My Favourite Painting: Laurence Cumming

Laurence Cumming chooses one of the few works attributed with certainty to Johannes Vermeer.

Laurence Cumming on A Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman by Johannes Vermeer

‘I love The Music Lesson [as the painting is also known], because, for me, it emphasises the timeless quality of music itself. A simple subject, a young woman playing the virginal, represents generations of music students honing their craft.

‘The painting is exquisitely crafted, with Vermeer’s characteristic eye for geometric detail and nuance, and yet has a twist. A mirror, discreetly placed, shows the woman’s face and so acts in turn as a window to her soul.

‘She leans her head enigmatically towards the teacher (or is he a lover in song?) and we even glimpse the artist’s easel; thus the fourth wall is broken and, despite the seeming austerity, warm humanity abounds.’

Laurence Cummings is the new music director at the Academy of Ancient Music.

Charlotte Mullins comments on A Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman

Delft-born Johannes Vermeer was not a prolific artist and, today, only about 35 paintings are securely attributed to him. A Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman is a masterful example of his work.

A young woman stands with her back to us at the far end of a well-lit room. She is playing an ornate virginal, a form of harpsichord, and the man to her right is singing along. Vermeer’s use of perspective draws us into the room, but the table in the foreground, covered with a lavish rug, blocks our view, not allowing us any closer.

We are outsiders looking in, asking questions, such as was the man playing the bass viol that now lies on the floor next to the blue chair? The pair seem comfortable together, but the Latin inscription on the virginal translates as ‘Music is a companion and a balm in sorrow’.

Vermeer is believed to have used a camera obscura, a precursor to the camera, to plan his compositions. A lens would project an upside-down version of a scene onto the wall of a dark room behind. Vermeer could then move furniture and his models around until he was happy. Once the composition was settled, he would return to the original scene and begin painting.

If we look closely at the tilted mirror above the woman’s head, we can just see two legs of his easel. Although we cannot see him in the finished painting, he is showing us that he was there.


My Favourite Painting: Lulu

Lulu chooses her favourite painting for Country Life.