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