A Young Woman seated at a Virginal A Young Woman seated at a Virginal by Johannes VermeerThe National Gallery, London
In a relatively dark corner of a room a young woman seated at a virginal is looking directly at the viewer.
Light falls from a hidden source behind the tapestry framing the upper left of the painting.
The woman’s costly instrument is decorated with painted marbling...
... and an idyllic landscape on the inside of the virginal’s lid.
A viola da gamba with the bow placed in between the strings rests on the floor in the left foreground.
The painting in the background, a version of The Procuress by Dirck van Baburen (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), shows a scene of prostitution and may provide additional meaning to the scene’s more general association between music and love.
On stylistic grounds the painting can be dated to Vermeer’s later years. It has been suggested that this painting originally formed a pair with the Young Woman standing at the Virginal (also in the National Gallery, London). Although both paintings were painted on a canvas from the same bolt of cloth, their provenances before the 19th century differ. It is just as likely that the artist simply explored variations on a theme. Both paintings were in the collection of the art critic Thoré-Bürger, who was instrumental in the rediscovery of Vermeer in the 1860s.
Window and curtain
The dark window and the dimly lit room suggest this is either a night-time scene or a room darkened by closing the shutters.
Warm light originating from a hidden source behind the curtain...
... illuminates the viola da gamba in the foreground...
... the front edge of the virginal...
... the woman’s face and upper body...
... and part of the painting in the background;
thereby connecting these elements thematically.
In contrast to the dimly lit room, the woman’s face is brilliantly illuminated.
She is addressing the viewer with an enticing gaze...
... and a faint smile; a tiny dap of white paint focusing the attention on her full lips.
Vermeer has framed the woman’s face with scintillating light effects on the pearl necklace around her neck...
and on her glossy ringlets that appear almost as if they were jewellery too.
The inclusion of a version of Dirck van Baburen’s The Procuress (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) in the background has let to the interpretation of the promiscuous character of the young woman playing the virginal.
Vermeer’s mother-in-law, Maria Thins, owned a painting by Dirck van Baburen depicting that same subject. A similar painting also hangs in the background of another work by Vermeer (The Concert, formerly Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston).
The painted landscape on the inside of the virginal’s lid has been identified as a work by the Delft landscape painter Pieter Jansz. van Asch. Vermeer used the same composition in modified form in another painting (The Guitar Player, Kenwood House, London) and it might have been in his household, although only one of the 54 paintings in the inventory of the painter’s possessions was specifically identified as a landscape.
The traditional relationship between harmonious music and idyllic landscape is reflected in the frequent use of landscape paintings for the decoration of instruments.
17th-century keyboard instruments were typically constructed without attached legs, and were either placed on a table top or put on a dedicated stand, which could vary in height according to the owner’s wishes.
Curiously no musical instrument was listed in the inventory of Vermeer’s possessions drawn up shortly after the artist’s death.
The seated woman seems more active than the Young Woman standing at a Virginal (also in the National Gallery, London)...
... and the position of her hands...
... her dynamic posture...
... and the sheet of music propped up in front of her suggest that she is fully engaged in her performance.
Viola da gamba
The unattended instrument in the foreground can be understood as an invitation to the viewer to join the woman in a duet.
The viola da gamba played a significant role in Baroque music because it provided the basso continuo that was key to the harmonic structure of a piece. In this way the painting could be read as a metaphor for harmonious love.
Furthermore, the painting can be related to a popular emblem from 1618 by Jacob Cats titled ‘Quid Non Sentit Amor’. The man in the emblem’s picture plays his lute while a second instrument is left unused. The accompanying text explains that the resonance of one instrument resonates onto the other just as two hearts can exist in harmony even if they are separated.
The painter placed his signature ‘IVMeer’ (with IVM in ligature) in a prominent place on the wall next to the woman’s head. The signature disrupts the illusion of the realistically painted interior and reminds the viewer of its creator.
Created in collaboration with the National Gallery
This exhibition is part of the Google Vermeer Project.