Gallery 264, second floor
Lloyd DeWitt, assistant curator, European painting before 1900
The Philadelphia Museum of Art has placed on view A Young woman seated at the virginals (c. 1670), a painting by Johannes Vermeer of Delft (1632-1675). A small treasure measuring only 9 7/8 x 7 7/8 inches, it is on loan from a private collection through March 2005 and can be seen in the Goltzius Room (Gallery 264). Only thirty-six paintings by Vermeer’s hand survive, and most of these show young ladies in interior settings, doing everyday activities such as writing letters, playing musical instruments, or meeting friends. Vermeer made works of pristine beauty out of these common subjects.
This small painting shows a girl in a yellow cloak seated at the keyboard of a virginals. She turns to smile at the viewer while her right index finger depresses a key, suggesting that the viewer is an accompanying musician. Her splendidly rendered satin dress, the raking light that alone describes the background wall, and the frozen calm of this momentary scene are hallmark traits of Vermeer’s masterpieces. The identity of the sitter has been the subject of speculation, with some suggesting that it shows Johannes Vermeer’s younger daughter Elizabeth.
The instrument she plays was called a clavecimbael in Dutch and is known as a virginals in English. It was a popular type of small harpsichord without legs, in which the key’s action plucked a single string rather than two. It is perhaps the same instrument shown in Lady seated at a virginal (National Gallery, London). The painter lovingly rendered the reflections of the girl’s arms in the long shiny surfaces of the front and lid. She wears a yellow woolen shawl over a white satin dress or skirt, with pearls around her neck and an arrangement of white and red ribbons in her hair. Technical evidence suggests that the yellow cloak was partially repainted and expanded by another painter, perhaps after the artist’s death in 1675.
Johannes Vermeer had no known pupils or school of followers, and his works had been largely forgotten until the French critic Thoré-Burger published them in the mid-nineteenth century. The two later paintings by Vermeer of the same subject in the National Gallery in London have more extensive background detail including paintings on the wall, which may have been part of Vermeer’s stock, as he was a paintings dealer as well. This painting, in contrast, shows a simple, nearly blank background wall against which the hair of the girl stands out nearly silhouette, similar to that in Vermeer’s tiny Lacemaker in the Louvre, and analogous to the composition of the famous Girl with a pearl earring in The Mauritshuis, The Hague.
Only thirteen works by Vermeer can be found in collections in the United States. The opportunity to see a Vermeer in Philadelphia has been very rare since the Widener Collection went to the National Gallery in Washington in 1942. The most recent exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art to feature a Vermeer was in 1984, when four of his works were included in Masters of Dutch seventeenth-century genre painting.