The Dulwich Picture Gallery has had an unusual but ingenious idea for their two hundredth birthday celebrations. They wanted to do something which would reflect the importance of the building and the beauty of their collection as well as reflect Gallery’s unique place in the history of museums in England and the world. They have what they term the “Masterpiece a Month”. It features just one sensational work of art at a time, one a month, each a work of genius presiding as a kind of high altarpiece at the end of the main gallery. These great works of art would be looked upon as a series of the most beautiful birthday cards for the Gallery. To achieve this dream the director of the Dulwich Picture Gallery had to approach famous institutions and curators of private collections and ask to borrow one of their great paintings.
Today’s painting for today’s My Daily Art Display was the featured painting for March at the Dulwich Picture Gallery which was on display when I visited last week and is from a private collection – the Royal Collection of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. It had been acquired for the collection by George III in 1762. It is Johannes Vermeer’s A Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman, sometimes known as The Music Lesson. Vermeer completed this oil on canvas work circa 1664. When King George III acquired the painting it was thought to have been painted by Frans van Mieris the Elder due to a misinterpretation of the signature and this error was not rectified for another century when in 1866 the well-known art critic and Vermeer scholar, Théopile Thoré, conclusively proved the work of art to have been painted by the great Dutch artist Vermeer. The artist’s signature, IV Meer (IVM in monogram), is along the lower edge of the frame on the extreme right. More writing can be seen on the underside of the lid of the virginals:
MUSICA LETITIAE CO[ME]S /MEDICINA DOLORS[IS]
which translated means
“Music – companion of happiness / medicine for grief”
So what can we observe in this painting. Light streams in through the windows on the left and fills the room. The light emphasizes the texture of the objects such as the pile of the Oriental table covering, the small white porcelain pitcher on a silver plate and the brass studs on the blue chair. Vermeer often depicted white porcelain jugs in his works of art. They usually contained wine, which was supposed to act as a love potion and help men seduce women.
The painting is characterised by the meticulous use of perspective which draws our eyes to the rear of the room where the figures are placed. There is a young woman with her back to us, seated at the virginals, a keyboard instrument of the harpsichord family. The instrument and the inscription are similar to those made by Andres Ruckers of Antwerp in the early part of the 17th century. As we look at the painting, our eyes follow the line of perspective towards the people and we become aware of a table jutting out into our line of sight and on which is a multicoloured Oriental carpet covering. Just behind it is a chair covered with a light-blue fabric and on the floor lies a discarded honey-coloured viola da gamba, which was one of a family of bowed, fretted string instruments which first came to prominence in the 15th century and was used mainly in the Renaissance and Baroque period.
However all the activity is at the back of the room. Vermeer has used the colour black and this immediately grabs our attention. The colour is used to outline the virginals. It is also used to frame the picture on the wall and this colour is utilised by Vermeer on the back of the lady to draw the tailored lines of her bodice and acts as a stark contrast with the inlay that embellishes the front of the instrument, the red of the lady’s dress and light-blue of the chair. The most startling use of black is in the patterned floor design.
We, the viewers, have been moved back by this use of perspective. We almost feel we are interlopers or eavesdroppers on this private scene. Take a look at the mirror on the wall. We see the reflection of the woman’s face and shoulders as she turns towards the man. Her reflection is slightly out of focus and diminished in scale reflecting the optical effects of a mirror which is a sign of Vermeer’s observational skills. However some art historians believe that this could also be due to the fact that Vermeer may have used a camera obscura. We can also see part of the table and the legs of the artist’s easel and a box which we assume contained the artist’s paints (or the camera obscura?). From this we pick up the inference that Vermeer is part of this scene although, like us, he is standing back from the space occupied by the two main proponents.
On the back wall, to the right of the mirror is the painting Roman Charity (Cimon and Pero) by Dirk van Baburen. It was known that this painting was at one time owned by Maria Thins, the mother-in-law of Vermeer.
Who are these two people? Teacher and pupil? Lovers sharing a musical interlude? Simply fellow musicians? Who knows what their relationship is but as there are two musical instruments in the room and an empty chair we can deduce that they are fellow musicians and he is listening to her playing and who knows, maybe he is accompanying her playing with a song. Observe the man’s facial expression. It is a rapt and loving expression and I am hazarding a guess that there is “love in the air”. The association between music and love as a theme was often used by Dutch 17th century artists. The fact that we have two instruments in this picture probably signifies that at one time this was a musical duet and this represents the emotions of the two people.
If you needed to have another reason for visiting the Dulwich Picture Gallery other than to view their magnificent permanent display then this bi-centennial idea of having one additional masterpiece per month is a winner. The next Masterpiece a Month will be in April and is The Vision of Saint John by El Greco.