Johannes Vermeer Delft 1632 - 1675
- Johannes Vermeer
- A young woman seated at the virginals
- oil on canvas, in a fine French Louis XV carved and gilt wood frame
Possibly Pieter Claesz. van Ruijven, Delft;
Possibly by inheritance to his son-in-law, Jacob Dissius, his sale, Amsterdam, 16 May 1696, lot 37;
Probably Wessel Ryers, his sale, Amsterdam, v.d. Schley...de Vries, 21 September 1814, lot 93 (purchased by Gruyter);
Alfred Beit, London, by 1904 (probably acquired in the 1890s);
By inheritance to his brother, Otto Beit, in 1906;
By inheritance to his son, Sir Alfred Beit, Blessington, Ireland;
Sold by him in 1960, through Marlborough Fine Art, London, to Baron Frédéric Rolin, Brussels (died 2002);
By inheritance to the present owners.
London, Burlington Fine Arts Club, Winter Exhibition, Catalogue of a Collection of Pictures, Decorative Furniture and Other Works of Art, 1907, cat. no. 13;
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 8-27 May 2001, & London, National Gallery, Vermeer and the Delft School, 20 June-16 September 2001 (ex-catalogue)
W. Bode, The Art Collection of Mr. Alfred Beit at His Residence 26 Park Lane, Berlin 1904, pp. 11, 58;
C. Hofstede de Groot, A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch Painters of the Seventeenth Century, assisted by W.R. Valentiner, vol. I, London 1907, p. 592, cat. no. 24;
Jan Vermeer of Delft en Carel Fabritius, Amsterdam 1907, p. 25, cat. no. 14, reproduced facing p. 24;
G. Vanzype, Vermeer de Delft, Brussels 1908, p. 92;
E.V. Lucas, Vermeer of Delft, London 1910, p. 42, no. 37;
E.V. Lucas, “Vermeer of Delft”, in Outlook, March 1910, p. 485;
C. Hofstede de Groot, “ A Newly Discovered Picture by Vermeer of Delft”, in The Burlington Magazine, vol. XVIII, November 1910, pp. 133-134, H-d-G 24;
E. Plietzsch, Vermeer van Delft, Leipzig 1911, cat. no. 25, reproduced plate XXXIV;
G. Dreyfous, L’Oeuvre de Jan Vermeer de Delft, Paris 1912, p. 2;
W. Bode, Catalogue of the Collection of Pictures and Bronzes in the Possession of Mr Otto Beit, London 1913, pp. 9, 85, cat. no. 68, reproduced p. 3;
P.L. Hale, Jan Vermeer of Delft, Boston 1913, p. 275, reproduced facing p. 144;
A.E. Gallatin, “Vermeer of Delft”, in The American Magazine of Art, vol. VIII, August 1917, pp. 389, 390, cat. no. 32;
G. Vanzype, Jan Vermeer de Delft, Brussels 1921, p. 69, reproduced plate XXIII;
W. Hausenstein, Vermeer van Delft, Munich 1924, reproduced plate 38;
P.L. Hale, Vermeer, Boston 1937, p. 159, reproduced plate 34;
Ar.B. de Vries, Jan Vermeer van Delft, Amsterdam 1939, p. 95, cat. no. 43, plate 66;
E. Plietzsch, Vermeer van Delft, Munich 1938, cat. no. 45, reproduced;
T. Bodkin & L. Goldscheider, The Paintings of Jan Vermeer, New York 1940, p. 14, reproduced plate 48;
A.B. de Vries, Jan Vermeer de Delft, London 1948, cat. no. 39, reproduced p. 68 (as painted around 1800 by an imitator of Vermeer);
P.T.A. Swillens, Johannes Vermeer, Painter of Delft, Utrecht 1950, pp. 63, 108, 154, cat. no. 30, reproduced plate 30;
L. Goldscheider, Johannes Vermeer, London 1958, p.144, cat. no. VI, reproduced plate VI (as by a follower of Vermeer);
L. Goldscheider, Johannes Vermeer, London 1967, p.133, cat. no. 33, reproduced in colour, plate 75 (as by a follower of Vermeer);
R. Gimpel, Diary of an Art Dealer, New York 1967, p. 224;
G. Ungaretti, L’Opera completa di Vermeer, Milan 1967, p. 96, no. 39, reproduced;
P. Bianconi, with introduction by John Jacob, The complete paintings of Vermeer, London 1967, pp. 96-7, no. 39, reproduced;
L. Gowing, Vermeer, New York 1970, pp. 78, 157, reproduced plate 80;
C. Wright, Vermeer, London 1976, p. 15, reproduced plate 36;
A.K. Wheelock Jr., Jan Vermeer, New York 1981, p. 45, reproduced fig. 53 (as not by Vermeer);
B. Broos, “Vermeer: Malice and Misconception”, in Vermeer Studies, Studies in the History of Art (CASVA, National Gallery of Art, Washington) 55, Symposium Papers XXXIII, Washington 1998, p. 27, reproduced p. 29, fig. 14 (as “Unidentified Artist”);
W. Liedtke, et al., Vermeer and the Delft School, exhibition catalogue, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 8-27 May 2001, and London, National Gallery, 20 June-16 September 2001, pp. 403, 406 note 11, 581 note 46 (as deserving of consideration as an authentic work by Vermeer).
This picture was painted by Johannes Vermeer in about 1670. It is the last original composition by Vermeer left in private hands, the first to be offered at auction since 1921, and the first to be sold by any means since 1955. Inaccessible to scholars except through old photographs, the picture was for many years either dismissed or ignored completely, but, following recent extensive examination and analysis and also some light cleaning and restoration, its authenticity is now no longer disputed by any of the leading scholars of Vermeer, nor by any of a wide circle of scholars of 17th-century Dutch painting who have had the opportunity to study it at first hand.
Ever since his rediscovery in the 1860s by the French art historian Thoré-Bürger, Vermeer has had a unique and somewhat mysterious position in the history of 17th-century Dutch art. Unquestionably a genius, with a gift for the creation of contemplative mood and serene atmosphere that few if any have equalled, his works and style nonetheless had relatively little influence on his contemporaries. Although some of his paintings always retained their correct attributions, others did not, as his name became more or less entirely forgotten not long after his death.
Part of the reason for the lack of any lasting influence must have been that Vermeer, as has been so well described in recent scholarly and popular literature, worked in a very personal way, and seems to have had no pupils to whom these methods could have been passed on. While another artist could, perhaps, have imitated Vermeer’s general approach to composition without actually training with him, the specific effects of colour and lighting that ultimately define his style and his genius were largely the result of the precise mixtures and combinations of pigments and grounds that the artist applied to his canvases, allied with a particular gift for infinitely subtle modulations in tone. Maybe these techniques could never have been passed on to others, but in any case such a thing could only ever have been possible through a traditional, direct apprenticeship in Vermeer’s studio. It has, however, been agreed since the earliest days of Vermeer scholarship that he had no such apprentices or pupils: not only is there no documentary record of any such arrangement (apprenticeships had to be registered with the local painters’ guild), but there is also no body of surviving work, painted using Vermeer’s techniques and pigment combinations, but not actually by him, which would be the necessary result of his having had pupils.
A second factor contributing to Vermeer’s eclipse in the 18th- and earlier 19th-century literature of art must surely have been the sheer rarity of his works. Most modern scholars agree that there exist a mere 36 surviving works by Vermeer, and that while he must have painted a few other pictures that are now lost, the paintings that are known today nonetheless constitute the great majority of his entire output as an artist. Already by the 18th century, these 36 paintings were dispersed through Germany, France, Italy and England as well as Holland, so there were simply too few works by the artist available to earlier scholars of Dutch art for them to form a view of his style.
Once Thoré-Bürger had identified and defined Vermeer’s style in his ground-breaking publications in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts of 1866, the corpus of the artist’s paintings did, however, very rapidly coalesce, and although the early works continued to be debated even after the Second World War, by the early 20th century all the characteristic, original works of Vermeer’s maturity that are known today had already entered the literature. No previously unknown work of this type by Vermeer has been discovered in the past century, and it is therefore all the more significant that following a programme of research lasting more than 10 years, a panel of leading international scholars and conservators has now concluded that the present painting of A Young Woman Seated at the Virginals is indeed an autograph work by Vermeer, dating from around 1670. Although this painting has been long recorded in the literature, the confirmation of its previously disputed attribution represents an immensely important addition to the oeuvre of the mysterious Delft master.
The painting represents a musical theme familiar from several of Vermeer’s larger paintings, in particular the two in the National Gallery, London (figs. 1 and 2). It shows a young woman, three-quarters length, seated on a chair of rich blue velvet, her hands extended towards the keyboard of the virginals, a variant of the same instrument shown in one of the National Gallery’s paintings (see figs. 9 and 10). She is dressed in a yellow woollen shawl above a white satin dress or skirt, with pearls around her neck and an arrangement of red and white ribbons in her hair. As in Vermeer’s other small canvases, the figure and instrument are set against a plain wall, without any other compositional elements such as windows, curtains or background paintings; yet despite this, the artist has created a highly convincing and atmospheric impression of space and depth, thanks to the depiction of minute irregularities and holes in the plaster of the wall, and the presence of a delicate, unified light, which comes, as in most of Vermeer’s interiors, from the top left of the composition.
Very few paintings by Vermeer have been seen on the market since the 19th century, when the great majority of the artist’s known works were acquired either by the museums where they now reside, or by the collectors who subsequently gave them to those museums. During the last century, only one has ever been offered at auction (The Little Street, now in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, in 1921), and even including sales through dealers hardly a dozen works by Vermeer have been sold in that time. No other characteristic painting by the artist has changed hands since the 1950s, and A Young Woman Seated at the Virginals is the only such work that still remains in private hands.
It is possible, though far from certain, that this was one of the group of 21 pictures by Vermeer owned by the Delft bookseller and printer Jacob Dissius, who had inherited them from his father-in-law, Pieter van Ruijven, the man who seems to have been Vermeer’s most important patron. Dissius’ paintings were sold in Amsterdam on 16 May 1696. Unfortunately, the catalogue of this sale does not give the dimensions of the pictures, only a brief description of the subject of each, but in many cases this is still enough to identify the pictures that are known today, and some useful information can, therefore, be deduced from the prices realised by each painting. These ranged from the 200 guilders paid for the famous View of Delft (The Hague, Mauritshuis) down to 17 guilders paid for each of two unidentifiable “tronies” (a term used in the 17th century for a small painting of a single figure, shown head-and-shoulders, in an exotic or historical costume). After the View of Delft, the next two most expensive pictures were the Milkmaid (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum) which made 175 guilders, and the Woman Weighing Gold (National Gallery of Art, Washington, 155 guilders). In the middle range of prices were pictures such as The Music Lesson (London, The Royal Collection, 80 guilders), the Concert (currently missing from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston), which made 73 guilders, and the Woman writing a letter (Washington, National Gallery of Art, 63 guilders). One picture, lot 37 in the catalogue, is described as Een Speelende Juffrouw op de Clavecimbael (A Woman playing the Virginals). In terms of subject, this could either have been the picture now under discussion or one of the two now in the National Gallery, London, and the price it fetched, 42 guilders and 10 stuivers, does not help in clarifying which it actually was, since this seems a very low price for a major work such as one of the London pictures, but also perhaps rather high for a picture as small as this one.
Another early sale reference can be linked with rather more certainty to the present picture. Lot 93 in the Amsterdam sale of the collection of Wessel Ryers, on 21 September 1814, was described as a painting on panel by Vermeer of a young woman playing a clavichord, 10 inches by 8 inches. Other errors in the description of supports in this catalogue suggest that the fact the picture is described as being on panel rather than canvas should not be taken too seriously, and the dimensions given suggest very strongly that the picture sold must have been the present work, rather than one of the National Gallery pictures or a further, lost representation of the same subject.
The whereabouts of the present picture has, however, been securely documented since 1904, when it was published in the preliminary catalogue by Dr. Wilhelm Bode of the collection of Alfred Beit, a South African-born diamond magnate who was one of the few European-based collectors to rival the great early 20th-century art acquisitions of Americans such as Frick and Mellon. Beit, the majority of whose collections were eventually given to the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin, owned many great Dutch pictures of the 17th century, including another Vermeer, the Lady Writing a Letter, though when and where he acquired either of his Vermeers is not now known. When Beit died, the picture passed to his brother, Otto Beit, and then the latter’s son, Sir Alfred Beit, who eventually, in 1960, placed the picture on consignment with a London dealer. There it was seen by Baron Frédéric Rolin of Brussels, at the time a dealer in tribal art, who was also an occasional collector of Old Masters. Rolin fell in love with the picture, and even though he was aware that the attribution to Vermeer had by then been questioned, he acquired the little painting, in the time-honoured fashion of collectors who fall in love with a work of art, by giving in exchange four others from his collection, paintings by Klee, Signac, Bonnard and Riopelle. Baron Rolin died in 2002, and the painting is now offered for sale by his heirs.
Earlier Critical History
During the initial decades following its first publication in 1904, the picture was universally accepted and published as an autograph work by Vermeer. In the period before and during the Second World War, it was unanimously recognised by scholars, including Wilhelm Bode, Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, A.B. de Vries, Eduard Plietzsch and Ludwig Goldscheider. Then, following the dramatic events of the affair of the Van Meegeren forgeries of Vermeer, De Vries, the Director of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, and the recognised leading scholar on Vermeer, expressed doubts about the authenticity of the picture, doubts which he published in 1948, in the second edition of his book. Despite the fact that not long after this De Vries changed his mind again, in favour of the painting, and wrote several letters saying that if his book were to go into a third edition he would unequivocally rehabilitate the picture, the seeds of doubt were sown. In the event, no third edition of De Vries’ book was published, and the relative inaccessibility of the picture, particularly after its sale from the Beit collection in 1960, meant that subsequent scholars of Vermeer were inclined to relegate it to the margins of the artist’s work. A few, including Lawrence Gowing (1970) and Christopher Wright (1976) continued to accept it, but others, for the most part basing their assessments on poor old photographs, dismissed it, in an increasingly perfunctory way. Only during the last decade, since the picture was brought back into contact with the scholarly community, has it been examined seriously, and in the light of modern research and technology.
The first steps in the research programme
In 1993, Sotheby's was approached by Baron Rolin, with a request to undertake new research on the painting. It was agreed that a useful first step would be to compare the painting with the two larger representations of similar subjects in the National Gallery, London. The National Gallery generously agreed to remove their pictures from display and take them to the conservation laboratory, to enable the pictures to be compared under microscopes. Opinions on that day were divided: the conservators present (including David Bomford and Ashok Roy) unanimously felt that the three pictures they were looking at under the microscopes were all by the same hand, but the art-historians were less positive, saying that the stylistic and compositional differences between the pictures left the attribution of the small Rolin painting far from confirmed.
After this mixed reception, it was eventually decided that no further clarification would be achieved without a detailed scientific analysis of the painting, to establish once and for all its physical composition: was it or was it not a genuine 17th-century painting, and if so, precisely what materials and techniques had been used in its making? To this end, a complete scientific study was begun in 1995 by Libby Sheldon of University College London, in collaboration with her colleague Catherine Hassall, and in 1997 Nicola Costaras of the Victoria and Albert Museum joined this team, bringing with her a considerable technical knowledge of Vermeer’s work. This investigation demonstrated not only that the picture was unquestionably 17th-century, but also that its technical composition was entirely consistent with Vermeer’s known working methods. In particular, the composition of the ground layers was found to be entirely comparable with other works by the artist, and the pigments used were also appropriate.
In terms of determining the authenticity of the picture, the most significant pigments found during the scientific analysis were lead-tin yellow, green earth and ultramarine.
Lead-tin yellow, which is here used throughout the yellow shawl, was very widely employed from the Middle Ages until the end of the 17th century, but became obsolete thereafter, and was replaced by other yellows such as yellow ochre and Naples yellow. Indeed, knowledge of this pigment was rapidly forgotten, and it was not until 1941 that a scientist discovered that there was a tin component in this typical 17th-century yellow which distinguished it from other, later lead-based yellows. The fact that lead-tin yellow was the pigment used for the yellows in this picture immediately proves that it is at the very least a 17th-century painting and not, as some have suggested, a later imitation of Vermeer’s style.
The pigment green earth was also found in the picture, used in the flesh tones. This pigment seems to have been used only very rarely by 17th-century Dutch artists, but is regularly found in the flesh tones in Vermeer’s works. Otherwise, the use of green earth seems to have been limited to the Utrecht school. It is interesting to note in this context that Vermeer’s mother-in-law, Maria Thins, was in fact distantly related to Abraham Bloemaert, and herself possessed a significant collection of paintings by various Utrecht artists.
Libby Sheldon’s most important discovery as regards the pigments used in this painting relates, however, to by far the most expensive pigment available to a 17th-century Dutch artist, namely ultramarine. Made from ground lapis lazuli, this pigment was used to create blues of remarkable richness and depth, but on account of its great cost was only rarely used by artists of the period, and then only very sparingly, and in a very conspicuous way. Vermeer, however, used this pigment very extensively, not only for the small areas of rich deep blue that are so characteristic of his paintings, but also incorporating it, invisibly, in the creamy tones of his background walls. The subliminal enriching effect of this invisible use of the pigment is hard to quantify, but clearly Vermeer believed it was necessary to achieve the effects he desired; and this specific extravagance is something that has never yet been found outside the work of Vermeer. In the present picture, ultramarine is used in precisely this way, not only in the blue velvet chair back (fig. 3), but also, invisibly to the naked eye, throughout the background wall (fig. 4).
The canvas and priming
An immediately striking feature of the canvas used in this painting is that, although it is small in size, the weave of the fabric is relatively coarse; usually, when 17th-century artists made small canvas paintings, they used canvases made of much finer fabric, with a much higher thread-count per centimetre. The relatively rough canvas seen here is, however, exactly the same as that used by Vermeer in his only other canvas painting on this scale, the Lacemaker, in the Louvre (fig. 5). The similarities between the canvases of these two paintings do not stop there. Normally, canvases of this period show a significant difference in the thread count in each direction, creating a clear distinction between the “warp” and the “weft”, but in both these paintings the thread count in each direction is almost identical (12 threads per centimetre in each direction), which is extremely unusual in 17th-century Dutch painting. Furthermore, the minor irregularities in the weave of the fabric, which are always present in canvases and can be clearly seen on X-rays, show such similarities in pattern that it is almost certain that both canvases were cut from the very same bolt of cloth (fig. 6). What is more, the priming layers in each painting are also remarkably similar. Although many Dutch grounds, and particularly Delft grounds, appear similar in colour and texture to the naked eye, they do in fact vary significantly when cross-sections are analysed under the microscope, in terms both of the combinations of pigments that are present, and also of the microscopic sizes of the particles of each pigment, which are the result of the process of grinding the pigments in the artist’s or canvas-merchant’s workshop. The ground in this picture contains precisely the same combination of pigments as do those of several of Vermeer’s other paintings (notably the two National Gallery London paintings, and the Lacemaker), and the particle sizes are absolutely the same as in the Lacemaker, which means that both canvases must have been grounded at exactly the same time.
Other technical features
Sheldon’s study also revealed other significant facts, most importantly the presence in the picture of the characteristic pin-hole that is found in many of Vermeer’s pictures, at the vanishing-point of his perspectival scheme. She also found evidence, visible in the X-rays, of compositional changes that had been made to the picture, most notably in the yellow shawl. Originally it seems that the artist planned that the skirt would extend rather higher than it now does, and that the shawl would be consequently shorter; there is evidence that the initial blocking in of the folds of the skirt extend under the lower part of the present yellow shawl (fig. 7). In this lower area of the shawl, Sheldon also found two different layers of the same lead-tin yellow pigment, distinct, but with so little separation between them that they must have been applied within at the most a very few years of each other. The twin questions of whether the reworkings and revisions in the yellow shawl were made by the artist of the rest of the picture, and whether these changes were made as artistic revisions or to correct technical or condition problems could not be answered by this type of technical analysis, but Sheldon’s description of the physical construction of this part of the painting is highly important, because this lower section of the yellow shawl is the area that has been the focus of much of the negative criticism of the picture’s overall appearance. Although it should be noted that the yellow areas in Vermeer’s other paintings are often those in which there are the greatest problems as regards condition, there is no question that this is the most problematic part of the present painting. The structure of folds and shadows in the lower areas of the yellow shawl is not handled in a manner typical of Vermeer, and although careful study of the draperies in the artist’s other paintings does reveal a fairly wide range of different techniques, it seems possible that this part of the painting was to some extent reworked by another hand, either because the original glazes that defined the shadows in the drapery were damaged, or because this area remained to some extent unfinished. Lastly, Sheldon’s study also revealed that although the great majority of the picture surface was in fact very well preserved, there were nonetheless many tiny later retouchings, perhaps 19th-century in origin, which clearly had a significant effect on the painting’s overall visual appearance.
The second phase of the research programme
Following the initial confirmation that on a technical level the painting was completely consistent with Vermeer’s work, other side-by-side comparisons were made in New York in late 2000, after which Walter Liedtke requested the loan of the painting as a last-minute, ex-catalogue addition to his exhibition, Vermeer and the Delft School, which was due to open in New York a couple of months later, in March 2001. There, and subsequently also at the National Gallery, London, the picture was hung together with the National Gallery paintings and others, and the question of its attribution and authenticity was once again much discussed. The general conclusion from this debate was that the condition of the yellow shawl and the presence of the various later retouchings were together affecting the overall visual impression given by the picture to the extent that no firm conclusions about its attribution could be reached. It was therefore decided that a careful cleaning and restoration, coupled with further research and investigation, should be undertaken, and to this end an ad hoc committee was formed to oversee the whole project. The committee members were:
Martin Bijl (former Head of Paintings Conservation, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)
Frits Duparc (Director, Mauritshuis, The Hague)
Gregory Rubinstein (Sotheby’s)
Libby Sheldon (University College London Paintings Analysis)
Jørgen Wadum (Head of Paintings Conservation, Mauritshuis, The Hague)
Arie Wallert (Head of Paintings Conservation, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)
Ernst van der Wetering (Head of Rembrandt Research Project)
Marieke de Winkel (Costume Expert, Rembrandt Research Project)
Under the guidance of this committee, the painting was lightly cleaned and restored by Martin Bijl in 2002-3; the results of this restoration and the findings of the further research conducted by the committee members as part of the project are to be published in a collective group of articles in Oud Holland in the near future. Without pre-empting totally the contents of this forthcoming publication, the following are some of the main conclusions reached by the committee:
Many of the reservations that have been voiced about the picture over the years have resulted from the negative visual effects of later restorations, which though seemingly minor, had far-reaching visual effects. Following the removal of these restorations (fig. 8), it has been possible to see much more clearly the artist’s original construction of space and lighting, and this has led the committee members to conclude unanimously that the artist in question was Vermeer.
After detailed comparison with draperies in all Vermeer’s other pictures, it was agreed that the handling of folds and shadows in the lower part of the yellow shawl is untypical of the artist. Given that there are also two distinct layers of lead-tin yellow in this area, it must be concluded that this part of the picture was brought to completion after the rest of the composition, perhaps as much as a few years later. The committee members were, however, not able to conclude unanimously whether this later finishing within the yellow shawl was the result of damage in that area or because it had simply remained unfinished, or whether the final surface of this part of the yellow shawl was in fact painted by Vermeer himself at the end of his life, or by another hand.
The Rolin painting can be linked much more closely than was previously understood to the Lacemaker in the Louvre (fig. 5), a painting that is precisely the same size as this, and is the artist’s only other canvas painting on this small a scale. Much more than this, the research of the committee has revealed that the canvas on which these two pictures were painted, which has a highly distinctive pattern of threads, almost certainly originated from the very same bolt of cloth, and that the two canvases were grounded using precisely the same combination of pigments.
In terms of dating the picture, Marieke de Winkel has concluded that on the grounds of costume and hairstyle, the picture must date from within a year either side of 1670, from the same time as the Louvre Lacemaker, and from slightly before the paintings in the National Gallery, London.
Martin Bijl’s restoration of the picture in fact involved relatively little physical intervention. His chief tasks were the removal of the later retouchings, and a small amount of almost microscopic retouching of losses. Yet the transformation that this very minor intervention has brought to the overall appearance of the picture has been striking, and all those who have seen it both before and after restoration have agreed that it is only now that the picture conveys in a powerful and convincing way the sense of the figure’s presence in a three-dimensional space, set in front of a tangible background wall from which she is convincingly separated. The cool, serene lighting so typical of Vermeer has also only now fully reappeared; for those who have now seen the painting again, the re-emergence of this characteristic work by the most atmospheric and distinctive master of 17th-century Holland is a most astonishing and moving event.
Relationship with other paintings by Vermeer
Clearly, the subject of this painting suggests a relationship with the two Vermeer paintings of women playing similar instruments, in the National Gallery, London, which are generally dated around 1673-5. Indeed, the instrument seen here may well be the very same one as in the London Young Woman Seated at the Virginals (figs. 9 and 10). The conception of the picture is, however, rather different, in that the space within which the figure and instrument are placed is far less specifically defined, without the floors, curtains, background pictures and windows seen in the London paintings. The National Gallery paintings are, however, both very much larger in scale than this, and the setting of a single figure against only a plain background wall is entirely characteristic of Vermeer’s approach to a small, single-figure composition, as is clear not only from the Louvre Lacemaker but also from earlier paintings such as the famous Girl with a Pearl Earring in the Mauritshuis, The Hague. In Vermeer’s other works on this scale the figure is usually larger in relation to the picture space and placed closer to the picture plane than here, but this unique compositional approach cannot be used as an argument to contest the attribution as at least half a dozen of the artist’s 36 surviving paintings have no obvious compositional parallels in his other works.
As regards the dating of the picture, the most significant information is that provided by Marieke de Winkel, costume expert for the Rembrandt Research Project, who has established, on the basis of research using a wide range of sources including contemporary letters, prints, paintings and doll’s houses, that the hair-style and arrangement of hair-ribbons seen in this picture were fashionable only for a couple of years at the most, around 1670. The combination of hair pulled back into a bun with ringlets hanging down on each side and a mix of thin red and white ribbons in the hair (fig. 13) soon gave way in popular fashion to the style seen in the two London paintings, where the hair is still drawn back into a bun, but with numerous small decorative curls around the hairline and no ringlets or other embellishments (figs. 15 and 16). The Louvre Lacemaker, which is generally dated around 1670 on stylistic grounds, shows very much the same hairstyle (fig. 14) as that seen here, and this, together with the technical evidence linking the two pictures, suggests very strongly that the present painting of A Young Woman seated at the Virginals should also be dated to around 1670, making it Vermeer’s first exploration of the theme that was to provide the subject for his two famous paintings in the National Gallery.
This proposed chronology also seems plausible in relation to another painting by Vermeer with a musical subject, the Guitar Player, in the Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood House, London (fig. 11). Rather more animated in mood than the three very contemplative pictures of women at the keyboards, the Kenwood painting, which is generally dated circa 1672, shows a young woman with a hairstyle similar to that seen in both the Rolin picture and the Lacemaker, but rather looser and less formal and without any decorative ribbons, which seems to have been the route taken by fashions of the day immediately before the emergence of the style seen in the two National Gallery paintings. There are also striking similarities between the features of the sitters in the Rolin and Kenwood pictures, and the fact that the latter clearly shows a slightly older girl suggests that Vermeer may well have used the same model for both paintings. The extent to which Vermeer based his female figures on members of his own household and the specific identities of the various people depicted have not been widely discussed in the art-historical literature, but there has been much speculation elsewhere that the artist’s daughters were the models for a number of paintings. Tracy Chevalier, Simon Jenkins and others have argued that the girl seen in the two National Gallery paintings was Vermeer’s eldest daughter, Maria, while the Kenwood picture and the present work, and possibly also the Louvre Lacemaker (though the features in that painting are hidden) show her younger sister, Elizabeth. Any such identification remains, of course, speculative, but our understanding of Vermeer’s laborious working method does make it likely that he would have used his children as his models, and the facial similarities between the young women in certain pictures lend much credence to these theories.
Whether or not this painting of a Young Woman Seated at the Virginals depicts one of the artist’s own daughters, the fact that it is now, after half a century, once again accepted as an autograph work by Vermeer represents an extremely important addition to our understanding of his artistic development. Like the Lacemaker, this is a strikingly intimate and direct representation of a domestic activity, in which the picture space is defined not by walls or by background details, but by light alone. But it is also the painting in which Vermeer explored for the first time a subject that was to provide him with the inspiration for two of the greatest productions of his final years.