Seventeenth-century musical instruments hang in space inside their glass cases at the National Gallery’s exhibition Vermeer and Music: a cittern, a viol, a guitar. These are works of art in their own right. The exhibition even has a resident ensemble playing the sounds of the baroque age. But the music that wins out here is not baroque. It is the blues.
Vermeer’s blues are silent, but they touch your soul. In his painting A Young Woman Standing at a Virginal, a blue-upholstered chair in the foreground matches the blue silk on her dress. Both are ultramarine blue, an expensive pigment obtained from the rare mineral lapis lazuli. Vermeer also uses green earth: this young woman’s face is richly tinged with it. The effect is to darken the emotional atmosphere – to fill the eye with blue notes.
Music was the food of love in 17th-century Netherlands. In a tradition that goes back to the early Renaissance, lutes and sweet harmonies were the stuff of seduction. So here we see all kinds of variations on this sexy theme by artists of Vermeer’s day. In a painting by Pieter de Hooch, a man and woman chat flirtatiously in a shady courtyard to live musical accompaniment.
Vermeer takes it to another level. Painting during the scientific revolution, he is the Isaac Newton of love. He examines desire under the microscope. The microscope was, in fact, being developed in Holland at the time, and his painting The Guitar Player is a fantasia on optics: brilliant light plays on surfaces we seem to see as if magnified, the glow of intense colour transfiguring pearls, clothes, and guitar strings into near-abstract luminescences. Look at her hair: it is like a sea creature in close-up.
Vermeer’s women play music, and the music is sexual. That young woman at the virginal stands under a painting of Cupid. Another woman sits at a virginal; a prostitution scene hangs on the wall behind her.
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