Looking for meaning in Vermeer’s ‘The Music Lesson’

Throughout his career as an artist Vermeer painted several exquisite paintings of women either playing their musical instruments or involved in a music lesson.  All of these paintings have hidden messages, they are telling a story. In ‘The Music Lesson’ the girl is playing an instrument called the ‘Virginal’. On the lid of the virginal there is an inscription in Latin which translates as: “Music is the companion for joy and a medicine for suffering”. Vermeer has painted the lady so that we can only see the back of her head which looks as though she is concentrating on playing her instrument but look closely; just above her Vermeer has positioned a mirror so that we can see that her head is turned to look at the handsome young music teacher. Vermeer is hinting that she is concentrating more on him than on her music lesson!

‘The Music Lesson’ is seen as being one of the most refined of Vermeer’s painting; every single object and it’s placement and use of light and shadow has been carefully calculated.  The painting has been analysed with great precision by  academics in many different fields. Of particular interest is the perspective. The Vanishing Point is just at the point of the  woman’s sleeve, you can take a ruler and see that all lines lead into that and the composition has been planned with incredible mathematical accuracy. Very close up you can actually see the hole in the canvas at this point, made by a pin. Every part of the composition: the angle of the windows, the pattern of the floor, the series of rectangles behind her, all leads the eye to the woman as the focal point. During Level 2 of the Little Art School Course we begin to explore perspective and composition. It’s fascinating to see how effectively artists can use perspective to create a painting which draws our eye in and Vermeer’s ‘Music Lesson’ is a wonderful example.Joanne Robinson_190409-105039-1a0

There is an 8 minute video, narrated by Meryl Streep (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC) which can be found at https://youtu.be/xmugrV7vM2o, this video both explains in detail the complexity of the planning of this painting and is well worth watching




Landscape painting – how Vermeer captures a moment in time

This week we are looking at the painting ‘View of Delft’. This painting is a beautiful ‘window’ through which we can see Vermeer’s hometown of Delft exactly as he would have seen it, it’s like having a photograph of a moment in time 350 years ago. Look at the way the sun shines on some of the buildings and the light on the water. Vermeer is known in the art world as one of the greatest painters of light. From the very beginning this painting made a deep impression on art lovers. It’s difficult to see in a print, but anyone standing in front of this painting couldn’t fail to be overwhelmed by the play of light and shadow; it is, quite simply, luminous.

Vincent Van Gogh, also a Dutch artist, although 200 years after Vermeer, came to see this painting in it’s home in the Mauritshaus in The Hague and wrote about it in a letter of 1885.  He wrote: “Isn’t it curious that the Van der Meer of Delft in The Hague has kept its colour so splendidly, with the whole series of glaring tones of red, green, grey, brown, blue, black, yellow, white? ….if one sees his town view at The Hague close up, it is incredible, and painted with entirely different colours than one would suspect at a few steps’ distance”. Van Gogh, like most artists until the 20th century, spent many hours studying the works of past masters and learning from their techniques. This is the methodology that we are developing at the Little Art School and work towards in Level 5 & 6.

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Look at the figures in the foreground, they are very small but placed so that we see them as part of how Vermeer saw this view. Originally Vermeer painted an extra man to the right of the women but painted over him later, when the painting was restored the figure came to light!


Looking deeper into a painting

This term we are exploring the work of the Dutch artist Vermeer. This week we are looking at the ‘The Art of Painting’. This painting is sometimes called ‘The Painter in his Studio’.

The painting shows an artist at his easel and a model by the window, behind the model is a large map of the Netherlands. Every single object in this painting was chosen because it had a meaning,  the model is dressed as Clio, the muse of History and this is shown by her laurel wreath, the trumpet  and the book she is holding. Objects on the table also add to this story and would have been chosen carefully.  Lots of paintings are much more than just what you see, we can learn to find the stories the artists are trying to tell us. In the senior Levels of the Little Art School course our artists explore using objects to add meaning to a painting.

Many historians regard this as Vermeer’s most fascinating painting. Vermeer never sold ‘The Art of Painting’, it hung in his studio during his lifetime and would be displayed to customers. The purpose of this would be to show potential customers his skills, it was his own ‘advertisement’.  After his death his wife tried to save the painting being taken by the creditors, but failed, some historians believe the model was one of their children.

The painting itself has had an interesting history. Adolf Hitler bought it in 1940, despite attempts to stop him. At the end of the war the painting was hidden in a salt mine. When the painting was rescued after the war it was taken (in a locked train compartment) to Vienna. The Americans gifted the painting in 1946 to the Austrian government and it now hangs in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. It is one of the most popular and loved paintings in the gallery and is seen as being national treasure.