Vermeer and Music (2013)

Vermeer: The Music Lesson

The Art of Love and Leisure

(National Gallery, London, until 8 September 2013)

In Dutch art of the 17th century, music can have many different meanings. Performed by a family group sitting for their portrait, it might represent cultivation and refinement; or in one of the more restrained genre settings it might indicate an allegory of temperance and moderation. But these acceptable, admirable meanings could easily be subverted, for music had other meanings too. It could allude to inappropriate intimacies; it offered a rare opportunity for young men and women to be together unchaperoned; and of course music-making was an enduring symbol of lewd and loose behaviour.

When we see a woman playing a musical instrument with a couple of cavaliers listening to her, should we understand this as a celebration of domestic harmony, or as the first step on a slippery road to debauchery? It isn’t always obvious when we’re looking at a respectable home and when we’re looking at somewhere of a more… commercial nature. That’s part of the joy of these paintings. Music’s meaning is fluid, and a scene that seems to be innocent on its surface can reverberate with hidden messages. The National Gallery’s summer show gathers a selection of pictures from the Golden Age of Dutch genre painting, inviting us to judge for ourselves.

As critics have pointed out, all but four of the paintings in the show are part of the permanent collection, which you can normally see without paying for an exhibition ticket. What is unusual, however, is to see these paintings on a common theme brought together in one place, which encourages you to look at them from a different perspective; and, to be honest, I’m not sure how many are usually on view, because there were some striking pieces I didn’t recognise at all. Four works have been lent from elsewhere, including the most dazzling Vermeer in the show, the Royal Collection’s Music Lesson. The other loans are Vermeer’s Guitar Player from Kenwood House; a rather unappealing Lady at a Virginal from a New York private collection; and Gerrit Dou’s Woman Playing a Clavichord from Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Dou: A lady at a clavichord

Gerrit Dou, A woman at a clavichord, Dulwich Picture Gallery (detail)

However, this show isn’t just about pictures, and the most remarkable loans are the original musical instruments, whose exquisite craftsmanship can take the breath away. Consider, for example, the splendid eleven-course lute from the Victoria & Albert Museum, whose swelling back is covered with a veneer of ivory and whose neck is patterned with inlaid arabesques of ebony. Or the staggeringly intricate fretwork within the soundhole of the slimline guitar from the 1640s, or the early 18th-century cittern, both lent by the Ashmolean Museum. Or the muselar virginal (the very fact I can casually use the word ‘muselar’ shows that I’ve learned something), which features painted mottoes almost identical to those of the instruments in Vermeer’s paintings.

Highlights for me included A Man and Woman Seated by a Virginal (circa 1665) by Gabriel Metsu, in which the crisp, clear light was coupled with a beautifully harmonious composition. The absorbed figures are painted with the same delicacy as the tall, slender glass held by the man – tipping slightly, as if he’s distracted – or the pottery jug on the floor in the foreground. Then there was Carel Fabritius’s 1652 View of Delft, with its extraordinary elongated format and odd perspective, which might have been intended to be viewed with a special kind of optical instrument called a ‘perspective box’, presumably a device fitted with lenses which brought the painting back into the correct perspective. Here the contemplative figure in the foreground – perhaps a musician, or an instrument-maker – seems lost in a faint melancholy, which ties in with yet another of music’s allegorical functions: a reminder of the transience of earthly life (hence all those gorgeously-painted instruments in memento mori still lives, such as Jan Jancsz. Treck’s virtuoso Vanitas Still Life).

A couple of pictures had light effects which particularly struck me, even if the overall image wasn’t especially gripping. I particularly loved the sunset glimpsed above and through the garden gate in Pieter de Hooch’s Music Party in a Courtyard, where a young boy stands silhouetted against the sunlit facades of the canal houses opposite. The rest of the picture has quite a muted light, which means that this little detail simply leapt off the canvas. Ironically, the most memorable things for me were not the Vermeers, although they are of course beautiful: along with Hammershøi, Vermeer is the artist best able to conjure a sense of elegant serenity. Looking at his paintings is immensely relaxing. But most of his pictures are so familiar to me that I couldn’t help being distracted by the less famous works by his contemporaries that made up the rest of the exhibition.

Fabritius: View of Delft

Carel Fabritius, View of Delft (detail)

The catalogue is considerably smaller than most NG exhibition catalogues (and also cheaper, at £9.99) and includes an introductory essay on music in painting, and an appendix listing the different types of musical instruments used in the period. The entries on each picture are lucid, but don’t go much beyond the text on the labels, which meant that there isn’t any discussion of attribution. I felt this would have been particularly helpful in the case of the Young Woman at a Virginal from the private collection, which struck me as rather weak and something that was highly likely to have prompted at least a little debate. Neither the label nor the catalogue mentions any dissent, and it took a visit to Wikipedia to find out that it was at one point considered as a potential forgery by the notorious Han van Meegeren and, even since technical examination confirmed its authenticity in 1993, it’s still thought to have been reworked after Vermeer’s death. That explains those distractingly loose, blockish applications of colour. The face isn’t great but, to be honest, nor are those of the women in Vermeer’s most dazzling musical paintings. Speaking of technical examination, I was a little disappointed that the catalogue didn’t reproduce the interesting information from the final section of the exhibition, looking at pigment analysis to explain more about Vermeer’s working process.

This is a very elegant, calm little show which invites you to look at familiar motifs in a different way, and to question what it means when you see someone playing a musical instrument. Are they showing off how refined they are, or are they trying to catch your eye and lure you in? The answers, it seems, are never quite as straightforward as I’d assumed. We were lucky enough to be there at the time of one of the free concerts, performed on period instruments, and so as we wandered through the galleries, savouring the cool watery light of Vermeer’s canalside houses, the distant music of lute and viol hung in the air. Had I had a few hundred pound spare, I could have bought a lute of my own in the gift shop (there’s one displayed in a glass case), but despite my aesthetic appreciation of its form, it sadly wasn’t to be. Besides, if I’d bought it I would then have had to buy one of those fur-trimmed satin house-jackets; and a Turkey carpet to drape over my table to create the proper ambience; and who knows where that might end…?

Buy the catalogue

Metsu: A man and woman at a virginal

Gabriel Metsu, A man and woman at a virginal, National Gallery (detail)

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