Intimate view of Vermeer

Vermeer Guitar Player

Johannes Vermeer (1632 – 1675)
The Guitar Player, about 1672
Oil on canvas
53 x 46.3 cm
On loan from English Heritage, The Iveagh Bequest (Kenwood)
© English Heritage

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.

Man with Lute

Hendrick ter Brugghen (1588 – 1629)
A Man playing a Lute, 1624
Oil on canvas
100.5 x 78.7 cm
The National Gallery, London
Inv. NG6347
© The National Gallery, London


2 thoughts on “Intimate view of Vermeer

  1. To see one Vermeer paining is an unforgettable experience. Last year, I saw the National Gallery’s Vermeers with only a few others in the room. In Amsterdam, one had to wait one’s turn to get a brief look at their Vermeers. The Metropolitan Museum currently has its five Vermeers on show together, while the Frick Museum is displaying the adorable “Girl with the Pearl Earring.” Unfortunately, Boston’s Vermeer, stolen over twenty years ago, is still missing. What a loss, considering that only 36 of these glorious paintings exist.

    • Thanks for visiting Mike! And you will be happy to know that Kenwood on Hampstead Heath is now open again and one can see Vermeer’s The Guitar Player up close, along with all the other amazing paintings that are in the Iveagh Bequest.

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