Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman, 'The Music Lesson' (c.1662 - 1665) by Johannes VermeerRoyal Collection Trust, UK
From a distance, we see two figures making music in a sunlit room.
Alongside the richly-decorated virginal...
... there’s a table covered by a large Oriental rug...
... a double bass on the floor...
... and a mirror hanging on the wall.
The distribution of the shapes and colours on the canvas is more or less geometric, which adds to the air of tranquility found in many of Vermeer’s works.
In the 19th century, the painting was given the title The Music Lesson, but this appears to be a misinterpretation. The woman and man are making music together, but their exact relationship is not immediately clear. Are we witnessing a simple moment of musical relief, or is this painting about love, for which music is often used as a metaphor?
The painting entered the Royal Collection as early as 1762, but at the time it was attributed to Frans van Mieris, a contemporary of Vermeer. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the name of the artist was correctly identified by Théophile Thoré-Bürger, the art critic who published the first major study of Vermeer’s work, bringing him back into the public eye.
A virginal is a keyboard instrument that was primarily found in affluent households. It was usually the young ladies of the house who would be taught to play the instrument by private tutors. Performances were also often organised, frequently at home. This gave music a social function, offering an opportunity to meet members of the opposite sex. In the 17th century, music was often used as a metaphor for love, and scenes of figures making music were a popular artistic theme for Vermeer’s contemporaries.
The refined decorations on the virginal in this painting suggest that it was made by Andreas Ruckers, a famous instrument manufacturer.
The young lady playing the virginal is the focus of the painting, although we cannot see her clearly. She has her back to us so her face is not visible...
– except for in the blurred reflection in the mirror.
Her hands, playing the virginal, are also out of sight. Her satin jacket would suggest that she is from a privileged background. Jackets like these were usually worn as everyday attire, which corresponds with the domestic setting.
We can see from the man’s open mouth that he is singing. He is probably not the woman’s music teacher: he is carrying a sword, the reserve of the bourgeoisie. It is likely that the man has the same social status as the young lady. Are we witnessing a romantic relationship? In any case, the man is not a stereotypical amorous admirer, nor an experienced seducer. The exact relationship between the man and the woman remains unclear.
Just enough of the painting on the wall is visible to identify it as a depiction of the Caritas Romana: an exemplary story from Ancient Rome of Pero, who saves her father Cimon from starvation by breastfeeding him. This story was seen to symbolise Christian charity, which brought people closer to God.
The inscription on the virginal reads ‘Musica letitiae co[mes] medicina dolor[is]’, which means ‘Music is a companion in pleasure and a balm in sorrow’. When considered together with the message of Christian charity in the painting on the wall, this could indicate that the scene does not necessarily concern amorous love, but rather love in a wider – also religious – sense, and the solace and relief that it can offer. Music contributes by offering pleasure and harmony.
The mirror is slanted towards the virginal. In addition to the face of the young woman, we see part of the table, the table covering and the floor reflected in the mirror. It’s interesting to note that Vermeer has also included the legs of an artist’s easel in the reflection, showing us more of what is behind us. Is this a realistic depiction of how Vermeer worked – sitting at his easel, with his subjects in front of him – or does the easel in fact suggest that what we see has been carefully constructed by the painter?
The illusion of depth and space in this painting is decidedly realistic. This is not only due to the use of perspective – the vanishing point being on the young woman’s left sleeve – but also because Vermeer positioned the figures to the rear of the space. Our gaze is guided towards them by the tiled floor, the table with the covering and white jug, the chair and the double bass. These objects help to clearly define the space between the musicians and the viewer.
Technical examination has revealed that Vermeer used a large amount of ultramarine in this painting. Ultramarine was one of the most expensive blue pigments available in the 17th century. Vermeer has used it not only in the top layer, such as for the chair and the pattern on the rug, but also for the underlayers. The black floor tiles are in fact deep blue, and the shadows on the wall also have a blueish hue. Vermeer’s liberal use of ultramarine suggests that he probably painted this work for a well-to-do patron.
Light and shadow
This work once again demonstrates why Vermeer is known as the ‘Master of Light’. However realistic the incidence of light appears, Vermeer has certainly bent reality to his will. He has used shadow as a compositional element. For example, the shadow lines connect the corners of the windows with the corners of the virginal, bringing the various elements into contact and unifying the composition. The pattern in these windows can also be found in another of Vermeer’s works: Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
This exhibition is part of the Google Vermeer Project.