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Vermeer's Women: Secrets and Silence

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 Jen
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Exactly ten years ago, I was fortunate to see this exhibition (more than once) at Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge:

https://theartsdesk.com/visual-arts/vermeers-women-secrets-and-silence-fitzwilliam-museum-cambridge

So many of the paintings have stayed in my mind - wonderful depictions of strong, enigmatic women, there in domestic settings but their minds elsewhere.

Of the paintings by Vermeer, three captured musical moments, and "The Music Lesson" raises many questions.  There is no music, does the woman play from memory?  Where is she looking; does her reflection look the same way?  It doesn't really look like a lesson, he appears to be singing? 

And what might the music be?  Perhaps a piece by Sweelinck?  Or, if he is singing, perhaps one of Dowland's First Booke of Songs?  She'd be improvising the lute part, of course, on the virginal. And the song they'd chosen would change the narrative of the painting.  Any suggestions?


   
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 Jen
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I’ve just been sent this link, for a different perspective 😊

 


   
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(@capriccio)
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I'll have a think about this later this week when I have free time. I love your questions, Jen.

By the way, have you seen this video about The Music Lesson? In thinking of your questions, the section about infrared analysis of the painting is particularly interesting:


   
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 Jen
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Thank you, Rose, that’s a fascinating analysis. So the woman’s gaze really does have different directions but, far from giving us clues to her thoughts, I think it adds another layer of mystery!


   
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 Jen
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According to rct.uk, the latin inscription on the virginal translates to: ‘Music is a companion in pleasure and a balm in sorrow.’  How very true!


   
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(@dinah)
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I loooooove Vermeer 😍 That man was a genius. A true master of light! 

He's one of my favourite painters. Glad to see you like him, too, @Jen.

On the issue of the woman's reflection in the mirror, I always found it rather eerie that she'd be looking forward while her mirrored likeness is looking to the side! 😳

Incidentally, whenever I listened to Handel's Sarabande from the 4th harpsichord suite, I always thought of that painting!

https://app.idagio.com/recordings/20918609?trackId=20918632

even though it's not period accurate, I know 🤷‍♀️

About the man, I liked to make up a story in my mind that he'd just proposed, he's waiting patiently by her harpsichord. She was trying to tactfully delay hurting his feelings by feigning an occupation with her music. She's about to reject him! (I have a vivid imagination 😂.)

Of course, her mirrored reflection ruins this imaginary narrative of mine! 

I don't think he's singing, @Jen. Do you? 

And thank you @capriccio for the video, I'd seen it a couple of years ago and forgot about it. Thank you for the reminder. 

 

 


   
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 Jen
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Handel Sarabande! I could imagine that (even though, as you say, it hadn’t yet been written -but music and art allow us to time travel 🤔)

But, yes, I do think he’s singing, pianissimo: his mouth is open and his stance suggests he’s controlling his breath.  So maybe not the Sarabande.

(Or perhaps you’re right, he is proposing, and she’s in two minds, and the inscription on the virginal is about to ring true one way or another… 😆)


   
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(@capriccio)
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Posted by: @dinah

Incidentally, whenever I listened to Handel's Sarabande from the 4th harpsichord suite, I always thought of that painting!

Okay, now you two have my brain going around in circles. I love that Sarabande. I play it on the piano, where it sounds wonderful, but I especially love it on harpsichord, and I can understand the connection you make with the Vermeer painting, @dinah. For me, both the music and the painting have a restraint about them, but also an air of mystery. I've always wondered where Handel was taking me with that suite: most of it is slow-paced, stately, even in the Courante, and then you get to the Sarabande and its almost funereal, to be followed by a Gigue which is positively giddy!

With the Vermeer, the mysteries for me are mostly more prosaic than the ones @jen mentions:

  • Why is the cello (viola da gamba?) lying on the floor where it would be so easy to step on it?
  • Why is everything in the room apparently shoved to one side? Even the virginal itself has a keyboard that makes the player stand shoved up to one end.
  • Is the passage to the virginal the only open space in the room, or is it much larger than that?
  • Isn't it interesting how a virginal, from this perspective, looks like a child's coffin?
  • Is it possible that there's more than one type of lesson going on, or that the man wishes that it were so?

Hmm...


   
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 Jen
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Yes, the Gigue is so surprisingly, delightfully giddy!

And yes, I’d be forever falling backwards over that gamba, even without a giddy gigue.  There are theories why it’s there, but I’m not so convinced…

Reading your thoughts, Dinah and Rose, it just occurs to me that perhaps the usual interpretation of Music Lesson is all wrong?  If the woman were the teacher, accompanying and teaching the man to sing, everything about the painting makes much more sense to me.

Of all artists of this era, I’d be putting my money on Vermeer to depict exactly that 😊


   
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(@dinah)
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@Jen, I'm afraid this might be a little bit off topic for the forum, but since you're a fan of Vermeer I thought you might like this website:

http://www.essentialvermeer.com/index.html

🤗


   
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 Jen
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Thank you!!  What a great resource 👍


   
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