Vermeer and Music – The Art of Love and Leisure at the National Gallery in London

By Culture24 Reporter | 25 June 2013

Exhibition preview: Vermeer and Music – The Art of Love and Leisure, National Gallery, London, until September 8 2013

An image of a 17th century painting of a man playing a guitar
Hendrick ter Brugghen, A Man playing a Lute (1624)© The National Gallery, London
If the Netherlands is a country often noted for its liberal traditions, its musicians in the 17th century could have been among the earliest free spirits.

Where most European nations had rulers and churches affording powerful patronage to players, Holland was a democratic republic without the twang of instruments in its places of worship or courts.

Musicians and composers were, according to Betsy Wieseman, the National Gallery’s Curator of Dutch paintings, forced to “work off their own bat”, creating a “much more bourgeois” kind of art.

“People got together to make music,” says Wieseman.

“They didn’t get together to go to a film or watch football. Music was really a predominant social activity.

“Concerts meant playing music together, not sitting in a hall and applauding politely again. Career musicians were really seen as something a bit outside the norm.”

Cradling an 11-string lute and robed in exotic clothing, Hendrick ter Brugghen’s 1624 painting features one bohemian example.

“He’s wearing this wonderful floppy velvet beret with exotic feathers drooping off to the side and these billowing garments which have absolutely nothing to do with contemporary fashion.

“They wanted to distinguish themselves from the norms of society. I think they said, ‘if you don’t think we’re good enough to be part of accepted society, we’re just going to go with that and take it as far as we can.’

“I love paintings like ter Brugghen’s because of the vivacity in these scenes of musicians.”

The National Gallery’s show contains elaborately decorated guitars from Paris, an early viol and a lute from Venice, loaned from the V&A. But beyond the decadent craftsmanship, their users often tell us more about love and eroticism almost 400 years ago – the curvaceous shape of the violin was compared to the female anatomy, with fruity insinuations extending to suggestions of prostitutes and their clients being entertained by musicians in one work (“there is no firm answer, so I’ll leave it ambiguous,” says Wieseman).

The third room, Intimate Duets, is a tightly-packed chamber of little works full of romantic charm. “Music was one of the few activities where it was permitted for unmarried young men and women to get together without a chaperone,” explains the curator.

“I think the idea was that if you were busy reading or singing music you weren’t busy doing something else. It was a perfectly ok way to have a sedate courtship.

“We know that music is a symbol for harmony among friends and family members. But most often it’s used as a symbol for harmony between a man and a woman.

“It’s the theme that runs most consistently through this exhibition.”

Gerard ter Borch’s scene, A Woman Playing a Lute to Two Men, features a lavishly dressed musician giving a sophisticated recital to a pair of admirers, one of whom may or may not be her suitor.

“Dutch songbooks were designed to be small,” adds Wieseman.

“One of the publishers even said, ‘I’ve made this book nice and small so that, if necessary, you can hide it quickly from your parents.’

“They were gifts from lovers to sweethearts, with love songs about pleasant places to go on a summer afternoon.

“Some were quite racy, others were more sedate – but they were beautiful tokens of affection and musical culture, with that slightly elicit, secretive feel.”

The opening section, Music as Attribute and Allegory, symbolises music on what could be considered more highbrow terms.

“Music could be a symbol of the senses,” Wieseman says of Vanitas Still Life, by Jan Jansz, in which a recorder sticks through an hourglass and a shell carries liquid destined to be blown in soap bubbles.

“Right away you know this is a symbol of transience, vanitas, ephemerality.

“We know from time immemorial that man’s life is as fragile and delicate as a soap bubble.” Immortality is the privilege of the compositions and instruments they leave behind.


More pictures:

An image of an ancient multi-stringed lute
Anon, Lute (circa 163). Victoria and Albert Museum, London© The Art Archive / Victoria and Albert Museum, London / V&A Images
An image of a painting of a 17th century woman in elegant dress playing a guitar
Johannes Vermeer, The Guitar Player (circa 1672). On loan from English Heritage, The Iveagh Bequest (Kenwood)© English Heritage
An image of a painting of a woman sitting at a piano during the 17th century
Jan Steen, A Young Woman playing a Harpsichord to a Young Man (probably 1659)© The National Gallery, London
An image of an oil painting of people in a courtroom during the 17th century
Pieter de Hooch, A Musical Party in a Courtyard (1677)© The National Gallery, London
An image of a black and mottled paper 17th century newspaper
Michiel Vlacq, Den nieuwen verbeterden Lust-Hof (The New Improved Pleasure-Garden) (1607). Title page and interior page from songbook. The British Library© By Permission of The British Library, London
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