The guitar player (Vermeer)

The Guitar Player is one of the most beautiful examples of Vermeer’s late style.

I’ve chosen this picture as I find the concept of the presence of music in painting amazing. To my mind Jan Vermeer managed to achieve complete synthesis of these two types of art and as a result, the composition turned out to be full of inspiration and harmony.

It is not easy to understand the space that the young girl inhabits but she appears to be quite far from the background wall even though the golden frame seems to bind her closely to it. We might assume that the hidden window to the far right was similar in structure to other windows found in Vermeer’s interiors with two lower and two upper casements. The upper casements had shutters that could be closed from the inside while the lower shutters were on the exterior of the house. Thus, the curtains such as the one seen in this painting were used to shield incoming light and indiscreet eyes. It would seem that the light which floods the girl comes from a second window nearer to the artist.

According to art historian Elise Goodman, Vermeer’s Guitar Player belongs to a construct that may be called the “lady and the landscape” which was a popular, international convention for glorifying female beauty in the 17th-century painting, prints and literature. A typical example of this convention is Palma Vecchio’s Lady with a Lute which represents a female musician in front of an idyllic landscape.

The idea that a lady was a “masterpiece of nature” to be admired, appeared in countless poems, songs and tracts on women in the 17th century.Vermeer recalls the dangling curls of the young girl’s hair in the hanging branches of the idyllic landscape directly behind her head.

Assuming the date generally assigned to that picture (1671-1672) John M . Montias, expert of Vermeer’s life and extended family, considers that  the young girl could be Maria, Vermeer’s eldest daughter, at the age of seventeen or eighteen. But Vermeer’s paintings were not intended as biographical statements. Even though they do represent contemporary settings and modes, they were not meant to reflect the conditions of his personal life.

Vermeer  built this composition on a different principle. As he drew the focus of his composition away from the center of the painting. The girl is placed so far to the left that her arm is cut by the edge. Light falls to the left and a landscape hangs behind the girl on the back wall. The off-center composition is further emphasized by the direction of the girl’s glance. Vermeer probably was reacting against the balanced, contained quality of his earlier work. Arthur K. Wheelock pointed out the uniqueness of this atypical composition.

It’s important to pay attention to the rare canvanas of the picture. Canvas relining of paintings is normally required every few generations as the fibers of linen weaken. The Guitar Player represents an exception in 17th-century painting in that it has not been relined and is still attached to its original strainer. This gives the picture a freshness and vibrancy often lost when canvasses have been relined by the application of heavy irons and heat.

The radiant joy of the Guitar Player is perplexing in the light of Vermeer’s private life. In the years when this picture was painted, the artist faced grave financial difficulties brought on by an ever-growing family which was eventually exacerbated by an economic collapse. Whether the unusual compositional formula and abbreviated technique of the Guitar Player was fruit of an artistic collaboration with a client or the artist’s attempt to overcome his stinging personal hardships, it remains, nonetheless, the happiest of his works.


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