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

Lady Standing at a Virginal

c. 1670
Oil on canvas, 51,7 x 45,2 cm
National Gallery, London

Signature: Signed on the instrument.

Provenance: The early documents do not differentiate between a lady standing or seated at the clavecin. It is therefore not certain whether it is this or the Lady Seated at a Virginal (National Gallery, London) that was part of the collection of Diego Duarte in Antwerp in 1682. The same is true of no. 37 in the Amsterdam sale of 1696; and also of the work recorded in the Amsterdam sale of 1714. It is only since the Amsterdam sale of 1797 that the lady is identified as standing, and therefore refers to this painting. Collection E. Solly, London; sale Edward Lake, London, Christie, 1845; collection Thoré-Bürger, 1866; sale Thoré-Bürger, Paris, 1892; art gallery Lawrie, London. There acquired by the museum in the same month (December).

This painting now hangs at the National Gallery, London, together with A Lady Seated at the Virginal. There is no certitude that the two are companion pieces, but they obviously are closely related as to subject matter. The technique exemplifies in both instances Vermeer's late period.

As we might suspect in an artist with his aspirations, Vermeer injected narrative or allegorical significance even into his domestic interiors. The young woman strokes the keys of the virginal - a smaller version of the harpsichord - but looks expectantly out of the picture. Music, we recall, is the 'food of love', and the empty chair calls to mind an absent sitter, perhaps travelling abroad among the mountains depicted in the picture on the wall and on the lid of the virginal. Cupid holding up a playing card or tablet has been related to an emblem of fidelity to one lover, as illustrated in one of the popular contemporary Dutch emblem books, where the image is explained in the accompanying motto and text. It has been suggested, not altogether convincingly, that the painting forms a contrasting pair with its neighbour, Vermeer's Young Woman seated at a Virginal, where the viola da gamba in the foreground awaits the partner of a duet but the picture of the Procuress (by the Utrecht artist Baburen) behind the woman points to mercenary love.

Whether or not the paintings are thus related, both surely portray young women dreaming of love. But the theme seems commonplace beside Vermeer's treatment of it. Cool daylight streams in through the window on the left, as it always does in his pictures. The textures of grey-veined marble and white-and-blue Delft tiles, of gilt frame and whitewashed wall, of blue velvet and taffeta and white satin, of scarlet bows, are differentiated through the action of this light in their most minute particularities and specific lustre. Volume is revealed, shadows cast and space created. Yet the real magic of the painting is that all this does not, as it were, exhaust the light. Enough of it remains as a palpable presence diffused throughout the room to reach out to us beyond the picture's frame.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.