There was recently an exhibition on at the National Gallery called "Vermeer and Music: The Art of Love and Leisure" connecting the role of music in romantic relationships of the time to how musical instruments and musicians were placed in some of Vermeer's work. This combined two of my favourite things music and art, and with live music playing by the Academy of Ancient Music you could hardly tear me away from the exhibition. Music was an integral part of leisure time for the wealth, it was a sign of prestige and good breeding to be able to play several instruments. As a young lady, it was one of the few times you could be alone with a man and create music together. The placements of the players and instruments in the paintings are integral to understanding the undercurrents of the relationships between the participants. Added to this, to be able to hear music of the day added another layer of understanding and enjoyment to the viewing of the paintings.
In the above painting, "Young Woman Seated at a Virginal", she looks at the viewer in askance to join in her music this conclusion is aided by the Viola da Gamba (3) a symbolically masculine instrument as opposed to the virginal, associated with the female. It is unattended and at a difficult angle to paint, creating interaction and invitation with the viewer, something that Vermeer often does in his paintings with this instrument. This affair, between the lady and the viewer is interpreted as a pure form of love which is aided by the juxtaposition of the painting behind the lady, "The Procuress" (2), where a prostitute solicits her clients with her lute playing. Contrasting their profane love to the virginal often seen as a symbol for harmony and pure love. While the viola da gamba and the marbled virginal show exquisite detail, it is in the lady's hands (1) where Vermeer is far ahead of his time. He seems not to care for the careful detail of the fingers and hands as other artists of his time, but rather for the play of light and dark and how these wedges of colours come together to form the hand, he shows purely what is visible rather than the detail that would be impossible if this was a photograph. This almost photographic focus on the foreground and the blurred background has been speculated to show Vermeer's use of the camera obscura, or the precursor to the modern camera.
In "The Guitar Player" we again see this fascination with light and shadow, which to his contemporaries seemed unrefined, but fascinated early photographers. You can see in the hands of the guitar player (2), that flat patches of colour magically seem to come together to form the light playing on her fingers as they move on the neck of the guitar. The same is true of the pearls (1) where a band of grey followed by white highlights create the texture of the translucent pearls. The individual pearls are not painted in great detail but it is the two techniques that form their spherical and reflective nature. She looks outside the frame of the painting to another player? Listener? Creating intimacy and forms a relationship between the girl and the viewer. With her other hand (3) you can practically hear the echo of the guitar as Vermeer painted the strings in mid-vibration.
In the exhibition real instruments and music were shown alongside the paintings. There was even an eerily similar guitar to the one in "The Guitar Player" and this along side the music that played every hour the paintings seemed to come alive again with the echos of the love songs played in 17th century Delft.
Below you can hear some clips from the music performed by the Academy of Ancient Music at the National Gallery (video). Or check out the podcast.
2.National Gallery: http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/whats-on/exhibitions/vermeer-and-music
3. The Academy of Ancient Music:http://www.aam.co.uk/#/