You’re a seventeenth-century Dutch painter, looked down upon for being a lowly artisan. How do you big yourself up? You paint yourself playing a musical instrument, that’s how. In a 1674 self-portrait, the artist Frans van Mieris the Elder depicts himself with a cittern, a kind of early mandolin, wearing a confident grin that suggests mastery of the strings, and therefore the more highly-regarded art form (though, perhaps tellingly, you can’t see his hands). The trick was to look musical, but not too musical. You certainly didn’t want to resemble the professional musician in Hendrick ter Brugghen’s ‘A Man Playing a Lute’ (1624), with his velvet cloak and feathers in his beret.
Learning about the era’s social intricacies is one of the pleasures of this small show, which has been drawn largely from works in the National Gallery’s collection. Across four galleries you are led from still lifes – with musical notation and instruments symbolising the transience of life – to scenes of rowdy gatherings, to music lessons where, because they offered one of the few occasions when unmarried young men and women could get together, the atmosphere is electric.
Designed to evoke the domestic interiors in which most of the painted scenes take place, the show – its dark walls offering flirtatious views into adjacent rooms – is suitably atmospheric. There are lavishly decorated instruments just like the ones featured in the paintings to marvel at and, a first for the National Gallery, on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays the Academy of Ancient Music will serenade you in the galleries with music from the period, inspired by the pastoral and romantic themes captured on canvas.
And yet all this feels like a prelude to the main event – the Vermeers. Five out of the estimated 36 paintings in existence by the Dutch master are gathered together in the final room. Flanked on one wall by the National Gallery’s ‘A Young Woman Standing at a Virginal’ (1670) and ‘A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal’ (1670) is ‘The Guitar Player’ (1672), on loan from Kenwood House. Together they make for the one of the most entrancing walls of paintings you’re ever likely to see. Kenwood has the racier picture – its subject not staring out at the viewer, as with the National’s placid keyboardists, but off to one side, to some other visitor. But seduction oozes from all three paintings. It’s there in the play of light that falls on the silk dress of young woman who stands at a virginal, picking up the figure of Cupid in the painting behind her. There too in the viola de gamba placed next to the seated virginal player, like an invitation to join her.
Additionally, there’s the ‘The Music Lesson’ (1662) from the Queen’s Collection, perhaps an even greater accomplishment, in which Vermeer creates magic in the erotically-charged pause – the turn of a head caught in reflection, a barely perceptible parting of a mouth. Music may be the subject of these paintings but what you’ll enjoy, above all, is their powerful silence.