Young Woman Seated at a Virginal (ca. 1670-72) by Johannes VermeerThe Leiden Collection
Johannes Vermeer’s interest in the depiction of musical themes is manifest throughout his oeuvre. Young Woman Seated at a Virginal is one of his late and most intimate depictions of the subject of a woman playing an instrument in an interior.
Dressed elegantly in a cream-colored satin skirt and yellow shawl...
... with a string of pearls and red ribbons in her hair...
... the woman is seated before a virginal in a simple, unadorned space.
Her hands rest on the keys as she pauses from playing and turns toward the viewer.
Light entering from a window in the upper-left corner of the room gently illuminates the open music book on the stand before her.
Unlike Vermeer’s other representations of music-making, which situate the figure in a more defined setting, this painting focuses solely on the female musician and the relationship she shares with the viewer. Holding us with a sympathetic gaze, she evokes a sense of both immediacy and timelessness. This quality, ever present in Vermeer’s work, is achieved through the harmonies of light and color, here enhanced by the imagined melodies of the sitter’s music.
Face and light
Vermeer was a master of manipulating optical effects in his paintings. Here, natural light enters the room from an unseen window in the upper-left corner and delicately illuminates the woman’s face.
Pale pinks infused with light define the contours of her upper cheek and nose, and bring a warm glow to her skin.
The shadows, in contrast, are modeled with green pigment blended with flesh tones.
These visual subtleties of light and color enhance the immediacy of the moment, as does the woman’s direct eye contact with the viewer, which draws us deeply into the scene.
Ribbons and pearls
Red ribbons and strands of small pearls decorate the curls of this woman’s hair. Vermeer used dabs of white paint to define the individual pearls as they catch the light. Two dabs of white paint just visible above the young woman’s shawl show that she also wears a pearl necklace.
The woman’s yellow shawl is gathered tightly around her upper body in thick folds that create deep shadows and broad highlights. Vermeer did not originally paint the garment in this way, however. Technical examination and x-radiography have revealed that the musician first wore a different costume, consisting of a short jacket with an intricately designed sleeve. It may even have been trimmed with fur. The shawl that we see now was thus a later addition, possibly executed by another hand shortly after the artist’s death.
Perspective and a pinhole
To depict accurate perspective in his works, Vermeer often followed a method involving the use of a pinhole as a vanishing point to which all orthogonal lines in the composition converge. Here, evidence of a pinhole is present near the woman’s shoulder. Following the orthogonal lines created by the front panel of the virginal to this precise point reveals evidence of the painting’s constructed perspective.
The clear light emanating from the upper-left corner of this room illuminates the plaster wall’s rough, uneven texture. Vermeer achieved its cool tonality by mixing the expensive pigment of ultramarine (lapis lazuli) with gray and white. The cool color and sharpness of detail on the wall are in contrast to the foreground elements, where the woman’s arms and hands are slightly out of focus to create the effect of depth.
Virginal and music stand
The musician plays a muselar virginal, a popular type of instrument, the keyboard of which is positioned to the right of center. The simple, geometric form of the music stand above it is juxtaposed with the textured wall. Vermeer applied a thick stroke of white paint along the stand’s base to create the effect of sunlight hitting the wood.
Hands and wrists
The woman’s outstretched arms gingerly linger over the keyboard of the virginal. Fingers raised, she appears to have been interrupted in the act of playing. Her wrists and hands cast a faint reflection on the polished front of the virginal, demonstrating Vermeer’s mastery of light and interest in capturing its varied effects.
The woman’s full, cream-colored skirt falls along the side of the chair in deep, smooth folds. Fluid strokes and highlights of white interspersed with green-tinted shadows evoke the texture of satin and its stiff, rustling movement.
This exhibition is part of the Google Vermeer Project.
About The Leiden Collection
The Leiden Collection, founded by Thomas S. Kaplan and Daphne Recanati Kaplan, is among the largest and most important collections of seventeenth-century Dutch art in private hands. Named in honor of the city where Rembrandt van Rijn was born and began his artistic career, The Leiden Collection comprises over 250 history paintings, genre scenes, portraits, and drawings produced between 1620 and 1700. Masterpieces by Rembrandt and artists in his circle, such as Ferdinand Bol, Govaert Flinck, and Carel Fabritius, exist in dialogue with the fine painters (fijnschilders) of Leiden, including Gerrit Dou, Frans van Mieris, and Godefridus Schalcken. The Collection also features important works by other Dutch masters, among them, Frans Hals, Gabriel Metsu, Jan Steen, and Johannes Vermeer.
The Leiden Collection has emerged as a lending library of Old Masters; over 170 loans of artworks have been made to date to major museums in Europe, the United States, and Japan. In February of 2017, The Leiden Collection commenced its traveling exhibition at the Musée du Louvre, Paris, which marked the first occasion that a survey of highlights from the Collection was presented to the public. An expanded traveling exhibition has continued in Beijing, Shanghai, Moscow, and St. Petersburg, and can be followed by visiting The Leiden Collection website's Exhibitions section.
In January of 2017, The Leiden Collection published an online catalogue edited by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., which offered the first scholarly overview of the Collection. The Leiden Collection Catalogue contains artist biographies, artwork entries, high resolution photography and technical information for each object, and scholarly essays. The catalogue represents the collaborative efforts of specialists from across the field of Dutch and Flemish art, with over twenty-five contributors.
For more information, please visit The Leiden Collection's website.