Musical instruments in Vermeer’s paintings

Music and musical instruments were recurrent themes in mid-seventeenth century pictures. I am going to show you some of these instruments illustrating the examples with details from Vermeer’s paintings.

First of all, the virginal, is a box-shaped keyboard instrument that looks like a piano. The keyboard is often surrounded by decorative block printed papers, as in this example where we can see a sentence with a concrete meaning (Music: companion of joy, balm for sorrow).

Detail in the virginal

This instrument also appears in another painting, A Lady Seated at a Virginal:

A Lady Seated at a Virginal

There are some other string instruments appearing in Vermeer’s paintings: lutes, citterns, or barooque guitars.

Woman with a Lute

Woman with a Lute.

The Love Letter

The Guitar Player.

If we look carefully at this painting, we can see the lady holding a trumpet.

The Art of Painting

The Art of Painting.

WE can conclude that in Vermeer’s times, music was an accepted entertainment for polite society. It was not only a pleasurable means for escaping everyday cares, but also a popular and widely accepted vehicle for facilitating social contact. Music also promoted respectful contact irregardless of nationality or religion, because it was another kind of art in a very high esteem.

There was, in short, a belief in music as the reflection of a  Divine Harmony.

INformation taken from Essential Vermeer

6 responses to “Musical instruments in Vermeer’s paintings

  1. The very informative quote that follows is from HUBBARD HARPSICHORDS at the following link. Please avail yourselves of the treat of hearing all the varieties of instruments including the Flemish “Mother and Child” Virginals at their site.
    Below the quote, read how the knowledge of the form of this instrument bears out the interpretation of the “Lady Standing at the Virginals”, in particular, and to other paintings, such as “Lady Seated at the Virginals”, “the Music Lesson”, and even “the Concert”.

    Flemish Single- & Double-Manual Virginals Kits:
    “Mother & Child”
    Flemish virginals emerged in the 17th century as two distinct instruments depending on which side of the front of the instrument the keyboard was located. Those with the keyboard positioned to the right were known as muselars and produced a round, fluty sound of unusual power. The spinet whose keyboard lies to the left of the center produces a sound approaching that of the wing-shaped harpsichord of the period. The ottavino or “Child” virginals lives in the body of the “Mother” and is pitched one octave higher than either the spinet or the muselar virginals. When played, it is pulled forward like a drawer in a bureau, or removed completely and placed on top of the eight-foot virginals cleverly forming a second keyboard at four-foot pitch.

    How the “Mother & Child” work: In the large virginals a single set of strings runs the length of the instrument which is normally positioned in the room against a wall. The key levers run underneath the soundboard from front to back increasing in length as they progress from bass to treble. This allows them to have about the same mechanical advantage in lifting the jacks throughout the compass of the instrument. The key levers are guided vertically at the back with a rack and overrail to limit the amount of key dip. The balance mortises are also made in the manner of the old makers by punching directly into the key lever. The keys lift the jacks which rise through a leather covered register set into the soundboard. The jacks face alternately toward and away from the player making it possible for the strings to fit into half the space they would normally occupy in a harpsichord.

    The action and lay-out of the diminutive ottavino are similar to the large instrument. The salient feature of the ottavino is its extreme compactness. In order to couple the ottavino to its motherthe jackrail of the large virginals is removed and the ottavino set in its place. When played from the lower keyboard, the jacks of the large virginals then perform double duty by both plucking the eight-foot strings and raising the ottavino keys through a slot cut in the bottom of the smaller instrument. This provides the player with a 1 x 8′, 1 x 4′ disposition. One would be hard put to use a half-pint of paint on the ottavino.

    Both spinet and muselar kits are designed with the ottavino in mind.

    This is a description of the Virginals in Vermeer’s “Lady Standing at the Virginal”. It is, then, a muselar virginal with keyboard to the right and would have contained the “Child” or higher pitched ottavino. The Ottavino can be seen in the HUBBARD site’s illustration of the Flemmish Mother and Child Muselar Virginal. I make the observation that the Lady and Cupid were similar in aspects of their appearance and that they both “looked at” the viewer. I suggest that they may be the Lady at two ages of her life. (That is still my favored interpretation.) It may refer to her pregnant state. The possibility the Cupid may have been a son or daughter still seems, to me at least, less likely. The fact of the Mother/Child Virginal would symbolically suggest a hidden illicit pregnancy and the Cupid, an admonition against Adultery as evidenced in the Emblem “Love Knowes but One”.
    This mother/child theme seems to have been compounded in the discovery that the painting-within-a-painting in the gold frame is “taken from” the same painting that Vermeer loosely copied on the upright Virginals cover! In this duplication, on two sides of the room, in the paintings, can suggest reproductions of another sort. Even in the pictured tiles at the base of the wall, on either side of the lady, can be seen a reproduction of a Cupid carrying a pole – on her immediate left and immediate right.
    Lastly, …and the allusion may be too subtle for some of us, even with the evidence of the Rucker’s Virginals, which, from 1636 onward only were constructed with the Child within, the right hand of the Lady is slightly raised above the other and the Mother keyboard, and is lit differently, as though emerging from a shadow. Will it rest on the ottavino above: the Child?

  2. “The Lady at the Virginals” includes the Cupid in this configuration in a painting-within-a-painting
    directly behind a young woman, who, splendid in attire, is engaged in playing the virginals. She turns her head to acknowledge the entrance or presence of a visitor to the bright, well-lit room and the intruder is met by two gazes – Cupid also greets the new arrival.
    Two landscapes – one in a rich golden frame and the other decorates the raised lid of her instrument and further indicates the theme of romantic passion and may indicate the breaking of a trust by an outside interest (a lover).
    The painting may be of a family member – one of Vermeer’s daughter’s or a niece, or of his patron’s daughter. It may be that Vermeer painted his daughters as they reached an age. They may have even helped to choose their own compromised, thematic situation. Why do I make this ‘leap’ of the
    imagination? A personal allusion from Vermeer is quite possible in this painting, which would bolster a familial link between the young woman and Vermeer!
    Examine, first, the Cupid. Is SHE a BOY or is HE a GIRL? Though the picture is large, it is not a certainty, as it would have been in the original Everdingen! Remember, too, that we have never seen the Everdingen original and more to the point, we have never seen the face of the Cupid in any of Vermeer’s other paintings! In the Lady Standing at the Virginals, both the Cupid and the Lady look out at the viewer, FULL-FACED, and their common features are similar – the hooded eyes, the round face and small mouths which are alike. The lady has sandy hair and dark eyes – the Cupid – the same dark eyes and more reddish blond hair that may be a memory of the lady as a child! Could Vermeer have androgenised the Cupid to fit a memory of the lady’s
    childhood? Then the woman may be the Cupid; may be a relative or a neighbour girl who is coming of age; as you may choose. The theme of the Lady at the Virginals is sure. A pregnancy and impure, intemperate behavior revealed in immaculate light and apparent innocence. Do we know that she is pregnant before she does?

  3. The link is to a gentleman playing the Mother and Child (Virginal with ottovino) Muselar with right-side keyboard and showing the space at the left of the body of the instrument where the “baby” resides. Vermeer painted this instrument in “the lady standing..” and “the lady seated at the virginal” and also “the music lesson”.

  4. This link is to the Ruckers Double Harpsichord such as the one played by the girl in Vermeer’s “the Concert” with a lute player. One can hear the lute quality of the second keyboard as was described under “The CONCERT” here at this site.

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