A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal (c.1670-1672)

Vermeer, Jan (1632-1675)

A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal (Zittende virginaalspeelster)
Oil on canvas, 51.5 x 45.5 cm
National GalleryLondon

A colourful hanging tapestry has been swept to one side to reveal a young woman seated at a keyboard. It appears to be dark outside this elegant room: a blue curtain covers the top part of the window, but the glass below it is black. The light which gleams on the curves of the base viol in the foreground and glints in the heavily dilated pupils of the woman comes from in front of the painting – an unusual effect in Vermeer’s work. Usually daylight streams into his interiors from a window on the left-hand side of the picture. Here he has created an entirely different mood.

It is a mood that’s also defined by the picture that hangs so prominently on the back wall. This has been identified as The Procuress (Museum of Fine ArtsBoston) by Dirck van Baburen, which depicts a ribald scene in which a woman working as a prostitute plays a lute and flirts with a client, while a brothel-keeper demands money from him. A copy of the painting was owned by Vermeer’s mother-in-law, in whose house he lived and worked, and he included it in another painting, The Concert (stolen from Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston). The Concert shows two young women singing and playing a harpsichord while a man accompanies them on a lute.

It is possible that Vermeer simply used the painting, unthinkingly, as a studio prop. But even if a contemporary viewer didn’t know the original, Vermeer has made it easy to decipher the theme. In the National Gallery picture, it is particularly prominent, taking up nearly a quarter of the picture space. It seems far-fetched to suggest that an artist who executed his paintings with such care would have given no thought to the implications of placing such an image so obviously in the background.

This is important because, in the seventeenth century, musical scenes like this could be understood in different ways. They were certainly associated with love and flirtatious gatherings of young people, but some were depicted as bawdy occasions fuelled by alcohol and tobacco while others were apparently entirely decorous. Vermeer painted several but tended to hedge them with uncertainties, leaving the viewer unsure about how they should judge the situation.

The hint given by the background picture here is, for Vermeer, an unusually strong one. We probably shouldn’t take it too literally and assume that the woman in front of the keyboard is also working as a prostitute, but it does seem that we are being encouraged to wonder whether or not she has more than music on her mind. The viol in the foreground is another hint to consider. It not only suggests that she is waiting for an accompanist – the instrument’s shape was sometimes associated with women’s bodies.

This interpretation of the picture is supported by the theory that it was painted as a contrasting pair with A Young Woman standing at a Virginal, which depicts a lone woman standing in front of a keyboard. The two pictures are exactly the same size, were made at about the same time and share many similarities. But the contrasts seem just as significant. The standing woman, pictured in bright sunlight, may be suggestive of faithful, monogamous love, whereas the woman in this evening scene may represent a more mercenary or licentious approach. (NG)


Vermeer, Jan (1632-1675)
A Young Woman Standing at a Virginal
National GalleryLondon