Vermeer hits the high notes at the National Gallery

The National Gallery's new summer exhibition devoted to the art of making music in 17th-century Netherlands makes the heart sing, says Adrian Hamilton

A room filled with five Vermeers must be most gallery-goers' idea of heaven. Which, indeed, it is in the National Gallery's summer exhibition of Vermeer and Music, which showcases the genre of painting women and men playing music at which he excelled and which engaged the talents of so many of his best contemporaries.

Not that everybody's favourite Dutch artist of interiors was always so highly regarded. The centrepiece of the exhibition, the Queen's The Music Lesson, was bought as part of a job lot by George III, who really wanted the Italian paintings on offer. Even then it was wrongly ascribed to Frans van Mieris the Elder and dismissed by some of the experts as not really good enough even for him. The correct attribution didn't come until nearly a century later when the Victorians at last began to appreciate the supreme mastery of Johannes Vermeer of Delft.

Why the long neglect? It was partly that Vermeer's jewelled precision and ambiguous moods seemed not quite meaningful enough for an age that liked its Dutch paintings to show ships and windmills or riotous scenes with a moral message. It was also that the British – as some still do – found something faintly disturbing about an art that concentrates quite so much on the woman's world of the domestic interior and female pastimes.

It clearly didn't seem so odd at the time that Vermeer painted these scenes in the 17th century. Music making and all that went with it were very much a popular genre of Dutch art then. Not the least of its virtues was that it was thought an activity suitable for a young woman to go unsupervised with the opposite sex. For a nation that has always had a strong taste for the earthy, pictures showing the intimacy of man and woman over the harmonium and the song sheet were all the rage. For a nation, too, which took piety and morality as the proper form of outward appearance, music making allowed a sense of harmony, communion and passing time that seemed entirely in keeping with the Lutheran habits of the time.

That, at any rate, is how the National Gallery starts its show, with a room devoted to music as memento mori. Playing instruments, suggested the skull-laden paintings of Steenwyck and Treck, went along with wine and war. It might feel glorious in its moment but soon vanished in the remorseless passage of time.

Mercifully, once you pass through to the rooms devoted to music making as a leisure-time activity, the mood lightens. If the first room, entitled “Music as attribute and allegory”, looks back to the Spanish still-life tradition of the occupiers, the second room, “Musical companies and festivities” looks firmly south to Italian art for its influence, for all the Dutch suspicion of the decadent ways and incipient violence of the Latins. Frans van Mieris the Elder (he of the Vermeer attribution) actually pictures himself in Italian garb playing the cittern with an air of unalloyed pleasure.

The curators would have us believe that this represented a deliberate distinction between the professional players, who tended to dress outrageously and behave worse, and the decent young girls and boys who learned music as a respectable accomplishment of the new bourgeoisie. “The locations are often vague,” says a particularly exciting (and excited) introduction to the pictures of group music-making. “It can be difficult to determine whether the players are in a private home or a brothel.”

Well, well. I may be particularly naive, but it doesn't seem the question raised by these pictures at all. What they represent rather is the spirit of shared joy and release that music brings and why the Italians and the French rococo painters so often chose to portray it. Hendrick ter Brugghen's The Concert (c1626) is a straight take on Caravaggio, rather startlingly so given its secular subject.

What the Dutch did with the genre, however, was to take it indoors into the closeted realms of the domestic space, where the woman held court. It gave birth to a particular sort of art and an ambiguous one. Where the Latin artists portrayed the player with expressions of pure pleasure, the Dutch artists depicted looks of anticipation and longing. The couple caught in the act of musical exchange or the woman captured in the moment of plucking the lute are caught up in their own thoughts, whether conscious of our gaze or too absorbed to notice it.

Where this art of the particular moment comes from has never really been explained. But, coupled with the minutely observed realism of this style of painting, it makes of Dutch art something peculiarly intimate, voyeuristic even. The girl looks up at you in Gerrit Dou's A Woman Playing a Clavichord (c1665) or Godfried Schalcken's A Woman Singing and a Man with a Cittern from the same period but it is clear that you are entering their space not taking them into yours.

When it comes to the scenes of a lady playing alongside a man, or in the case of Gerard ter Borch A Woman Playing a Lute to Two Men, the sense of the captured instant is even more intense. In different ways, Ter Borch, Pieter de Hooch, Gabriël Metsu and Jan Steen create a sense of timelessness out of a moment through the balance of their composition, the precision of their detail and their use of space.

With the room of Vermeers you step up a gear. One of the advantages of a contextual show likes this is that you can see where a great artist such as Vermeer fits in with the art of his time but also how he transcends it. You can spend hours just examining the way he depicts the light falling on the viola da gamba in The Music Lesson or the delicacy with which he fills in the lace and ribbon in A Young Woman Standing at a Virginal or the exact depiction of the marbling effect on the girl's instrument in the Gallery's A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal.

The exhibition ends with a good deal of technical explanation from photomicrographs of the rich paints he used, the way he built up layers to achieve opaque or shining surfaces and the effect of age and light in muting the colours he sought. It also includes a number of the period instruments shown in the pictures to illustrate how realistically they were depicted.

Interesting although they are, however, it is not realism that makes Vermeer such a supreme artist but his simplification of shapes, his harmony of colour and the way in which he uses light to give balance and stillness to his scenes. Above all, it is the look that he catches in the faces of his women – the excitement in the expression in The Guitar Player as she glances towards someone outside the picture, the air of contentment in one version of A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal from a private collection, or the air of expectant pleasure in the eyes of the National Gallery's picture by the same name. You don't know these women or what precisely they're thinking, but you are made to feel part of them and their lives. George III and his advisers got him wrong. It is the intangible in Vermeer that makes him so humane.

Vermeer and Music: the Art of Love and Leisure, National Gallery (020 7747 2885) until 8 September

Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge
books
Arts and Entertainment
Don’t send in the clowns: masks and make-up conceal true facial expressions, thwarting our instinct to read people’s minds through their faces, as seen in ‘It’
film
Arts and Entertainment
Go figure: Matt Parker, wearing the binary code scarf knitted by his mother
comedy Mathematician is using comedy nights to teach and preach sums
Arts and Entertainment
Ryan Gosling in 'Drive'
filmReview: Ryan Gosling is still there, but it's a very different film
Arts and Entertainment
Urban explorer: Rose Rouse has documented her walks around Harlesden, and the people that she’s encountered along the way
books Rouse's new book discusses her four-year tour of Harlesden
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at 25, and battled with Hollywood film studios thereafter
film
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Franco Zeffirelli's production of 'Aida' at Milan's famed La Scala opera house
operaLegendary opera director in battle with theatre over sale of one of his 'greatest' productions
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Juergen Wolf won the Young Masters Art Prize 2014 with his mixed media painting on wood, 'Untitled'
art
Arts and Entertainment
Iron Man and Captain America in a scene from
filmThe upcoming 'Black Panther' film will feature a solo black male lead, while a female superhero will take centre stage in 'Captain Marvel'
Arts and Entertainment
The Imperial War Museum, pictured, has campaigned to display copyrighted works during the First World War centenary
art
Arts and Entertainment
American Horror Story veteran Sarah Paulson plays conjoined twins Dot and Bette Tattler
tvReview: Yes, it’s depraved for the most part but strangely enough it has heart to it
Arts and Entertainment
The mind behind Game of Thrones George R. R. Martin
books

Will explain back story to fictional kingdom Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Dorothy in Return to Oz

film Unintentionally terrifying children's movies to get you howling (in fear, tears or laughter)
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robert James-Collier as under-butler Thomas

TVLady Edith and Thomas show sad signs of the time
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Dad's Army cast hit the big screen

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge

books
Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning?
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Bryan Adams' heartstopping images of wounded British soldiers to go on show at Somerset House

    Bryan Adams' images of wounded soldiers

    Taken over the course of four years, Adams' portraits are an astonishing document of the aftermath of war
    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
    The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

    Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

    Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
    Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

    What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

    Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
    A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

    Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

    Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
    Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

    'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

    A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

    Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

    The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
    Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

    Paul Scholes column

    Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
    Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

    Frank Warren column

    Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
    Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

    Adrian Heath's American dream...

    Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
    Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
    Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

    A Syrian general speaks

    A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities