With Valentine’s Day around the corner, Tracy Brown Hamilton looks at the romantic messages hidden in some of Vermeer’s masterpieces.
As with many paintings by Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), The Music Lesson (1664) appears to be a typical middle-class scene in the painter’s native Delft. It gives the viewer a feeling of watching its characters from a doorway, not wanting to disturb them – perhaps because there is more going on than meets the eye.
The Music Lesson contains several secret messages
According to the current exhibition at Vermeer Centrum Delft, this painting and several others are full of hidden symbols that expose seemingly innocuous domestic scenes as intimate narratives of courtship and warnings against falling into temptation.
Herman Weyers, president of the Vermeer Centrum, explains that the symbols are easy to miss in contemporary times. ‘We say the messages are hidden, because they are not recognised today,’ he says. ‘But in fact they were quite well known in the time of Vermeer.’
For example, lemons represented sour friendship, while grapes were a sign of fertility in 17th century Holland. Weyers compares the love messages to the ‘xxx’ frequently included in today’s text messages. ‘We know it means sending kisses,’ he says. ‘but will people know that in 100 years?’
Although the exhibition – as with the Centrum itself – does not include any original Vermeer paintings, replicas are presented with descriptive texts which explain the buried-in-plain-sight messages that represent romantic, seductive, paid for and inaccessible love.
The Music Lesson belongs in the romantic category. In it, a girl is stroking the keys of a virginal, an instrument said in its time to sound like the voice of a young, pure lady. In the mirror, we see the girl is looking at her tutor rather than the keyboard, and in the foreground is a pitcher of wine – an aphrodisiac that appears in many of the paintings.
Flirtation and courtship were not the subject of 17th century small talk. ‘People didn’t really talk about private things like love,’ Weyers says. And with literacy rates being very low at the time, stories were told through art.
Some symbols are obvious. In Girl Interrupted at Her Music (1661-2) and Lady Standing at a Virginal (1675), images of Cupid can be seen on the wall. In the latter painting, Cupid appears again on a small tile near the floor, holding a fishing rod. This represents love as a temptation and warns that ‘he who bites is caught’.
Paintings within the paintings frequently provide additional information to the viewer.
Pastoral settings represent ‘amorous intentions’. Seascapes are frequently used, representing the state of the romance: a calm sea meant all was well, whereas a rough sea meant difficulty. In The Love Letter (1669), there is a painting of a gentle sea but a stormy sky, indicating trouble is brewing.
In Lady Seated at a Virginal and The Concert (1664), Vermeer includes a small replica of The Procuress, a painting by Dirck van Baburen (1595-1624) which depicts a prostitute playing a lute, perhaps warning against loose morals. An image of Temperance can be seen in the stained glass in Girl with the Wine Glass.
Music features in most paintings and, according to the message painted on the lid of the virginal in The Music Lesson, it is the ‘companion of joy, the balm of sorrow’. Musical instruments symbolise the harmony made between man and woman.
Crumpled up or cast aside sheet music can represent unattainable harmony (The Love Letter) or simply that the music has served its purpose of arousing a love interest (The Wine Glass).
In Lady Seated at a Virginal, a girl plays her instrument while a viola sits idle in the corner, waiting for a man to ‘make music’ with her. In The Love Letter, the lady is strumming a cittern – making passionate music by herself – when she is disturbed by her maid.
Also in The Love Letter is a pair of slippers, which were a sign of a woman of dubious morals, and a broom which represents a Dutch saying, over de bezem getrouwd – married over the broom – another way to say living together out of wedlock.
The painting open to the most interpretation is A Maid Asleep (1656-7). A woman in an expensive dress sits at a table asleep, her head resting on her hands. Beside her is a pitcher of wine and a bowl of apples – a symbol of man’s fall in the Garden of Eden – and grapes.
It is difficult to say if she is merely exhausted or has passed out from drink, but she may also be waiting for her lover to return. X-rays have revealed that Vermeer originally included and then painted over a man and his dog in the doorway behind the woman. Her lover, perhaps? In Vermeer’s time, the dog was a symbol of fertility, but also a guard against immoral behaviour.
As with courtship, the paintings communicate their meaning through small gestures and symbols, all open to wild interpretation. That is part of the pleasure in examining these works. But as with love, the real meaning behind each painting is a mystery.
‘Love Message from Vermeer’, Vermeer Centrum Delft, is open every day from 10:00-17:00.