and diffused light of earlier paintings, crisp white light floods through the leaded glass windows...
... bringing out the bluish light effects on the white wall...
... the sharp ridges on the folds of the satin skirt...
... and the hard edges of the virginal.
The room is bathed in clear light, but intriguingly the woman is turned away from the light source, her face appearing in indirect half-light. Vermeer achieved this light effect by using green earth pigment applied over flesh colours.
The lady’s facial expression is hard to read. With the faintest of smiles she seems to be looking expectantly at the viewer. At the same time she gives an impression of remaining somewhat reserved and distant.
It was long believed that the convincingly modelled light effects on this carved gilt frame were deliberately painted with a thick impasto in order to refract light. However, under the microscope the effect is shown to be a result of lumpy particles protruding through the paint surface. Technical examination identified these particles as a product of chemical reactions between the lead pigments and an oily binding medium.
The rugged landscape on the inside of the instrument’s lid was identified as a painting by the Delft artist Pieter Groenewegen. Interestingly, the smaller upright format landscape in the gilt frame on the wall derives from the same painting.
The figure painting in the background shows Cupid standing in a landscape...
... holding up a playing card or tablet.
The motif is adopted from a well-known emblem book by Otto van Veen, entitled ‘Only One’ with a verse praising fidelity in matters of love.
The painting’s style is reminiscent of Caesar van Everdingen, but no such painting has been identified in the artist’s oeuvre. It may be a painting of Cupid mentioned in the inventory drawn up in 1676 of the possessions of Vermeer’s widow.
Similar paintings appear in other works by Vermeer (Girl Interrupted at Her Music, The Frick Collection, New York; A Maid Asleep, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).
The skirting in this room incorporates blue-and-white Delft tiles, named after Vermeer’s home town, where most pottery manufactories producing the white glazed earthenware imitating Chinese porcelain were based during the painter’s lifetime. Each tile is painted with single figures or boats.
Little cupids engaging in various activities add to the paintings underlying theme of love.
The depicted virginal is of a muselar type with the keyboard situated to the right of the centre. This instrument produces a characteristically warm sound.
Vermeer shows a particularly luxurious model with a painted lid, as opposed to the more common examples that were decorated with patterned paper with a printed motto.
It is not clear whether the woman is actually in the act of playing.
Her position seems to suggest that she is resting her fingers lightly on the keys without movement.
She might have paused to address the viewer.
Music is often related to love in Dutch paintings and the virginal, in particular, carried associations of pure love.
Light falls onto and draws attention to the empty chair in the foreground. This could be read as an invitation to the viewer to join the woman in a musical duet and to join her in the pursuit of harmonious love.
The ultramarine pigment of the blue upholstery of the chair has blanched over time and would originally have appeared more vivid, giving the chair even more emphasis.
Jewellery and costume
The woman wears a pearl necklace around her neck.
Her fashionable dress is composed of a yellow satin skirt...
... and her blue bodice is edged around the shoulders in lace.
Red ribbons decorate her sleeves at the elbow and shoulder.
Just like the expensive instrument, the elaborate costume and accessories suggest that the protagonist in this painting belongs to the well-to-do echelons of society.
Created in collaboration with the National Gallery
This exhibition is part of the Google Vermeer Project.