Lady Standing at a Virginal: Johannes Vermeer

Lady Standing at a Virginal: Johannes Vermeer

Lady Standing at a Virginal is a genre painting by Dutch Golden Age artist Johannes Vermeer. It was created in 1670. This work is located in the National Gallery in London, United Kingdom.

Typical of Vermeer’s style, it shows an indoor scene where a woman in sumptuous clothing is looking our way as she lays hands on a virginal, a keyboard instrument resembling a piano, also known as a spinet, and very common in the Baroque age.

She is standing in the corner of a room with tiled floors; two paintings hang on the wall behind her while one painting decorates the lid of the virginal. A blue chair is seen on the right of this relatively small painting and narrow scene, where no other object clutters the space, and indeed the area to the woman’s back offsets the fullness of the opposite side with its vacuity.

The distinctive blue-and-white tiles and the wainscoting above them are recognisable as those found in the city of Delft, in Holland, where the artist lived, worked, and enjoyed a good standing. The two landscape paintings we espy, on the wall and the instrument, may represent a citation of contemporary Dutch art (see Jan Wijnants and Allart van Everdingen).

The painting of Cupid that we see, larger than the other two and centrally placed, is identifiable as Cupid Showing a Parchment, a topos of Dutch art observable, for ex., in Caesar van Everdingen. Elsewhere in Vermeer, we see it in Girl Interrupted at Her Music (c. 1659), where the Cupid in the dark background was uncovered by the restoration of 1907.

The appearance of Cupid, the god of erotic love, in Vermeer’s art remains a matter of interpretation. It likely alludes to the virtue of fidelity, the parchment constituting a writ or an injunction to it, so to speak. Erotic love is thus offered as something to devote to one person only. Miniature Cupids can be detected on the pattern of the wainscoting, which is the same as in The Milkmaid (c. 1658).

The wealthy lady depicted is adorned by the finery of her cascading dress, her pearl necklace, and her decorated chignon. Possibly a merchant’s wife, she stands here depicted as a wealthy woman of taste. The arts of painting and music which she has arranged around her may signify her higher education or her belonging to the leisurely class. She may thereby be signalling her adherence to the upper-class fashion of her age, both through her selection of attributes to display and her decision to have herself painted. A dispassionate viewer might perceive an air of affectation. Vanitas, instead, might be implied in the music, an ephemeral glimpse of beauty in everyday life.

The uncertain dating of this artwork (between 1670 and 1672), as is the case with the rest of Vermeer’s oeuvre, is the product of inference, given the almost total absence of documentation about Vermeer’s life. It is the style and the fashion of the woman’s clothing which afford us a clue as to when the painting was likely executed. This puts it in obvious relation to Lady Seated at a Virginal (same dating), with which it may have constituted a pair of pendants.

Vermeer, an artist who never became rich from his art (and left his wife in debt upon his passing), distinguished his art through the use of expensive pigments. This painting affords an example of extensive use of lapis lazuli, on the chair and the pavement.

Lady Standing at a Virginal demonstrates also another Vermeer trait: a precise, naturalistic rendition of light. In this case, natural light traverses the scene from the left at a soft slant and illuminates, with particular vividness, the gold-coloured frame of the picture on the wall and the Lady’s dress. While her face, back to the light source, is elegantly shaded, the rich composition of her attire jumps to the eye as the light aids from behind the clear distinction of the blue from the white and of the pendant shapes around the arm one from another. The coldness of the light which Vermeer chose to deploy makes this impression of sedate distinctness possible.

The painting, like its many kin in Vermeer’s repertoire, serves as an excellent exhibition of his themes and techniques. Besides the abovementioned naturalistic lighting, the viewer should note the variety of perfectly accomplished brushstrokes. The pearl necklace was achieved through careful droplets of white. The highly demanding creases along the sleeve came to life thanks to ingenious strokes of rich, abundant colour, so as to materialise patches of shaded colour beside patches of more vivid pigment. The Lady’s sleeve is indeed that part of the whole which draws us close up because we wish to see what passage of the brush has made it possible. Finally, the softest brushstrokes, those enabling a colour gradient much appreciated by Vermeer’s Dutch contemporaries, are found on the eggshell wall, where the major and the minor shadows are so clear to the eye yet so essentially phantasmal.

A decade after Vermeer’s death the painting was likely owned by Nicolaes van Assendelft of Delft. In 1696 it was sold at an auction alongside other Vermeer paintings. Its critical rediscovery, like that of Vermeer himself, was in part the merit of Théophile Thoré-Bürger in the 19th century, who also owned Lady Seated at a Virginal as part of his collection. The National Gallery of London, finally, purchased it in 1892.

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