….Understanding The Concert

Arthur Wheelock

Jan Vermeer
1981, p. 120-121

The Concert and The Music Lesson are two paintings that point out the difficulties of interpreting precisely the meanings of Vermeer’s works. The theme of music is a frequent one in Dutch art and is generally associated with love and seduction. Paintings by Steen, Van Mieris, and Metsu often include a small statue of Cupid surmounting a door or mantelpiece as a reference to the underlying emotional context of the scene. Associations with love and seduction are also evident in the general attitudes or the figures in these paintings. The music instructor frequently appears more than professionally interested in his student and her progress as a musician.

Vermeer, however, did not provide such clear meanings for his paintings. His choices of objects offered tantalizing suggestions, but the attitudes of his figures remain surprisingly neutral. In the background on the right of The Concert, for example, hangs The Procuress by Baburen. The subject of this scene has often been thought to indicate the nature of the relationship of the three figures involved in the concert before it. These figures, however, are earnestly concentrating on their music, and do not, in themselves, reinforce the licentious nature of the scene portrayed on the wall.

If we assume that Vermeer intentionally placed The Procuress and the landscape to its left on the wall, how are we to interpret this scene? One solution could be that the figures were meant to be in contrast to the paintings rather than to represent, as it were, a tableau vivant, music was also used as a symbol for harmony and as a salve for the soul. With such an interpretation, we note also that the landscape on the clavecin is peaceful and Arcadian whereas that on the wall is rugged, in the manner of Jacob van Ruisdael. It includes a dead tree trunk, a motif Ruisdael was fond of using to indicate death and decay.

In this sense the theme of The Concert parallels that of The Music Lesson more closely than one might expect. One may rightly question the appropriateness of the title of The Music Lesson. The gentleman, who is very properly dressed, seems more intent on listening than on instructing. No written music is evident in the formal and spacious interior. As in The Concert, the theme seems to be the mollifying effects of music on the human soul. On the cover of the clavecin is written: Musica Letitiae C()[me]s Medicina Dolor[um] (Music: Companion of Joy, Balm for Sorrow). By placing the girl so that her back is to us, Vermeer effectively underplayed the importance of her personality and of any relationship between her and the man, allowing us to ponder the significance of music in our lives.

The similarities between The Concert and The Music Lesson are such that they have often been dated at the same time. Both the conception of the scene and the painting techniques of The Concert, however, place it around 1665-66, sometime after the conception of The Music Lesson. The mood of The Concert is more relaxed than that of The Music Lesson. The figures seem to belong naturally to the room and to participate in the rhythm of the music. The case in their demeanor probably resulted from Vermeer’s experiences in depicting the series of single figures during the years 1662 to 1665.

The ways in which the women’s yellow jackets are painted are also strikingly different in the two paintings. In The Music Lesson the paint is densely applied. Shadows are almost totally created by a thin glaze that covers this opaque layer. In The Concert the colors of the dress are painted more sparingly. Shadows, particularly in the skirt, are formed with the ground color rather than with glazes over opaque yellows. The effect of the painting is softer and more delicate than that of The Music Lesson.

Unfortunately, this change to a more delicate technique created serious problems of physical condition. Some paintings from the mid-1660s, including The Concert and the Woman with a Lute, have suffered from abrasion. Perhaps Vermeer recognized this potential problem, for he painted in this manner for only a short while. In his later works his style became crisper and his paint denser; he depended less extensively on glazes and transparent effects to create his images than he did in The Concert.

Source of information: http://www.essentialvermeer.com/cat_about/concert.html