When Shakespeare wrote that music is “the food of love,” he made a good point.
Then and now, song and sex have gone together. That was true of the Bard’s Elizabethan and Jacobean contemporaries, and it was also the case in 17th-century Delft, which is the premise for an exhibition at the National Gallery, London: “Vermeer and Music: The Art of Love and Leisure.”
There are two ways to approach this show. First, it is an informative if slightly worthy essay on Dutch pictures, music and l’amour. Second, it is an excuse to put all four of London’s Vermeers together in a single room (plus one more on loan from a private collection).
That may not sound like a lot of Vermeers. When we are dealing with a painter whose total oeuvre only reaches the mid 30s it isn’t a bad tally. Almost everything Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) painted is enigmatic and magically beautiful.
One exception is the fifth painting on show. “Young Woman Seated at a Virginal” (1670-72) is authentic, according to technical evidence. If so, it proves that even Vermeer had his off days. Anyone who loves painting could spend an hour just looking at the other four.
Naturally, the National Gallery’s own two pictures are included. These also show a young woman -- indeed she looks like the same one -- respectively standing and seated at a virginal.
We know that she may have more than semiquavers on her mind, because behind her hang paintings hinting at matters erotic. Cupid, classical god of love, is in the background of one; in the other is a scene in which a prostitute plays a lute while her madam demands payment from a customer.
Whether these discreet hints at naughtiness are intended to contrast with Vermeer’s music-making maidens -- or whether they are not quite as respectable as they seem -- is unclear.
Good as they are, the National’s two Vermeers are overshadowed by the Queen’s “The Music Lesson” (about 1662-3) and “The Guitar Player” (about 1672). The latter is the treat of the exhibition -- and the least known, since it comes from the Iveagh Bequest, Hampstead, a fine collection which is one of the better-kept secrets among London museums.
“The Guitar Player” is a 17th-century snapshot, almost a movie. The performer glances to her side, half smiling, her cork-screw curls seeming to wiggle through the air as she does so, the strings of her instrument appearing to vibrate.
To my mind, it is one of the paintings that demonstrates that Vermeer must have looked at his subjects with the aid of a lens: in other words, a camera obscura.
Why else should almost every part of the picture, including the woman’s face, be softly out of focus -- except for the guitar? This puts the emphasis where he wanted it, on the music (which you can almost hear).
The stock response to this suggestion is that using a lens as a labor-saving device demeans the artist. The opposite is true.
Vermeer made more brilliantly creative use of the blur and fuzz that lenses produce than anyone else in three and a half centuries. Otherwise there is a mildly interesting array of Dutch pictures from the National Gallery’s collection and antique musical instruments, plus a rather heavily educational section on technique.
To see those four Vermeers side by side is worth the ticket.
“Vermeer and Music: The Art of Love and Leisure” is at the National Gallery, London, until Sept. 8.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Manuela Hoelterhoff on opera, James Russell on architecture, Richard Vines on food and Hephzibah Anderson on books.