A Girl Interrupted at her Music: ‘It’s all about the details’

One of the unique features of Dutch painting is its interest in creating realistic scenes of everyday life which, paradoxically, contain symbolic content indicating that there is more to the picture than what meets the eye. Right now, I would like to analyze what I consider to be the most outstanding elements or details of this painting. 

In order to do that, I have signalled in this picture, all the specific details that I will be considering.

First of all, we have a leaned, multi-paned window. I have included a modern drawing of that those windows were supposed to look like. The design was a complex pattern of interlocking squares. Although the window is almost invisible at first sight, it is, along with these black and white marble floorings, one of the most characteristic features of Vermeer’s interiors.

Secondly, we can observe a birdcage on the side wall. Conservators claim that the birdcage is an addition by a later hand since it is more freshly painted than the rest of the elements and, what is more, it was not part of Vermeer’s original design. Birdcages were a popular feature in Dutch painting and had various symbolic meanings such as the inprisonment of love. In my opinion, this later hand might be giving us a clue of what is happening between these two people.

In this painting, Vermeer included three examples of Spanish chairs. They were elements that belonged to the well-furnished houses of the well-to-do Dutch that I mentiones in my last article. In this picture, we can see one of the Spanish chairs in much more detail and we can also observe the carved detailing:

The thin-necked vaseis most likely a wine jug made in Delft, which was one of the principal centers of porcelain production in the Netherlands. They were trying to make imitations of Chinese porcelain with little success; however, they succeeded in making thin, light earthenware decorated in blue in the Chinese style, and they succeeded so much that their products were even exported to China. Also, in its heyday, more than thirty potteries operated in Delft.

The Cupid painting in the back wall might be there in order to reinforce the idea of amorous courtship. Vermeer experts point out that the Cupid might indicate that love is in the air; however, the painting inside out painting is in such a bad state that is it almost impossible to decipher the true story behind the Cupid painting. Nonetheless, there are several theories going around, and one of them assures that the hanging painting corresponds to this one that I am enclosing, although, of course, this is just conjecture:

The wine glass is depicted in such discretion that it could easily go unnoticed. However, it was introduced in order to enhance the theme of seduction. In fact, wine-drinking and music-making, both overlapping sujects in Vermeer’s interior designs were associated in the 17th century with love. Manners books established that wine should be drunk in two or three times. Here, the glass of wine stands untouched as if to underline the efforts on both parts (the cavalier and the lady) to maintain composure.

Another feature to take into consideration is the girl’s red garment. This element is perhaps the one that has suffered the most through agressive restorations, and nowadays looks flattened and without much substance. Most likely, Vermeer employed the technique called ‘glazing’ to achieve its cherry-red colour. Also, the type of headgear worn by the young woman (the linen cap) was partly ornamental and served to protect the hairdo before and after dressing. The Low Countries had been famous for cloth manufracture since the Middle Ages. It remained the most important part of the Dutch industrial economy.

The cavalier bends over the young lady and puts the music sheet in her hands. Although his eyes are lowered, experts say that his amorous purposes are apparent. Vermeer might have drawn inspiration from paintings such as Teasing the Pet by Frans Van Mieris even though Vermeer reworked the whole body language and facial expressions so as to show a much more restraint atmosphere. The similarities and diferences between the two paintings can be observed in the following pictures:

The last ‘detail’ I want to point out is looking out of the picture. In order to explain my point, I would like to quote Arthur Wheelock, a Vermeer expert:

Most Dutch genre painters included scenes with specific actions. However, Vermeer’s attempts at depicting movement or activities such as laughing and drinking resulted in artificial poses. In this painting, Vermeer arrived at the solution for this problem: the momentary interruption. This device allowed him to suggest movement without the need for specific gestures or facial expressions. She, rather than concentrating on the music they hold, looks out at the viewer.

Alberti, who invented linear perspective, suggested that artists might include a ‘commentator’ to guide the viewer of the painting through the painting  and to tell him exactly where to look. This sort of ‘insider’, who straddles two worlds (inside and outside the painting) is simultaneously in the work but not in the work. These pictorial commentators were a common motif in Dutch paintings. This can be appreciated in Van Baburen’s Loose Company, a contemporary of Vermeer (on the left). The young lady who looks out of the picture in A Girl Interrupted at her Music seems to have more on her mind than the protagonists of Loose Company. Her gaze is far more enigmatic than that of her smiling counterpart in The Girl with a Wine Glass (on the right), also by Vermeer.

Our lady seems unwilling or unable to tell us something and, in my opinion, her story cannot be fully understood. Nevertheless, the elements that I attempted to explain and analyze in this article might give us a clue of what is going on in this painting.
Ariane Sande