One of the stars of the National Gallery’s Vermeer show, The Guitar Player, is usually on permanent display, free, in a room which includes work by Frans Hals and one of the most moving self-portraits Rembrandt ever made. Their home is the glorious Robert Adam house, Kenwood, on Hampstead Heath, which is just round the corner from me and is currently under scaffolding while it is being restored. I can’t wait for them all to come home, so a Sunday walk on the Heath can be finished off with a visit to see them. No crowds, no queues.
There are only 36 Vermeer paintings in the world – London’s National Gallery own two, the Queen has a bigger, earlier one and now, with access to another while Kenwood is closed, art historians have had an opportunity to do some scientific research into this Dutch artist who is so popular, despite the paucity of his output. In fact, with a total of five Vermeers on view, there are more together in London right now than at the Rijksmuseum.
In Vermeer and Music – The Art of Love and Leisure (until 8 Sept) the National Gallery offers a unique perspective on art. All of the Vermeers displayed depict someone making music. Combining other artists of the same period, the curators have themed works of musical performance with instruments from the time, as well as the chance to hear musicians of today playing on similar pieces. It’s a very civilised combination, bringing the subtleties within these very quiet and contemplative works to new life. So you see Vermeer’s rather gauche girl strumming her guitar, with its strange black and white edging and behind the painting is the identical instrument. Or Ter Brugghen’s swaggering musician, playing on a lute and can then study an instrument from the period. There is also an exquisite interior by Gerrit Dou of a woman playing a clavichord, reminding one that although Vermeer may be the drawcard, there were others who captured the same intimacy and social subtext as he did. These tiny canvasses hold enormous power as they detail a moment in a story that is left for the viewer to complete.
The final room is a technical examination Vermeer’s application of paint and pigments, giving a conservator’s perspective on the artist.
The show won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it’s worth ensuring that you visit at a time which coincides with the live performances.