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‘The Music Lesson’ by Vermeer

Release date: Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Johannes Vermeer, A Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman, known as ‘The Music Lesson.

Johannes Vermeer, A Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman, known as ‘The Music Lesson. Royal Collection Trust/ © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2013

One of the best-known paintings in the Royal Collection has gone on display at the National Gallery in London as part of the exhibition Vermeer and Music: The Art of Love & Leisure.  A Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman, known as ‘The Music Lesson, which usually hangs in the Picture Gallery at Buckingham Palace, has been lent to the exhibition by Her Majesty The Queen.

Exploring the motif of music in Dutch painting, the exhibition juxtaposes paintings by Johannes Vermeer and his contemporaries with musical instruments and songbooks of the same period.  Visitors will also have the opportunity to experience live performances by the Academy of Ancient Music in the exhibition space.

Vermeer’s enigmatic work ‘The Music Lesson’ is characterised by the artist’s remarkable use of perspective, drawing the viewer’s eye to the man and woman standing by the virginal at the back of the room.  In front of them, a bass viol lies on the floor.  The Latin inscription on the lid of the virginal, MUSICA LETITIAE CO[ME]S / MEDICINA DOLOR[IS], means ‘Music is a companion in pleasure and a balm in sorrow.’  It suggests that the artist is exploring the relationship between the two figures.  The presence of two musical instruments in the composition implies shared pleasures and a potential harmony.  This theme is echoed by the rapt expression on the man’s face, as he listens to the woman or sings as she plays on the virginal.

Desmond Shawe-Taylor, Surveyor of The Queen’s Pictures, said, ‘It is wonderful to see ‘The Music Lesson’ in the National Gallery’s exhibition, displayed in a room with an Andreas Ruckers virginal of exactly the type visible in the painting.  The exhibition provides so many insights into the history of Dutch art and the emergence of music in the home, or ‘Chamber Music’ as it came to be called.’

Visitors to the Picture Gallery in Buckingham Palace this summer will be able to see Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura) by Artemisia Gentileschi, alongside many other works from the Royal Collection. 

Vermeer and Music: The Art of Love & Leisure is at the National Gallery from 26 June until 8 September, 2013.