London Art Reviews

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Vermeer and Music? An exhibition at the National Gallery of London.

Vermeer and Music? An exhibition at the National Gallery of London.

Dave Burlak – Thursday, 1st August 2013

“this exhibition sounds as a great opportunity apparently, but”

Johannes Vermeer, The Guitar Player (about 1672) on loan from English Heritage, The Iveagh Bequest (Kenwood) © English Heritage

Johannes Vermeer, The Guitar Player (about 1672) on loan from English Heritage, The Iveagh Bequest (Kenwood) © English Heritage

The exhibition “Vermeer and Music” will be another success at the National Gallery, London.

In the organiser intention, focus of “Vermeer and Music: the art of love and leisure” is to explore the concept of music as one the most popular motifs in Dutch painting, and as a daily pastime of the elite in the Netherlands during the 17th century. The exhibition is juxtaposes good paintings to real musical instruments and to original scores and songbooks from the 17th century. There is also a special room dedicated to concerts curated by the Academy of Ancient Music as Resident Ensemble.

Music carried many different associations in 17th-century Dutch painting. In portraits, a musical instrument or songbook might suggest the talent or sophistication of the sitter, while in still lives or scenes of everyday life, it might act as a metaphor for harmony, a symbol of transience or, depending on the type of music being performed, an indicator of education and position in society.

The exhibition “Vermeer and Music” explores these associations. At the National Gallery, for example, the first room, “Music as attribute and allegory”, gives general issues music was linked in the 17th Century. The second room focuses on “Musical companies and festivities”, as the title says. The third room, “Intimate duets”, is an opportunity to explore interaction between men and women. The fourth room, “Vermeer and solo musicians” finally introduce works of Vermeer.

At the National Gallery exhibition, there is also a room dedicated to music where the Academy of Ancient Music performs every Thursday, Friday and Saturday. The musicians will perform works by Dutch composers, Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, Willem de Fesch and Joannes Florentius a Kempis, alongside works known to have been familiar to Dutch musicians by other European composers, such as Arcangelo Corelli. Musicians from the AAM and curator Betsy Wieseman will also present two illustrated concerts in early July and September.

The National Gallery exhibition displays also a final room, “Vermeer and technique” where results of studies of the homonymous project

Johannes Vermeer, A Young Woman standing at a Virginal (about 1670-2) © The National Gallery, London

Johannes Vermeer, A Young Woman standing at a Virginal (about 1670-2) © The National Gallery, London

are displayed. It is indeed an interesting project allowed by the extended loan of Vermeer’s “The Guitar Player” from Kenwood House, London, to the National Gallery. Researchers analysed the painting’s materials and closely studied the techniques used. The findings were compared with other late paintings by Vermeer in the National Gallery (“A Young Woman seated at a Virginal” and “A Young Woman standing at a Virginal”), and a earlier work (“The Music Lesson”) kindly lent by the Royal Collection for the National Gallery’s Vermeer exhibition.

A small number of paint samples obtained from each of these paintings in the 1960s and archived since that time at the Doerner Institut were kindly loaned for study. New techniques for the analysis of these samples have been undertaken (unavailable in the 1960s) – scanning electron microscopy with energy dispersive X-ray analysis (SEM-EDX) and attenuated total reflectance – Fourier transform infrared (ATR-FTIR) spectroscopy.

This room is a great opportunity to explore Vermeer techniques, and learn, for instance, that despite being broken and poor Vermeer made a great usage of the really very expensive natural ultramarine colour – aka lapis lazuli – which, due to its costs at that time, suggests the presence of an unknown patron. The study also highlights the usage of a limited palette a common painter’s style at that time. But also this study investigates how Vermeer prepared his canvases before applying colours and how he did that, and how materials used are deteriorating after many centuries.

So this exhibition sounds as a great opportunity apparently, but… There is a ‘but’ coming from the title or the show organisation, or both. The presence of Vermeer, in fact, is reduced to only few of his works being displayed.

The National Gallery exhibition seems to be a merging of different aspects: music in 17th Century through paintings; the results of the studies on Vermeer works; the reunion of the Vermeer paintings in London (through the loans); and the possibility to pack everything together. It is a bit confusing, though. The title could lead Vermeer lovers to think it is an exhibition about the great master. Also many of the works are coming from the collection of the National Gallery itself, and can be seen for free before and after the exhibition – without paying. It is a bit tricky.

Johannes Vermeer, The Music Lesson (about 1662-3) Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2013

Johannes Vermeer, The Music Lesson (about 1662-3) Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2013

Maybe it was difficult to find other Vermeer works. Definitely, Vermeer made few paintings in his life, and some of them are lost, for a total of 34 or so remaining. He was a very intentionally slow painter and rather, like his father, a dealer of paintings of others. Painting was for him a pastime, and did not bring him success. Vermeer probably produced three paintings a year, and on order. Accompanied by two French clergymen, the diplomat Balthasar de Monconys visited Vermeer in 1663 to see some of his work. They were sent to Hendrick van Buyten, a baker, who had a couple of his paintings as guarantee.

It is uncertain if Johannes ‘Jan’ Vermeer was born in Delft in 1632. His date of birth is unknown too. But on 31st October 1632, he was baptised in the Reformed Church. His father, Reijnier Janszoon, was a middle- class worker of silk and caffa (a mixture of silk and cotton or wool) who lived in Amsterdam on Sint Antoniesbreestraat, a street with many resident painters. In 1615, he married Digna Baltus and the couple moved to Delft. Around 1625 Reijnier began dealing in paintings. In 1631, he leased an inn and in 1641, he bought a larger one. Vermeer took the place of his father in the family’s art business when he died in 1652.

In April 1653, Jan Vermeer married a Catholic girl, Catharina Bolenes (Bolnes). She was a good catch for him, because her mother, Maria Thins, was a wealthy person. There are doubts Vermeer converted to Catholicism before the marriage. However, the answer seems positive.

At some point, the couple moved in with Catharina’s mother, in a rather spacious house at Oude Langendijk. Here Vermeer lived for the rest of his life, producing paintings in the front room on the second floor. From his wife he had 15 children, four of whom were buried before being baptised.

It is unclear where Vermeer was apprenticed as a painter. His teacher is unknown too, but the most accredited are Carel Fabritius, Leonaert Bramer, and Abraham Bloemaert. It has been suggested Vermeer taught himself, using information from one of his father’s connections. Or maybe he learnt from the Utrecht Carravagisti.

On 29th December 1653, Vermeer became a member of the Guild of Saint Luke, a trade association for painters. In 1662, Vermeer was

Johannes Vermeer, Young Woman Seated at a Virginal (about 1670-1672) Private collection, New York © Photo courtesy of the owner

Johannes Vermeer, Young Woman Seated at a Virginal (about 1670-1672) Private collection, New York
© Photo courtesy of the owner

elected head of the guild and was re-elected in 1663, 1670, and 1671, evidence that he was considered an established craftsman among his peers.

From 1950s until 1970s the Netherlands were affected by continuous problems such as plague, war and economic crisis. The fall down of the art market damaged Vermeer’s business as both a painter and as an art dealer. The life of Vermeer was not easy. He was not able to become very famous, but rather due to the stress of financial pressures, in December 1675, Vermeer felt into frenzy and died within a day and a half. He was buried in the Protestant Old Church on 15th December 1675.

Recognised during his lifetime in Delft and The Hague, his celebrity left the place to obscurity after his death. Vermeer was just mentioned in Houbraken’s book on 17th-century Dutch painting (Grand Theatre of Dutch Painters and Women Artists). Later totally forgotten, he disappeared from art surveys for nearly two centuries.

In the 19th century, Vermeer was rediscovered by Gustav Friedrich Waagen and Théophile Thoré-Bürger, who published an essay attributing sixty-six paintings to him. Today only thirty-four paintings are universally attributed to him. Since that time, Vermeer’s reputation has grown, and he is now acknowledged as one of the greatest painters of the Dutch Golden Age.

Therefore, it is understandable “Vermeer and Music” cannot display much of the artist, but it remains dubious the usage of his name for such an exhibition, which is still significant for the studies shown.

Vermeer and Music” is supported by The Hata Stichting Foundation, The Blavatnik Family Foundation, Susan and John Singer, and The Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

Vermeer and Musicexhibition is ongoing from 26th June until 8th September 2013 at the National Gallery, London.

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