Vermeer and Music

Gerrit Dou (1613-75), A Woman playing a Clavichord, about 1665
Gerrit Dou (1613-75), A Woman playing a Clavichord, about 1665

In the lobby of this exhibition they are selling a book, The Art of Describing by Svetlana Alpers which proposes a radical distinction in how we should see paintings from the Italian Renaissance and from the golden age of Dutch painting. Published in 1984 the book, in the words of one reviewer, sets out “a truly fundamental dichotomy between the art of the Italian Renaissance and that of the Dutch masters. . . . Italian art is the primary expression of a ‘textual culture’, this is to say of a culture which seeks emblematic, allegorical or philosophical meanings in a serious painting. Alberti, Vasari and the many other theoreticians of the Italian Renaissance teach us to ‘read’ a painting, and to read it in depth so as to elicit and construe its several levels of signification. The world of Dutch art, by the contrast, arises from and enacts a truly ‘visual culture’. It serves and energises a system of values in which meaning is not ‘read’ but ‘seen, ‘ in which new knowledge is visually recorded.”

Harmen Steenwyck (1612-56), An Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life, about 1640
Harmen Steenwyck (1612-56), An Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life, about 1640

It is an interesting thesis which might imply that in the world of the Dutch masters, what you see is what you get. But this exhibition and the material supporting it suggests that Alpers thesis cannot be more than partially correct. Dutch painting, as shown in this exhibition,  is certainly defiantly bourgeois and domestic. It does not deal with fantasies or reach back to the classical period for inpiration. But it includes its fair share of allegory and provides plenty of material for iconography. It starts with a couple of determinedly allegorical paintings which remind us of the frequent use of music and music making as an emblem of transience, and it goes on to demonstrate time after time that images of music making are frequently allegories of love and invitation; from the brothel to the demure young lady.

Consider, for example, the painting by Gerrit Dou at the start of this piece. Yes, it is a woman playing a clavichord, but is also a woman inviting is to come behind the curtain, pick up the waiting instrument and join her in making music. Whether she is the ‘girl next door’ inviting a prospective husband or a courtesan inviting a paid guest is for you to imagine but it seems likely that both are portrayed in the works which make up this exhibition. It may not be subtle, but is clearly a painting to be read on different levels.

Johannes Vermeer (1632-75), A Young Woman seated at a Virginal, about 1670-72
Johannes Vermeer (1632-75), A Young Woman seated at a Virginal, about 1670-72

But what about Vermeer. It is a reasonable question as you reach the last room of paintings before you find any works by Vermeer, four substantive and one rather less so. The four substantive are all well known, and readily viewable in London at any time. They are certainly beautifully executed pieces of craftsmanship but they repeat well known themes. Look for example at A Young Woman seated at a Virginal and compare it to the earlier painting by Gerrit Dou – curtain, instrument, come hither!

It is a small show, but none the worse for that. It has a simple and straightforward theme which is engaging. If there could be one significant criticism it is that the great majority of the works are from the National Gallery’s own collection so we are being asked to pay for the orchestration of these paintings into an organised event. The exhibition closes this weekend but the pictures and the catalogue will still be there so you will be able to recreate the essence of the exhibition at any time for the cost of the catalogue. That would make for an enjoyable visit to the gallery.

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