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There are five paintings by Vermeer in the National Gallery’s new Vermeer and Music, and any single one justifies a visit. Nonetheless, Vermeer fans – be warned! Three of these five works were shown in Cambridge, at the Fitzwilliam museum’s hugely successful (and free) Vermeer exhibition in 2011-2012. London’s show, drawn entirely from familiar British collections and lacking Cambridge’s star loan, the Louvre’s “The Lacemaker”, cannot but appear a (fee-paying) imitation.
The curator is the same – the National Gallery’s Marjorie Wieseman – and so is the theme: London’s subtitle “The Art of Love and Leisure” is a variant on Cambridge’s “Vermeer’s Women: Secrets and Silence”. Inviting a consideration of Dutch genre, specifically the erotic frisson associated with female players and performers, through the inclusion of works by Pieter de Hooch, Jan Steen and Gerard ter Borch, both shows read Vermeer as an artist who emerged from yet transcended the bourgeois concerns of the Dutch Golden Age.
Musical harmony in Dutch painting is often a metaphor for sexual intimacy. From the concentrated encounter in Gabriel Metsu’s “A Man and a Woman seated by a Virginal” (c1665) to the raucous group focused on a flamboyant cellist indecorously opening her legs wide to hold her instrument in Jan Olis’s “A Musical Party” (1633), busy, energetic pieces by Vermeer’s contemporaries unfold that drama. But Vermeer doesn’t. His work here that comes closest to narrative, the Royal Collection’s opulent “The Music Lesson” (c1662-63), is rather a meditation on musical and painterly construction: an image about image-making.
In an expansive room a woman, seen from the back, plays a muselar virginal to a man at her side. Baroque contrasts and amplifications play out like musical motifs: a frieze of seahorses delicately engraved on the gleaming instrument offsets stark outlines of a picture frame and mirror; black-and-white stone floor tiles contrast with a rich, gold-fringed rug; a pattern of rectangular forms built up around the player enlarges her significance. The scene is repeated in a mirror, as if in a minor key, allowing us to glimpse the woman’s face, and also an easel – Vermeer at work.
Light floods the interior through large panelled windows but Vermeer eliminates the shadows we would expect, and non-naturalistically highlights just one object – a white ceramic pitcher. Similarly daring artifice makes mysterious, and modern-seeming, the scene in a small, simplified painting from New York, “Young Woman seated at a Virginal” (c1670-1672; also seen in Cambridge), where light falls on a few objects – a glimmer along the edge of the music desk; sparkling pearls in the hair and around the neck. But the focus is on an abstraction: the luminous, roughly textured background wall.
In this show’s supreme masterpiece, Kenwood’s “The Guitar Player” (c1672), sunlight filters through a curtain on the right of the canvas to illuminate the young guitarist placed at the extreme left, dramatically cropped at her elbow. Noonday brightness saturates everything: the soft grey-white blur of the ermine trim on the woman’s jacket; the guitar strings, suggested in thin, diffuse lines of paint evoking their vibrations as they are strummed; the fine ochre and lead-tin yellow inlay of the guitar’s sound hole; the simplified calligraphic strokes of a shiny gold picture frame; the guitarist’s fingers, boldly defined by light and shadow.
“The Guitar Player” hangs here between the National Gallery’s own two Vermeers: each depicts an absorbed woman at the virginals, and each features pictures on the wall and landscape paintings adorning the instruments themselves.
Thus Vermeer contextualised his women as capable of trumping nature: in “The Guitar Player”, the shape of the musician’s oval head rhymes with the tree in the painting behind her, while her bobbing ringlets mimic the swaying foliage.
At different levels, this exhibition encourages us to explore artifice, illusionism, painterly and musical seduction. The Academy of Ancient Music performs in the exhibition space every Thursday to Saturday; a showcase of period virginals, guitars, lutes, citterns, inlaid with ivory, ebony, mother-of-pearl, further posits reality against its painted equivalent. And if pictures and decorations beautifying instruments – underlining the impeccable high-art credentials of music-making to a bourgeoisie keen to dissociate itself from street entertainment – always carry social meaning, so do the instruments depicted in pictures. The waiting viol in Gerrit Dou’s densely tactile “A Woman playing a Clavichord” (c1665), for example, evokes the curvaceous female form: does the player’s enticing glance suggest that she, as well as the instrument, invites touching and playing?
There is much to enjoy here, though I am not convinced all of it creates the ideal mise-en-scène for Vermeer. About a third of his 36 known canvases feature music. Yet here is the paradox: it is for his stillness, the strange gravity of the quotidian scene held silently suspended in time, that we value his crystalline, rare paintings in our fast-paced century of all-over visual noise.
‘Vermeer and Music: The Art of Love and Leisure’, National Gallery, London, June 26-September 8 www.nationalgallery.org.uk