Vermeer and Music: The Art of Love and Leisure

The National Gallery

26 June 2013 – 8 September 2013

The quietly resplendent and instructive exhibition at the National Gallery, Vermeer and Music, subtitled The Art of Love and Leisure, is not only beau- tiful and intriguing in itself but prompts some reflections on the long inter- twining of art and music in western painting.

Nicholas Poussin’s enchanting painting A Dance to the Music of Time (c. 1638) is one of the glories of the Wallace Collection and one of the most resonant images of Western art. It is a pagan allegory: in the blue but cloud- filled sky an array of gorgeous women fly through the air, their robes flut- tering in the wind. They are the Hours, accompanying Apollo’s chariot of the Sun. Aurora, the dawn, flies before him. On earth, a naked bewinged old man plucks a lyre, accompanying the rhythms of life: he is Time. A small child by his side holds an hourglass. On the other side, another plump cherub blows bubbles and in the centre, figures dance, representing the cycles of life, from Poverty to Industry, to Wealth, and even Lust. Good and bad are intertwined. The painting is relatively small, although the land- scape is vast, an echo of the Roman campagna. And of course the painting’s title was borrowed by Anthony Powell for his great meditation on English life – the English equivalent of Proust, perhaps, spare, austere – in twelve volumes. The unheard music – and we cannot quite imagine what ancient music might have sounded like – is essential to the composition.

Music has often been seen as the gift of the gods, and at times the gods fall prey to jealousy of gifted earthlings: the satyr Marsyas became such a virtuoso at playing the pipes that his playing bested that of the god Apollo. Apollo promptly flays him alive, prompting as a subject one of Titian’s greatest paintings, The Flaying of Marsyas (1570-1575).

Johannes Vermeer (1632 – 1675) The Music Lesson, about 1662-3 Oil on canvas
73.3 x 64.5 cm
Johannes Vermeer (1632 – 1675) The Guitar Player, about 1672 Oil on canvas
53 x 46.3 cm












In antiquity, the music of the spheres referred to proportions and move- ments among the observed heavenly bodies, the moon, planets and stars; in Christian iconography angels play celestial harps.

Much further back of course, as far as is known, singing certainly and mu- sic of some kind – some of the earliest known artefacts are musical instru- ments – has accompanied human history for millennia. It was announced in 2012 that flutes made from bird bone and mammoth ivory, discovered in a cave in southern Germany, have been carbon dated to 42-43,000 years ago.

In the very short period comparatively speaking, that we chart the evolu- tion of Western art, over the past several millennia, music has indeed been a consistent theme, even though the image is silent. Art is a frozen moment: it is the one art form in which the spectator chooses the time, for in perfor- mance the time is imposed on the audience.

And of course music is itself often used as metaphor and allegory, as in that oft-quoted phrase from Orsino’s lament in Twelfth Night, ‘If music be the food of love, play on.’ It may also be arguable that in so-called abstract art, music is a vital component. In the 20th century visible rhythms have been crucial to many artists, from Wassily Kandinsky to Paul Klee. Kand- insky famously had synaesthesia, the capacity to see sound and hear colour, and he used this ability to formulate what many art historians assume are chronologically the first abstract paintings in western art. He often called his paintings Impressions, Improvisations, and so on. As Kandinsky him- self phrased it: Colour is the keyboard. The eye is the hammer. The soul is the piano with its many strings.

Paul Klee was so gifted a musician himself that he could easily have be- come professional, and many an academic has written about Klee’s art in relation to music. Even earlier Whistler, a gifted pianist himself – as was his near contemporary John Singer Sargent – called his portraits and land- scapes Nocturnes, Symphonies and so on. A significant number of artists have themselves been fine musicians: Ingres of course was a superb violin- ist, and the bodies of guitars and violins provided irresistible subject matter for the cubists, whilst Braque’s studio had a wall of stringed instruments. Nor has the audience been forgotten: there are scores of paintings by the Impressionists and others of audiences at the opera, and eighteenth-century fêtes galantes are replete with music making.

Perhaps nowhere, though, has music making so thoroughly permeated a society as in seventeenth-century Holland, free now of the Habsburgs, a republic with a growing and affluent middle-class. Curiously the profes- sional musician was not held in high esteem, although music featured in the homes of the affluent, mostly played by women. Men did not want to be identified as having the time and inclination to be serious musicians, although many of the paintings show what might be dalliance between the music master or the male listener and the female player.

The National Gallery exhibition itself is very specific, reflecting not only on Vermeer’s depictions of beautiful young women playing various musi- cal instruments, or having a music lesson – or perhaps a lesson of quite another sort – but on the whole place of music in seventeenth-century Hol- land: a skilled pursuit of the newly leisured and cultured middle class, but also in many an activity with erotic and symbolic meanings. The subtle and not so subtle resemblance of several stringed instruments to a woman’s body; the meaning of music as a ephemeral, impermanent art, no sooner heard than finished, and therefore an apt reflection of the transitory nature of life itself; the vivid emotions that music reflects and communicates: all these varied possibilities are hinted at, and even made explicit. The Dutch Golden Age indeed played with music: it could be a solitary pursuit, the player practising; it could be a vividly social celebration, and even part of a boisterous occasion, bordering on the bawdy. A musical gathering of two could speak of love and intimacy, a bigger group of friendship, of bonding. Drawing on Dutch artists, major and minor, of the period a vast spectrum of music in society is shown. The paintings are almost all from the National Gallery’s own collection, but this special and particular display allows us to see them literally and metaphorically in a new light. On view too is a fine

selection of the instruments of the period, from viol to lute, guitar, cittern and virginal: elaborately decorated, beautifully crafted, objects of art in their own right.

Pride of place goes to five Vermeers, and among them pride of place goes to British Royal Collection’s The Music Lesson. There is a viola da gamba resting on the patterned tiled floor; at the end of the room, a young woman with her back towards us, her bodice a sumptuous yellow – a colour Ver- meer was attached to in portraying women’s clothes – her skirt a vibrant red, her face reflected in a mirror above the virginal at whose keyboard she stands. Light pours in from a set of windows; in profile a man, youngish but authoritative, stands next to the musical instrument. A teacher? A relative? A lover? His mouth is slightly open – is he singing to an accompaniment? Above the virginal a mirror reflects not only the young woman’s face, but also a glimpse of an artist’s easel, hinting at the presence of Vermeer him- self. The Latin inscription on the virginal’s lid means ‘Music is a compan- ion in pleasure and a balm in sorrow’. An Oriental rug tossed over a table reminds us of the middle class seventeenth-century wealth represented in this interior, a glittering golden edge of a dish and a beautifully sensu- ous white jug rest on top of the table. Here is an arrested moment which not only captures a marvellous ambiguity in human relations, but also our complex and profoundly rewarding relationship with music, represented silently but resoundingly in art.

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