VERMEER, Johannes
(b. 1632, Delft, d. 1675, Delft)

A Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman

Oil on canvas, 73,3 x 64,5 cm
Buckingham Palace, London

Signature: Signed along the lower edge of the frame of the painting on the extreme right: IV Meer [IVM in monogram]. Inscribed on the underside of the lid of the virginals: MVSICA LETITIAE CO/ME/S/MEDICINA DOLOR/IS/ [Music is a companion in pleasure, a remedy in sorrow]

Provenance: The provenance of this painting is rather uncertain in its early stages. It may have been part of the collection Diego Duarte in Antwerp, 1682. Then in the Amsterdam sale of 1696, no. 6: "A young lady playing the clavecin in a room, with a listening gentleman; by the same; fl 80." Afterward, possibly in another Amsterdam sale, 1714. However, the description alludes only to a "woman playing the clavecin in a room," without mentioning the listening gentleman. Hence, doubt. Joseph Smith, English consul in Venice, bought in 1741 a number of Dutch paintings from the widow of the painter Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini (1675-1741). One was described in Pellegrini's inventory as A Lady at the Spinet - without mention of the gentleman. When Smith sold his collection to King George III, it contained a painting attributed to Frans van Mieris: A Woman Playing on a Spinnet in presence of a Man seems to be her father. The Mieris is certainly our Cat. No. 13, but whether we have here the painting formerly owned by Pellegrini remains questionable. From the collection of George III to the English royal collection.

The greatness of Vermeer is dependent upon the economy of his style and the precision of his technique, which served to create an enigmatic mood that has become the hallmark of his mature paintings. The apparent simplicity of the compositions, which to a large extent rely on a limited number of studio props, and a restricted number of settings, belie artifice.

There is general agreement that A Lady at the Virginals dates from the 166Os, but it is difficult to be more exact. The subject prompts comparison with Vermeer's Concert Trio in Boston (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum), but the bolder, more dramatic use of perspective, emphasising the longitudinal axis of the room, is closer to paintings of the late 166Os such as Lady writing a Letter with her Maid (Beit Art Collection, Blessington, Ireland), The Love Letter (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum) and The Geographer, dated 1669 (Frankfurt, Städelsches Kunstinstitut). This treatment of perspective is typical of the style developed by painters working in Delft during the 1650s.

The relationship between music and love as a theme was frequently explored by Dutch seventeenth-century painters with varying shades of meaning. Vermeer's subject matter is often understated, but at the same time objects contained within the picture reinforce the meaning, which in some instances is interpreted on a quasi-philosophical basis. Thus, the two instruments - the virginals and the bass viol - here signify the possibility of a duet symbolising the emotions of the two figures.

Similarly, the painting behind the man can be identified as Cymon and Pero (also known as Roman Charity) in which a daughter feeds her father, who has been imprisoned, from her own breast, a theme that clearly has connotations that are open to interpretation in the context of love. Cymon and Pero is in the style of a Dutch follower of Caravaggio (possibly Utrecht school), although the original has not been identified. Interestingly, a painting of this subject is listed in the 1641 inventory of items belonging to the artist's mother-in-law, Maria Thins.

The keyboard instrument has been identified as being comparable with those built by Andries Ruckers the Elder. Examples with identical decorative devices on the lid, keywell and fallboard, as well as similar inscriptions, are in Bruges (Museum Gruuthuse), Brussels (Musée Instrumental du Conservatoire) and Amsterdam (Rijksmuseum). The lining paper on the keywell, decorated with flowers, foliage and sea-horses, also occurs on instruments depicted by Metsu (A Man and a Woman seated by a Virginal) and Steen (A Young Woman playing a Harpsichord), both in the National Gallery, London. There are specific sources for the patterns used on the lid and the fallboard, but no source for the pattern on the keywell has yet been discovered.

The mirror above the woman reflects not only her head and shoulders, but also the artist's easel. The fact that there is a diminution in scale of the head in the mirror and that the image itself is slightly out of focus denotes the use of a camera obscura. However, while the box visible behind the easel in the reflection may indeed be a camera obscura, it may also be a paintbox.

The mood of this interior by Vermeer is created as much from the confrontation of the two figures as from the juxtaposition of mundane objects within a space precisely proportioned and subtly lit.