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Still life of fruit and a pie on a table

The Royal Collection has a stunning collection of seventeenth century Dutch art

Johannes Vermeer (Delft 1632-Delft 1675)

Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman early 1660s

RCIN 405346

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In this painting the use of perspective draws the eye towards the back of the room where the figures are situated. The young woman is shown from the back although a mirror on the wall reflects her face as well as part of the table and the legs of an artist’s easel. By allowing us to glimpse his easel, Vermeer is placing himself in the same space as the figures, but as a result of this artifice he is also, like the viewer, standing outside that space.

The 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 it is the relationship between the man and the young woman that is being explored by the artist. The fact that there are two musical instruments implies shared pleasures and a potential harmony, which is also indicated by the rapt expression on the man’s face as he listens to the young woman or sings as she plays on the virginal.