A young woman sits at a window, tuning a lute. With her ear cocked toward the pegbox, she strums the instrument while fixing her gaze on the window and the street beyond.
The light falling into the room through the panes of leaded glass picks out the glint of pearls at the woman’s ear and throat...
...as well as the polished brass studs in the chair beside her.
Songbooks lie strewn on the table at which she sits.
Another book has tumbled to the marble floor, where it lies next to a viola da gamba.
At the rear of the room, a hand-colored map of Europe hangs against the otherwise bare white wall.
Someone has pushed a chair with heavy carved finials away from the table.
This picture occupies a midpoint in Vermeer’s evolution as he mastered, step by step, the convincing depiction of architectural space. In his earliest paintings devoted to biblical or mythological subjects, bulky figures jostle against the picture plane, the ground on which they stand appearing to tilt up toward the viewer.
In the genre scenes that followed, Vermeer developed compositions based around the half-length figure, anchored in space by a table that juts out of the lower left-hand corner. In "Young Woman with a Lute," the perspectival recession of chair and table offers a bridge into the painting, initiating the eye's strong diagonal movement across the canvas.
Taking in the picture at a glance, we focus on the musician herself as the radiant fulcrum between the chair and the map.
As in so many of Vermeer’s paintings, illumination here takes the form of a window on the left that suffuses the middle ground in soft light while leaving the foreground in relative darkness. With few means of artificial illumination at their disposal, 17th-century painters manipulated windows and shutters to control the fall of light in their studios.
In the narrow row houses so typical of Dutch cities both in the 17th century and today, it was the voorhuis, or street-facing room, that enjoyed the best light. Poet and art historian Martha Hollander has defined the voorhuis as "simultaneously public and private; it was a gateway to the deeper interior, the upstairs rooms, and the street." Vermeer's lute player, like most of his women, occupies this liminal space.
The artist heightened this liminality by focusing the lutenist’s gaze and the torsion of her body outward, toward the window and the street. The act of tuning her instrument...
...and the viola da gamba on the floor...
... have suggested to most commentators that this young woman anticipates a duet.
But the scattered songbooks and nonchalant abandonment of the man’s instrument could equally suggest an encounter already completed.
The woman may have her eyes on the back of a departing suitor, as her fingers restore the harmony that a recent performance has brought out of tune.
Young Woman with a Lute by Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, Delft)The Metropolitan Museum of Art
This exhibition is part of the Google Vermeer Project.