= The Crawford Arts Review: Unveiling more of the truth behind Vermeer's painting of the Dutchwomen of his Time

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Unveiling more of the truth behind Vermeer's painting of the Dutchwomen of his Time

These 17th century Dutch paintings have lent light to the world from the moment the paint dried some 450 years ago. The earliest Vermeer on show (The Music Lesson - see the post below), dates from c. 1662-3. There is inner light too. The faces of the figures glow with emotion – the joy or sadness evoked by the music they are making, the music they invite us to share. One visit will not be enough. Nor should it be. At a standard price of £7, three visits will cost you £21. On your first visit, I would advise, buy the catalogue (£9.99). Read it; look at the paintings in detail. In actual fact the beautifully printed images show even more detail than the paintings themselves because these paintings are glazed. There are two reasons for this. One is that the paintings are too precious to risk security issues. But the second is actually a plus: the glass allows visitors to get closer to them; the alternative would have been tensioned safety wires. The catalogue gives details and pictures of the musical instruments displayed as well as the sheet music and printed songbooks of the time. 

Before your next visit, click on the link to the gallery’s Scientific Department’s  work on deciphering these paintings chemically and physically. It will remind you that to achieve these effects Vermeer and his contemporaries used nothing but coloured pigments mixed with linseed oil on a 2D plain woven linen fabric known as a canvas. In the view of the Scientific Department, the brushes Vermeer used weren’t even up to very much: worn or of poor quality.
Johannes Vermeer is very much the star of this show, but it’s an exhibition that also includes the work of many of his contemporaries. The theme is music and music has, after all, been the joy and solace of man since time began. 

I do have some misgivings about how the exhibition has been presented, as in marketed, however. Allow me to share them with you. The exhibition is true to its title, ‘Vermeer and Music’, but the bit that reads ‘The Art of Love and Leisure’ has, in my view, been overemphasized. Leisure is not much associated with the practical and hard-working Dutch. Perhaps this is especially true of the 17th century, their ‘golden age’, when they were sailing the world, fighting wars, and building their superb (and defensive) canal system. 

It’s as if the writer of the captions, perhaps subject to some persuasion, perhaps not, had taken a look at the tavern scenes (Vermeer himself became a taverner), the brothel scene Vermeer himself painted in 1656 (The Procuress – now in Dresden – and shown in the catalogue) and decided to treat all the paintings alike. The subjects are often women alone at their keyboard instruments, playing lutes or guitars, having music lessons, writing music or playing in ensembles at home or during visits to friends. Music was a legitimate pursuit of men and women. The men, however, also had expeditions or places of business to attend to. Apart from supervision of the household and nursery, women had little to occupy them. They resorted to music much as women in past ages resorted to spinning or needlework.

Yet, going round this exhibition, in caption after caption, the suggestion is that in almost every case, something untoward and probably salacious is going on. Is this a correct reading of these paintings? Is it even one reading? It’s like someone commenting (and someone who shall be nameless did) on Carel Fabritius’ A View of Delft with a Musical Instrument Seller’s Stall (in the exhibition) that the poor instrument seller looked gloomy because he hadn’t any customers. The picture shows a completely empty city. Excuse me, Delft empty? It just happens to be the day of the burial of Willem II. But of course there is ambiguity, there is allegory. Much of 17th-century painting was allegorical. Church-funded painters couldn’t say what they thought of the Church, for instance. Here in the 17th century Dutch Republic, things were somewhat freer. The patrons were the rich merchants, the subjects much wider. Allegory was still very much used – and indeed this is what fascinates the viewer, and what makes seeing these paintings more than once so rewarding. 

Just as a good literary narrator shows the reader what is happening in the story but lets that reader impute what meaning they please, so these painters present their ‘scenes from life’ in a way that allows us to interpret them as we will. Not if you read the captions to this exhibition. Here is Pieter de Hooch’s A Musical Party in a Courtyard: “[. . .] musician appears to be playing a tenor viol”, the caption says. “Violins and viols often had erotic connotations; not only were they associated with risqué dance music but their curvaceous shape was likened to a woman’s body.” The painting shows two perfectly ordinary Dutchies with a musician who is possibly a member of the household, enjoying a sing song. But no, “It is no accident that de Hooch selected such an instrument for this intimate concert on a dark and secluded terrace”. Erm, it’s a courtyard: the street is just outside. I would suggest that de Hooch was far more interested in capturing in paint the cool shade of the courtyard in which these people enjoyed their music-making in contrast to the bright sunlit scene outside what is one of Amsterdam’s typical canal houses. But you are the judge. If you prefer to see it as an early depiction of Amsterdam’s red light district, feel free. 

Pieter de Hooch (1629 - 1684)
A Musical Party in a Courtyard, 1677
Oil on canvas
83.5 x 68.5 cm
The National Gallery, London
Inv. NG3047
© The National Gallery, London

Basically, whenever a man and woman appear together in paint, the caption writer polishes their innuendo. My very favourite, erm, interpretation is Jan Steen’s marvellous A Young Woman playing a Harpsichord to a Young Man (upon which more later). 

Jan Steen (1626 - 1679)
A Young Woman playing a Harpsichord to a Young Man, probably 1659
Oil on oak
42.3 x 33 cm
The National Gallery, London
Inv. NG856
© The National Gallery, London

“While the prim young woman plays with virtuous intent,” it says, “the man is about take more active steps.” [his hand is poised as if about to make a gesture]; “in the background ‘a boy’ advances with an enormous lute; presumably the man will soon attempt an amorous duet.” What? Could this not be a music teacher about to stop his pupil for some word of instruction?; could not ‘the boy’ perhaps be a scruffy son of the house arriving late from football for his lesson? I mean, for heaven’s sake, he can't be a servant, he’s wearing a lace collar. OK, the man does look the sort, but we may imagine that the woman knows how to tell him where to get off. 

There’s Gabriel Metsu’s A Woman seated at a Table and a Man tuning a Violin. Well, the woman does not look happy. And here is the viola da gamba again (on the table). But of course ‘tuning’ – TUNING, shock, horror – “tuning a musical instrument in preparation for a duet is often interpreted as a prelude to love.” Metsu is also the painter of A Man and a Woman seated by a Virginal. She’s handing him a sheet of manuscript – perhaps she’s written some music or a song. She wants his judgement upon it. Or perhaps he wants to borrow it, to copy it down for his own use. This was common. She hands him the sheet and he tips his glass to her. 

Even Johannes Vermeer does not escape this treatment. Here is part of the comment on the precious painting, The Music Lesson. “Their behaviour appears decorous but the image reflected in the mirror [hanging above the instrument] hints at a coy exchange of glances.” Now this music master (see post below) just does not look the sort. He stares straight ahead, his attention all on the sound of 'the music'. Might the painter have angled the mirror ‘just so’ to allow the viewer to see the player’s obvious joy in 'the music? 

I must however salute the caption writer’s restraint in describing Vermeer’s A Young Woman seated at a Virginal (see post below), where the woman sits alone at the instrument, her face a study of sadness and wistfulness, perhaps lost in the music. The Guitar Player (see post below) is also alone, also wistful, her face incidentally as beautifully chaste as any you will see in paint. Young Woman seated at a Virginal, too, a loan from an unnamed private owner, beautifully carries this wistfulness. She is weeping; this is not mentioned.

My own reading is that these women may well be the golf widows the Penelopes of their day. Women who were deprived of the company of their menfolk by war (the Dutch and the British fought trade wars throughout the 17th and 18th centuries from 1652 to 1784) or trading exploits (the round trip by sea to the East Indies took months and there were many such trips). Indeed, if taken by war, shipwreck or disease, their men never returned. No wonder they look sad, no wonder they appeal in such an affecting way to the viewer.

Then there is the woman painted by Gerrit Dou (lent by the Dulwich Picture Gallery), A Woman playing a Clavichord

Gerrit Dou (1613 - 1675)
A Woman playing a Clavichord, about 1665
Oil on panel
37.7 x 29.9 cm
© By Permission of the Trustees of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London

We are told that because the clavichord is the quietest of all the keyboard instruments, it “enhances the intimacy of the invitation implied by the woman’s outward gaze” and that the base viol is placed “provocatively” in the foreground. Dou achieves a wonderful slow reveal of this woman’s privacy – not the least intrusive – he simply paints in a heavy hanging that has been pulled back. We see her sitting at a window and there in her eyes we can see her sorrow. In the foreground sits lots of ‘stuff’, gee gaws brought back from foreign parts. Might not the woman (who seems to have greying, thinning hair) be implying I have all these things but all I want is my husband beside me. Might not the viol, silent now that they can no longer play in duet, have been his? 

For, as well as making these women wistful, the painters make them beautiful. Perhaps we have an inkling, then, of why Vermeer lavished the finest of paint pigments upon them (see post below), why he used so much of the rare and precious blue ultramarine for his ‘ordinary’ Dutchwomen.

Nothing convinces me of this interpretation so much as Vermeer's painting The Concert, tragically missing by theft, that hung in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. The link can be found here. These are happy women. Their lord is home, joining them in a music-making trio that lifts our heart as well as theirs. May the FBI and their partner agencies be successful in recovering it along with the 12 other paintings that vanished that awful March night in 1990.

Coda: for more on the music side of this exhibition, may I recommend Laura Cumming’s review in The Observer.

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