Saturday, June 8, 2013

Vermeer and Music: The Art of Love and Leisure

Vermeer and Music: The Art of Love and Leisure
Of the thirty four (or so, depending on questions of attribution) known paintings by the remarkable Dutch master Johannes Vermeer, three are currently in London’s National Gallery.

Two are in the permanent collection: A Young Woman standing at a Virginal (a virginal is a type of harpsichord) and A Young Woman seated at a Virginal.

The third, The Guitar Player is on extended loan from Kenwood House.

The latter is, I think, extraordinary, even for Vermeer, and is unusual in its composition, with light coming from a window at right, rather than left as was Vermeer’s custom, and an oddly off center composition. I was also struck, as I sometimes am when looking at Vermeer’s work in person or in high resolution, as how painterly some of the details are (images above, top with three detail crops)

All three paintings deal with music, a popular subject in Dutch painting of the era, and the national Gallery has made them the centerpiece of an exhibition titled Vermeer and Music: The Art of Love and Leisure, supplemented with other related paintings as well as physical examples of period instruments and scheduled live performances.

The links I’ve given above are to the versions on the National Gallery site that can be zoomed fullscreen (use controls to the right of the images).

The color of the two in the NGA permanent collection seem a bit dark in reproduction on the website, but I don’t have the luxury of crossing the Atlantic to make the comparison. You may want to supplement your browsing with a visit to my favorite site for all things Vermeer, Jonathan Jansen’s Essential Vermeer, when you can find a complete catalog of Vermeer’s paintings.

The exhibition runs from 26 June to 8 September 2013.

10 thoughts on “Vermeer and Music: The Art of Love and Leisure

  1. Susanne E.

    Thanks for posting these paintings, they brought joy to my day! Not sure what you mean by painterly? From the paintings I have seen (including these in the National Gallery) it seems certain that Vermeer was a very methodical painter. However what surprised me when I first saw the originals is that I saw hardly any blending of colors, but deliberate, separate strokes and shapes in carefully calculated tones. In many places he doesn’t really paint form, but rather a simplified pattern, but this pattern is so subtle, and so skillfully fused together in soft edges, that it creates a breathtaking illusion of light and space and calm.

    In the National Gallery I was really captivated by the calm presence of the Woman Standing at the Virginal, I could feel the stillness of the room with maybe a of the interrupted piece of music still note floating about and the light streaming in through the window. I also loved the delightful small details like the shiny locks of hair (on the woman sitting) or the lace and ribbons on the dresses, yes these details are painterly and so uniquely Vermeer.

    One unexpected example for painterlyness I found on “The art of Painting” in Vienna: on the chandelier, the paint is incredibly thick; it reminded me of a Turner painting where the sun stood on the canvas like a thick coin, and that’s how thick the paint is on Vermeer’s chandelier. Never expected that, because all his paintings seem so delicate!

  2. Charley Parker Post author

    Thanks for the comment, Susanne, and your personal take on seeing the paintings in person.

    Your description, “…deliberate, separate strokes and shapes in carefully calculated tones…” is pretty much what I mean by “painterly”, as opposed to areas that are smoothly blended to remove visible brushmarks.

  3. Mark

    Even though I would have named Vermeer one of my most beloved painters as a teen it wasn’t until years later (having finally studied oil painting a small bit) that I discovered how wonderfully he actually did work. I’ll admit that internet zoom images helped greatly!

    I was into spray can/graffiti art as teen and like a Vermeer…there is a noticeable lack of blending in the work in general. A good general rule was to use a 3 tone/value scheme that would register convincingly from 12′ or more from work…and I see it all too clear in a Vermeer (the folds on the gowns I am particularly smitten with). All the gradation in the world isn’t going to register from casual viewing distance and a Vermeer was crafted to be viewed.

    On another front, it kind of brings to mind what D. Leffel wrote about noting being more abstract in painting than realism (I am really butchering here) He states that in abstract paintings a splotch of paint or daub is simply that…in a Vermeer an few daubs of paint are the highlights on a gilded picture frame etc. How darn near geometric paint patterns become the random folds in gowns. Some awesome painters have spoken on how the physical act of placing paint on a surface is easy…the where and when of the placing is that which is difficult. This has to be true!

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