At first glance, this painting appears very familiar, containing many of the recognisable elements of Vermeer’s oeuvre: a domestic space...
... bathed in light emanating from a window at the very edge of the canvas
... a painting within the painting on the back wall...
...and the musical subject;
not to mention that yellow jacket, seen in so many other paintings by the artist.
And yet this painting represents a daring experiment in composition for Vermeer, who painted it in the final years of his life. The guitar player herself occupies hardly more than the lower left quarter of the canvas, contrasting with the almost abstract passages of grey that fill the upper right. Other details, such as the musician’s pearl necklace and the play of sunlight on the head of the guitar are strikingly geometric.
There is a sense of musicality in the very arrangement of chromatic rhythms of yellow, blue and green, interspersed with monochromatic staccato intervals provided by the edging of the guitar and the spotted fur trim of the jacket. The forearm that gracefully strums the guitar is truncated by the left edge of the canvas, while the musician’s right knee is painted out of focus. Such effects anticipate the work of the 19th-century painter Edgar Degas, and must surely at least in part contribute to this picture’s enduring appeal in a post-photographic world.
Vermeer’s wife owned a jacket just like this, described in an inventory as ‘a yellow satin jacket with white fur edges’. The jacket appears in no less than six of Vermeer’s paintings.
The enigmatic, porcelain doll-like face of the musician is largely in shadow, perhaps suggesting that the painting is not first and foremost a portrait. Her head is framed by the painting behind her, which might offer a clue about one of the themes Vermeer wished to convey.
This painting in a painting is thought to represent a work by Vermeer’s contemporary, the Dutch artist Pieter van Asch. The musician’s ringlets are echoed in the forms of the trees, drawing a parallel between female beauty and the idyllic landscape. This and other themes that linked love and nature were common in poetry and song during Vermeer’s time; perhaps it is one such song that the guitar player performs here.
We can almost hear the sound of the guitar lingering in the air when we look at this picture...
... for Vermeer has painted the very vibrations of the strings in soft, translucent strokes of his brush.
They disappear against the glint of the intricate soundhole, painted rapidly, with a far more thickly loaded brush to evoke the way in which the light from the window at the right of the picture catches on the pattern.
The diagonal of the guitar ‘points’ to Vermeer’s monogram, barely perceptible in the threshold of the window. Signing the picture here provides something of a counterbalance to what is otherwise an asymmetrical composition...
... the left-hand side dominated by the subject of the painting, the guitar player, leaving the right-hand side comparatively empty.
Another counterbalance is found in the pile of books, the arrangement of which echoes the twisting posture of the musician...
... as she turns her head to look at someone unseen, to the left of the space framed by the painting.
The light as it falls on the musician and her guitar is so bright that Vermeer depicts the way it plays across the head of the guitar in an almost geometric fashion, using individual daubs of pure black and white paint...
... which when viewed as a whole from a distance, mimic visual sensation.
Vermeer uses a similar technique to paint the string of pearls around the musician’s neck, where he has layered a semi-circular sweep of translucent white with dots of opaque white, increasing and decreasing in size as they trace the contour of the neck. The gloss on the paint catches the light in the viewer’s world, evoking the shimmer of pearls in sunshine.
The musician’s knee, supporting the guitar, is painted to appear out of focus.
This again mimics optical effects as perceived by the eye, creating a sense of being in close proximity to the sitter, and of sharing in this scene.
The corner of the wooden strainer, which supports the canvas, can be discerned in the fine cracks in the paint surface which have formed along its imprint. This painting is the only Vermeer to still be on its original, or near contemporary stretcher. It is in exceptionally good condition and shows no evidence of later retouching by restorers.
The Guitar Player by Johannes VermeerEnglish Heritage
This exhibition is part of the Google Vermeer Project.