The National Gallery show unusually combines art and music by putting together Vermeer and his contemporaries’ work, which include paintings of music instruments, alongside real-life musical instruments. The latter are either on display or used in musical performances at the exhibition.
Musical instruments often represent the transience of life as music was ephemeral before the recording era, which is why they are often depicted in vanitas paintings – a 17th century still-life genre that represents the fragility of human life and the inexorable passing of time. Musical instruments in a vanitas painting symbolise the transitory joy of music.
I love Dutch genre scenes and still life paintings and am always amazed by the detail of execution, such as the window reflection on the glass or the depiction of white silk. In Dutch art, there is also a lot more depth in the gaze, smile and facial expressions – a good example is Steen, who is as much a storyteller as a painter.
Only 36 paintings by Vermeer have been identified to date and the National Gallery is showing five of them. Two from its permanent collection, one loaned from Kenwood House, one loaned from the Royal collection, Buckingham Palace, and the last one – which I hadn’t seen before – from a private collection. The National Gallery chose to put three of the five on the same wall in a line: ‘A Young Woman standing at a Virginal’, ‘A Young Woman seated at a Virginal’, with Vermeer’s ‘Guitar Player’. Looking at the five Vermeer on show, I felt the work of his late period (the three paintings shown together) was less detailed than his earlier ‘Music Lesson’ which was also on show. I also noticed that ‘A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal’ was represented in a dark environment – unusual when light is so important in most of Vermeer works. Like Steen, Vermeer uses his story-telling skills in the ‘Guitar Player’.
Away from the ephemeral joys of music, the exhibition made me wonder what makes Vermeer stands out from other Dutch artists. What do we appreciate in his work and what distinguishes him from his contemporaries apart from his rarity? My immediate response would be his depiction of light and atmosphere. In Vermeer’s ‘The Milkmaid’ (not on show at the National Gallery but at the Rijskmuseum in Amsterdam), the light reflects on the bread, the back of the room, and the milkmaid’s forehead. Having said that, I don’t believe that Vermeer is better than De Hooch or Gabriel Metsu, whose ‘A man and a woman seated by a virginal’ is remarkable.
I think the National Gallery has put on a good exhibition around its two Vermeer paintings and that which belongs to Kenwood House, and the technique room is an interesting initiative. The music theme was probably inspired by looking at the three paintings together. This year was a good opportunity to mount an exhibition as Kenwood House (in Hampstead) started renovation works in 2012 and lent 50 works to US museums, while Vermeer’s ‘Guitar Player’ was too fragile to travel and stayed in London with the National Gallery. The show is a must for Dutch art lovers; for those expecting a blockbuster exhibition of Vermeer, don’t be too disappointed, there are only 35 or so paintings of his in the world.