This tenderly entrancing picture captures the quiet joy of a young woman in harmony with her music. As she gently fingers the keyboard of her virginal, she leans slightly forward in her chair, quietly and not about to move, while looking out with a sympathetic expression, as though desiring to share the dulcet sounds of her instrument with the viewer. In style and execution this small masterpiece is similar to other of Johannes Vermeer’s late depictions of young women playing musical instruments, including Guitar Player, ca. 1670, Kenwood House, London (fig 1); A Lady Standing at a Virginal, ca. 1670–72, National Gallery, London (fig 2); and Young Woman Seated at a Virginal, ca. 1670–72, also in the National Gallery (fig 3). As with these other works, it must date from the early 1670s.
In Vermeer’s oeuvre, music making always serves the purpose of courtship. Much as with A Lady Standing at a Virginal, the viewer to whom the woman looks out assumes the role of a potential suitor. The tightly wound curls, red ribbons, and the strand of small pearls in her hair indicate that she is a young lady of proper upbringing and fine sensibility. But it is the expression, although abstracted as in some of Vermeer’s other late works, which suggests she is a real person with emotions and feelings. In this regard Vermeer was indebted to Gerard ter Borch (1617–81)1 and, like Ter Borch, to the women who shared his private world.
This painting has only recently been reintegrated into Vermeer’s oeuvre after having been removed from the public’s eye for many years. Not only the subject matter, but also the modeling of the satin skirt, the reflective front of the virginal, the shape of the music stand, and the radiant white wall are all executed with the subtleties characteristic of Vermeer’s late paintings. Lawrence Gowing was particularly struck by the distinctive rendering of “the hands, the instrument and the space and light around them.”2
Technical examinations have established many similarities in the materials and techniques found in this painting and in other of Vermeer’s late works. The pale brown ground was applied in two layers, and is identical in composition and application to the ground layers in the London paintings. Natural ultramarine (lapis lazuli) serves in the final paint layers not only to color blue motifs (as in the back of the chair) but also to lend a cool luminosity to the background plane and to the highlights on the forearms. Vermeer used a green pigment in the shadows on the face, as he did in the London and Kenwood paintings. Finally, the orthogonal lines of the virginal were evidently snapped onto the primed or underpainted canvas by using chalked strings running to a pin stuck in the canvas at a point coincident with the woman’s shoulder.3
Studies on canvas weaves, undertaken in 2011 by C. Richard Johnson of Cornell University and Don H. Johnson of Rice University, have determined that this work is painted on a canvas cut from the same bolt as Vermeer’s Lacemaker in the Musée du Louvre, Paris, ca. 1669–70 (fig 4).4 This information suggests that Vermeer used this bolt for this later group of paintings. At his death in 1675 Vermeer left “ten painter’s canvases” among the supplies in his studio.5 These were most likely stretched and primed but otherwise unpainted. Paintings from the same bolt of canvas, thus, could have a range of dates depending on how quickly the artist worked and used up his materials at hand, and, for stylistic reasons, it is likely that Young Woman Seated at a Virginal dates a few years after Lacemaker.
Despite this painting’s many stylistic and thematic connections to Vermeer’s late works, the large yellow shawl covering the upper portion of the woman’s body is awkward both in its shape and in its modeling. The sharp edges to the folds are quite different from Vermeer’s more nuanced manner of painting, as seen, for example, in the shimmering quality of her white satin dress. It is largely because of the unsatisfactory character of this shawl that the attribution to the artist has been contested in the past. X-radiographs have shown that beneath this shawl is a fully realized garment, with an intricately designed sleeve, that leads gracefully from the neck to the woman’s arms (fig 5). Pigment analysis has also determined that this undergarment was executed with a different mixture of lead-tin yellow paint than that of the shawl. Nevertheless, technical research undertaken at the Rijksmuseum in advance of the exhibition Vermeer of 2023 has conclusively determined that the shawl was not painted by a later hand. According to the exhibition catalogue, it “is the result of an alteration made by Vermeer himself during the painting process. In the initial design, the pleats of the satin skirt extend under the shawl, but in the final paint layers they do not continue, stopping instead at the shawl’s edge. This confirms that the shawl and skirt were elaborated at the same stage.”6 The exhibition concludes unequivocally that Young Woman Seated at a Virginal is by the hand of Vermeer.
Much of the magic of Vermeer’s paintings arises from the visual restraint of his images, which gives them a timeless character despite the immediacy of his scenes. Here Vermeer has focused in on the woman and her instrument, giving the viewer no hint of the character of the room in which she sits other than for the simple white wall behind her. All of our attention, thus, is directed to her, and she responds in kind. This powerful human connection holds us in place, and find ourselves drawn into her world and imagining the quiet rhythms of the music she plays.7