A Girl Interrupted at her Music: Understanding the painting

As I mentioned in my last post, my new article will deal with the background against which A Girl Interrupted at her Music was created.  First of all, I would like to consider the issue of courtship.  Courtship was a very popular motif and Vermeer made use of it in several occasions. However, the facial expressions of the protagonists do not give us a clue of what they are thinking or feeling. Therefore, we have to draw our own conclusions.  Is this a scene depicting a scene of amorous courtship? Is this merely a music lesson?

The well-to-do Dutch had very well-furnished houses. Many included elements such as carved furniture, glassware, exotic carpets or porcelain. All of these elements can be observed in our painting, and that  conveys the idea that the lady and the cavalier belong to the haute bourgeoisie of the times. Englishmen used to say that the furniture was so clean and in good order that Dutch houses appeared to be designed for an exhibition rather than for a living space. The concept of the Dutch room will be referenced back when analyzing the painting in upcoming articles.

In the 17th century, the association between music and love was a metaphor for an amorous relationship. In fact, music-making  was one of the activities which permitted young people to freely associate with each other without the presence of parents or older guardians. On the table, there lies a cittern, one of the most popular instruments of the 17th century and also one of the most frequenly depicted by Vermeer. A cittern sounds a bit like the virginal and it was used for accompanying the singing voice or for dancing music. The people Vermeer chose to represent would have ideally belonged to the haute bourgeoisie, who normally collected songbooks, one of which can be observed on the table. Songbooks played an important role in modern courtship. For instance, young musicians had a vast choice of foreign and local songbooks, which were called liedboeken or collections of love songs. These books frequently reflected the local culture containing references to favourite meeting places for lovers, taverns and so on and so forth.

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Until the 1630s, outdoor garden parties where young men and women caroused playfully had been a very popular motif. This can be observed in The Garden Party by Jan Steen, a contemporary of Vermeer. However, the key innovator, Willem Buytewech lost interest in this successful garden motif and decided to bring people indoors. He depicted the haute bourgeoisie as surrounded by luxury furnishings and decorative items such as wall maps. This is the trend that Vermeer will follow in order to create his famous interiors.

The last topic I would like to point out, is the fact that Vermeer inspires himself. A Girl Interrupted at her Music shares much with The Glass of Wine: both portray a gentleman attending a young lady in a moment of courtship, and the position of the couple is more or less the same.

Apart from getting inspiration from his own work, Vermeer also inspired his famous artpieces on painters such as Van Mieris or Metsu, also his contemporaries, and who also depicted scenes of courtship.

Now that we know a little more about the background that surrounded Vermeer and his creations, I will move on to consider, in my next article, the most outstanding elements or details found in A Girl Interrupted at her Music.

Ariane Sande

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