Johannes Vermeer’s painting, “Woman with a Lute,” is displayed in the twelfth room of the European paintings galleries on the second level of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This corner of the museum showcases works by Dutch masters of the 1600’s, including de Hooch, ter Boch, and Steen. This particular painting is rather typical of the artist. However, Vermeer’s artistic mastery aside, the two external factors which affect the comprehension and enjoyment of this painting are the nature of its display in the museum, and its physical condition.

The nature of the room in which a work is shown, how it is classified, and the written placard all make up the museum’s presentation of a work. The walls in the room that houses the “Woman with a Lute” are covered in a sound-absorbing, muted brown-mauve velveteen fabric, and the relatively small-sized paintings are hung at eye level in a horizontal line, four across one wall. To the left of the “Woman with a Lute” hangs “Young Woman at her Toilet with a Maid” by Gerard ter Boch (1617-81). To the right hang two more Vermeers: the “Portrait of a young Woman” and the “Woman with a Water Jug.” “Woman with a Lute,” like the other paintings near it, is encased in a rather massive wooden frame. This frame is stained very dark, is about four inches wide, and decorated with some geometric carvings which accent the corners. The frame may be historical but strikes me as rather too large, considering the size of the painting (52x46 cm), dwarfing and further darkening an already gloomy palette. My enjoyment of the picture is additionally diminished by its being shut behind a sheet of glass, probably to prevent further damage to the surface. The glass casing makes it very difficult to examine the painting up close, and see the brush strokes.

The placard associated with the work is in this case rather informative. As well as the name and dates of the artist, the title of the painting, and the medium (oil on canvas), the placard notes an inscription on the map on the right hand side of the canvas that reads “EUROPA” and this further to say:

In this work of the early 1660’s, a young woman in an ermine trimmed jacket plays a lute and looks intently out the window. The viola de gamba on the floor and songbooks on the table suggest that she may be waiting for a male visitor. The canvas has suffered from abrasion, especially in the foreground, where the paint has also darkened with age.

At the bottom of the placard is a note that the painting was given to the museum as a bequest of Collis P. Huntington, 1900, as well as the catalog number 25.110.24. This number indicates the painting’s place in the Watson Library catalog, and one such number is assigned to all pieces belonging to the Metropolitan Museum. Judging from inspection of other works, the first part of the catalog number (in this case, 25) refers to the year the museum acquired the work. With this Vermeer, there is a curious discrepancy between the year of the bequest (1900) and this number, 25. It is likely that the museum did not take full possession of the painting until 1925.

The room, furniture, and even the yellow coat worn by the woman are all familiar features of Vermeer’s paintings, showing up in many different works. The subject is seated low, without much of her body visible, and seems almost barricaded away from us by the dark, massive and shadowy furniture.

I note that the work is very obviously damaged and aged, and so the original intended effect must be rather different than the poor current one. Vermeer always deals with shadows and changing light, but this picture is now especially blurry and dark. The details are all very hazy; the lute itself is really just a mass of dark shapes. I am also aware of objects on the floor that I cannot make out. It is only due to the placard that I know they are instruments and indicative of the partner for whom the lute-player waits.

I know nothing of the original owner or function of this painting. However, I imagine it to have been a personal possession, residing in someone’s house. It was not cared for as a museum piece or sacred object all its life, and the casual scene would be appropriate in a Dutch home not unlike the one depicted.

Although it is aged and darker in color, and so darker to me in mood, it still contains the certain luminous stillness that is this artist’s trademark. The single light source, the window, is also a source of fresh air in the painting. The subject’s focus directed out the window triggers a synesthesiac effect in me, and I feel as well as see the contrast of the dim, stuffy room with the unshown, cool bright outdoors. As with most Vermeers, this work emanates a mixture of tension and calm. This peculiar feeling is mirrored in the way the light gently diffuses over the scene, like a powder or fine golden mist, and viewing the painting I feel touched by this, even though I must sadly struggle to see the colors through the wreckage that age has made.

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