Vermeer and Music: The Art of Love and Leisure – National Gallery

We were let out of the office early on Friday afternoon, so I took the opportunity to visit the latest exhibition at the National Gallery, Vermeer and Music: The Art of Love and Leisure. I don’t know much about Vermeer apart from ‘Girl With A Pearl Earring’, so I was looking forward to this.

The relatively small exhibition explored the role of music in the seventeenth-century Netherlands. In the art of the time, music often represented harmony, temperance and moderation, as well as transience – still lives showed how death meant the stilling of music. Gatherings of families and friends often revolved around music – but so did entertainment at establishments such as brothels. Some of the pictures on display deliver ambiguous meanings, for instance by using close-ups of musicians to explore emotions. In a restricted society, making music was one way in which young courting couples could spend time together and explore their emotions.

Paintings weren’t the only things on display: there was also a selection of early printed music books, which were often shared by lovers and carried around in secret. Several instruments of the kind seen in the pictures were also on show, some of which were quite different to modern instruments. For example, there was a lute, a clavischord and a virginial. Some of these instruments were seen as particularly suitable for women, while others were seen as rather dubious, often because of the positions a player needed to adopt while making music.

The highlight of the exhibition was the room in which three of Vermeer’s paintings – A Young Woman standing at a Virginal, A Young Woman seated at a Virginal (from the National Gallery) and Guitar Player (on loan from Kenwood House) – were displayed alongside each other, exploring the role of music in different ways. My favourite painting, though, was The Music Lesson, in which a young woman and her music tutor share a supposedly innocent music-making experience – until you see the reflection in the mirror and notice their positions and the expressions in their faces.

The last section of the exhibition looked at Vermeer’s use of colour in his work, including his unprecedented use of expensive ultramarine and decision to use green earth when painting skin tones. This was an interesting way to round off the exhibition.

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