Vermeer’s Virginals

Hi everyone!!! Hope you all had a terrific weekend. Today is Labor Day but it’s still Monday and that means . . . :drumroll: . . . “Music Monday”! 🙂

This 1665 painting by Johannes Vermeer is called either A Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman or The Music Lesson. I don’t know which one is correct. Either way, I love it. Before I even began writing this post, I gazed at this work for many minutes admiring the composition. The perspective is genius. You can really perceive the depth and space of the room and the presence of the objects; the cello on the floor, the pitcher on the table, the windowpanes. Vermeer’s placing of the figures at such a distance – the farthest away point of the room – has the effect of enhancing their significance rather than minimizing it. The viewer looks right at them, feeling as if we are eavesdropping on a private lesson:

A virginal is a keyboard instrument similar to the harpsichord that was popular in the Medieval and Renaissance periods. (The word “virginals” with an S can denote both singular and plural.) Although a smaller instrument, the virginal shares a similar internal construction to the harpsichord; wire strings are “plucked” when played. Many virginals, though, were not built on legs like harpsichords and pianos, but instead were just placed on a table. The origin of the name “virginals” is not known for sure. Wikipedia discusses a few possible explanations:

One theory derives it from the Latin virga meaning a rod, perhaps referring to the wooden jacks that rest on the ends of the keys. However, this theory is unproven. Another possibility is that the name derives from the instrument’s association with female performers, or its sound, which is like a young girl’s voice (vox virginalis). Other views are that the term comes from the word virgin as it was most commonly played by young women, or that the name derives from the Virgin Mary as it was used by nuns to accompany hymns in honour of the Virgin.

Here is the acclaimed harpsichordist Sophie Yates performing a piece on virginals called “The Queen’s Command”:

Again from Vermeer, this is Lady Standing at a Virginal:

Virginals fall into one of two categories: the “spinet” style which was constructed mostly in Italy and England, and the “muselar” style constructed in Northern Europe. The main difference is that in the spinet virginals the keyboard is placed left of center, while in the muselar it is right of center. Also, some virginals are built with the keyboard protruding from the body, while others have a recessed keyboard within the body. Depending on the region and social class, virginals ranged anywhere from a plain, no-frills, unadorned wood appearance, to an elaborate showy design with mother-of-pearl inlays, ivory, marble, even semi-precious stones.

I was thrilled to come across this outstanding blog post from the Essential Vermeer art history website. It is a must-read for all things Vermeer, and they did a terrific job discussing his virginals paintings. Here’s an excerpt:

Vermeer’s virginals appear so authentically rendered that we can scarcely believe he did not paint them from model. However, such expensive instruments were surely out of his economic reach. Dutch music expert Edwin Buijsen believes that they could have been seen at the home of the music lover Cornelis Graswinckel, who was related by marriage to Vermeer’s patron Pieter van Ruijven. Nor is it impossible that on one occasion Vermeer traveled to nearby The Hague to admire the famous collection of musical instruments belonging to Constantijn Huygens.

There are more music samples on that site so check it out. I will conclude here with one more beautiful Vermeer. This is Lady Seated at a Virginal from 1672. Isn’t she adorable?

4 thoughts on “Vermeer’s Virginals

  1. Fred says:

    Wonderful examples, Claudia. Vermeer amazes for his realism, his sense of light and texture, but what really blows me away is his sense of composition, which still strikes me as bold and dynamic 350 years later.

  2. Fred says:

    I imagine this instrument would still be popular today if not saddled with the unfortunate name. If the instrument were called the slutty everyone would want to play it!

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