Vermeer and Music: The Art of Love and Leisure at London's National Gallery

By Ben Miller | 11 July 2013

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

A photo of a painting of a 17th century man and woman at a piano
Johannes Vermeer, The Music Lesson (circa 1662-3)© Royal Collection Trust
In a show where love, sex, the macabre, societal hierarchies in 17th century Holland and wonderful instruments are key themes, it is difficult to know whether to take the work of Johannes Vermeer – placed shortly before the concluding chamber of this show – as a starting point or a high watermark.

There are, for the record, five Vermeers included, varying on a multi-stringed theme: A Young Woman Standing at a Virginal; A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal; Young Woman Seated at a Virginal; The Music Lesson and The Guitar Player, all thought to have been made between 1662 and 1672.

Exquisitely executed, their use of light almost out-beautifies the glorious dresses of the sitters; their sense of poise threatens to tip each musician into action. They easily outshine anything else on display.

Inevitably, their rarefied feel leaves you wanting more. The risk of them cursing the rest of the works will likely depend on the value placed by each viewer on musical and social history.

Vermeer was portraying a time of faster, livelier guitar music than people were used to, bringing with it racy connotations.

Opposite his works, a guitar by Rene Voboam, made out of pine or spruce, tortoiseshell, mother-of-pearl, ivory and ebony in 1641, carries a hallowed aura about it, borrowed from the Ashmolean and set in a case which faces the oil visions of those who once played it.

This is one of several harmonious masterpieces – among them a cittern, also loaned by the Ashmolean, pigmented and gilded from the early 18th century, and a lute, made almost 400 years ago and sparkling in the opening room, from the V&A.

Practitioners of early music will give recitals throughout the show, and the reflections on courtship and collecting during the period, positioning music as a means of transience and spirituality, seem no less interesting and pleasurable than those finely-honed performances.

Music, as Harmen Steenwyck implies in his Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life, could be as much about status as it was about soul: his lute and recorder, strewn over a table next to a socket-baring skull, represent extravagance and expense, a nearby sword handily adding the dual eminent of power in the face of mortality.

Timepieces abound, surfacing again when Jan Jansz sticks a recorder through an hourglass in another outbreak of vanitas.

These are a couple of the notable works taken from the National Gallery’s collection, all of which are worth seeing within an atmospheric, if small, display. But Vermeer surpasses them at a canter in the end.

  • Open 10am-6pm (9pm Friday). Admission £7-£8 (free for under-12s, £3.50 for seniors on Tuesday, 2.30pm-6pm, unlimited return admission £18). Book online. Follow the gallery on Twitter @NationalGallery‎.

More pictures:

A photo of a 17th century painting of a woman playing a small guitar
Johannes Vermeer, The Guitar Player (circa 1672)© On loan from English Heritage, The Iveagh Bequest (Kenwood)
A photo of a painting of a 17th century woman in a shawl playing a piano
Johannes Vermeer, Young Woman Seated at a Virginal (circa 1670-1672)© Private Collection, New York
A photo of a painting of a 17th century woman playing a piano
Johannes Vermeer, A Young Woman standing at a Virginal (circa 1670-1672)© The National Gallery, London
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