The current exhibition Vermeer and Music: The Art of Love and Leisure (National Gallery, London, until 8 September 2013) looks at the theme of music at a time when music was art and art was music.
The art of the 17th century Dutch Golden Age – the age of Frans Hals, Johannes Vermeer, and Rembrandt van Rijn – was also a golden age for musical themes in paint: sober duets as a literal expression of domestic harmony, musical merry-making at evening parties, trios which seem to reflect love triangles, and intimate depictions of refined ladies who seem to be playing to an unseen audience.
And if we can’t hear the notes reverberating down the ages, neither can hearing visitors. We are on a level playing field, freed up from preconceptions to imagine what the music sounds like, a musical tradition like and unlike our own. The art of the time concentrated on capturing the evanescent and ephemeral. An upraised hand marks the beat and marks the time for ever and parted lips betray a singer in full flow or at the moment of drawing breath: both make visible a note that passed by someone’s ear more than 350 years ago.
The star of the show is undoubtedly the Guitar Player (English Heritage, Kenwood House), caught in a moment sharing a glance with another player we cannot see, a duet with an invisible gentleman, perhaps? She leans forward, smiling gently, her lips closed and slightly tensed, as if she has just stopped singing and is waiting to reprise her part while the unseen performer sings his. Her expression and gesture replicate many a country and western duet seen on BBC4 compilations. The guitar itself is depicted with the same luminous but slightly blurred intensity as the player’s face.
A very similar but slightly more elaborate guitar by Voboam is included in the exhibition (click on the 4th image, 5th row) along with a variety of other musical instruments, including lutes with intricately carved roses (sound holes), applied decoration, and virginals with painted lids and friezes. The visual beauty of these high-status instruments was clearly intended to accompany and to complement the sound they produced.
A painted Ruckers virginal shares a space with Vermeer’s Music Lesson, (Royal Collection) depicting an almost identical instrument. Such instruments were works of art in their own right, inviting comparison with the ‘paintings within a painting’ in the background of Vermeer’s works. Indeed, Vermeer’s virginals have painted lids with landscapes, as shown in one of the National Gallery’s own Vermeers. Just as Vermeer’s ‘paintings within a painting’ preserve by record actual paintings – a known painting now in Boston, Mass., hangs in the background of the other NG Vermeers – there’s a suggestion that we are looking at actual instruments that the artists knew well, and possibly even played themselves. Metsu’s Man and Woman Seated by a Virginal makes use of the same instrument that he depicted in a number of other works.
But it wasn’t all about the music. They were used to illustrate manners and morals, with themes ranging from domestic harmony to a frisson of sexual impropriety. Music is the food of love – a 17th century quote apt for this exhibition – and what theme could be more universal?
We also come to it from a world in which recorded music has now been freely available for several generations, enabling us (if we can hear) to recover the sound of several generations ago. Though written music survives, and can be played again, there is no similar preserved soundtrack to the Dutch Golden Age. In this, therefore, the deaf visitor is at no disadvantage, but is, perhaps, the best placed to appreciate the visually sumptuous world of that music, a silent playing on canvas.