I am standing in front of a painting of a woman playing the virginal. The instrument is decorated with what appears to be a motif or scene painted onto the dark wood, but the scene is blurred; the artist, Johannes Vermeer, wants to position us at eye level with the woman, so that we might focus on her. There is nothing else in the painting to draw our attention. She is wearing a satin gown, off-white, with a gold shawl enveloping her shoulders and arms; only her lower arms are visible, reaching towards the keyboard. The gown and shawl are not ostentatious, although the satin is opulent, draped in rich folds around her figure. Her body is reduced to two ovals of fabric; Vermeer wants to hide her figure from the viewer, to draw the eye up to her face, her flushed cheeks. She wears a red ribbon in her hair, a shock of colour against the neutral tones. We can see just two pearls from her necklace visible beneath her shawl. They are two perfect rounds of pure white against the darker white of the bare wall. In her novel, Girl with a Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier describes Vermeer’s pearls as ‘cool and smooth to the touch … and in their grey and white curve a world was reflected’. That’s why Vermeer liked them; they conducted light, acted as a sphere to reflect what was beyond the scene. A little white eye that held multitudes, that bent and refracted what was in front of it, like his camera obscura.
The upper left hand corner of the painting is lighter, suggesting a window we can’t see, illuminating the subject. She looks at us, as we look at her, but her gaze is modest, her eyes slightly lowered. Her gaze is not overtly sexual, as in Vermeer’s other depiction of a girl seated at a virginal.
In that picture, the subject is younger, her expression is more direct, more inviting, and on the wall behind her, there is a painting (a painting within a painting) of a brothel scene. Beside her virginal, there is a double bass waiting to be played. The meaning is clear. But here, it is difficult to say what the woman with the red ribbon in her hair is thinking, if she is comfortable as the subject of the painting. Vermeer allows her privacy; even in our confrontation with her, she gives nothing away, in her dress, in her manner, in her expression. She remains a mystery.
This is the first post based on the recent poetry workshop, The Interior Life, held in conjunction with the Fitzwilliam, as part of their exhibition, Vermeer’s Women: Secrets and Silence. The exhibition ends this weekend: http://www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/article.html?2793