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feature The Music lesson T

The Art of Music

The optical devices employed by Vermeer in ‘The Music Lesson’ suggest that the painting is an homage to music. It goes on show this month at London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery, which is unveiling a different masterpiece every month to celebrate its 200th anniversary

Writer desmond shawe-Taylor he world created in Vermeer’s The Music Lesson (c. 1644) can be described with reasonable confidence. A room with a floor of marble tiles, a ceiling of timber beams and walls of white-washed plaster is lit by windows of a common design in Delft; the deep lower casing contains frames opening inwards and shutters opening outwards; the fixed upper lights are flush with the external wall (Fig. 1).

The room contains a virginal, a small instrument of the harpsichord family with the same action (strings plucked by quills), but housed in a simple box. The lid of the box opens and the front drops to reveal a keyboard lying to the right (making it in this case a ‘muselar’ virginal), meaning that the strings are plucked at their mid point giving a clear and mellow sound. The virginal has no legs of its own but rests on a table. This particular instrument can be identified by comparison with many surviving examples as the work of the Ruckers family of Antwerp, dating from the first half of the 17th century.1

The painting-within-a-painting can be identified as a treatment of the subject of Roman Charity, probably by Dirck van Baburen (c. 1595–1624), of which a version sold at Sotheby’s (16 December 1999, no. 350).2 The imprisoned old man Cimon can just be made out in Vermeer’s transcription, bald-headed with his hands tied behind his back, while the turbaned head glimpsed above belongs to Pero, the daughter who saved him from starving by feeding him at her breast. This work may be the ‘painting of one who suckles the breast’ recorded in the collection of the family of Vermeer’s motherin-law, Maria Thins.3 However, it is difficult to imagine original viewers making this iconographic identification unless the painting were already known to them.

The remaining objects in the room can be simply listed: two chairs, a bass viol, a mirror, a Turkish rug on a table, a silver platter on top of which sits a ceramic jug of identical design to that used to serve wine in Vermeer’s A Lady and Two Gentlemen of around 1662 (Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum; Fig. 2). A fine and decorously dressed lady stands playing the virginal (without music), while a soberly dressed gentleman, with sword and cane, stands beside her with his hand on the instrument. He is clearly too aristocratic to teach music and yet his position suggests participation rather than mere enjoyment,

108 apollo march 2011