Text by Geoffrey Smith
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It is well known that Vermeer produced very few pictures. Out of a lifetime output of possibly fifty canvases (scholarly estimates vary between forty-three and sixty), perhaps only thirty-five survive. Today this scarcity enhances an inherent preciousness which is underpinned by Vermeer’s extraordinary technique, but after his death the paucity of his output (much of which went to a single collector) contributed to two centuries of obscurity. Although it is not altogether true that he was totally forgotten, his posthumous reputation was certainly consigned to the shadows until 1866 when the French critic Théophile Thoré published a study which catapulted Vermeer towards stardom.
This picture is a superb example of the reasons for his fame. A young woman stands at the virginal, but it seems that her attention is elsewhere for she stares absentmindedly out of the picture towards the viewer. There is no doubt as to the reasons for her preoccupation — behind her a painting shows Cupid holding up a single card. His presence is a very obvious reference to affairs of the heart; his gesture with the card has been interpreted as symbolic of fidelity to a single loved one. The empty chair may possibly allude to the absent subject of her thoughts.
Vermeer has studied the fall of light from the window in minute detail; how it emphasises the intricate relief of the gilded frame surrounding the landscape painting on the back wall near to the window; how it highlights the upholstery studs which have been used to finish the blue chair; how it intensifies the lustre of the pearls which adorn the neck of the young woman, especially, of course, those nearest the window; how it accentuates the creases of her dress and intensifies the lustrous sheen of the satin. In order to record these minute details Vermeer almost certainly used the camera obscura which helped him to focus on the exact nature of the surface of velvet and satin and even the wall.
Vermeer’s painstaking working methods, compounded by constant revisions, were the major reasons behind his pronounced lack of fecundity and this in turn contributed to his constant money problems which do not seem to have been eased by his income from his other businesses as an art dealer and also perhaps as a publican.
But these thorough and meticulous working methods were the key to the creation of a body of work which is now amongst the most admired in all Western art. Vermeer’s harmonious but enigmatic compositions stir the soul and the intellect in equal measure. In this picture he has preserved the mysterious stillness and solemnity of a brief moment, a prosaic moment which has been so profoundly realised that it transcends its banal context.
Image: Courtesy of the National Gallery, London
1669 Rembrandt: The Return of the Prodigal Son, St Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum
1670 Bartolomé Esteban Murillo: Christ healing the Paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda; London, National Gallery
1672 Claude Lorrain: Night; St Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum