Virginal, but no virgin

In his marvellous book, Home: A Short History of an Idea, the architectural critic Witold Rybczynski, provides this analysis of a 1660 painting by Emanuel de Witte, Interior with a Woman Playing the Virginals:

On the surface this is an idyllic, peaceful scene … But all is not what it appears to be. Closer inspection of the painting reveals that the woman is not playing for herself alone; on the bed, behind the curtains, someone is listening to the music. It is unquestionably a man – the figure wears a moustache – and, although he is hidden, his clothing is fully visible on the chair in the foreground. The hilt of a sword that is barely within the picture and the casual fashion in which the clothes have been thrown on the chair – instead of being hung neatly on the hooks behind the door – hint, in a delicate way, that this man may not be the woman’s husband … Part of the delight of this genre is the painter’s ambiguity towards his subject. Is the woman properly penitent? If so, why is she playing and not weeping? She has her back turned, as if in shame, but in the mirror hanging on the wall over the virginals, her face is tantalizingly not quite reflected. Maybe she is smiling; we will never know.

I was reminded of the ambiguities of the genre at the recent Fitzwilliam Vermeer show, already mentioned in a previous post. The Dutch painters of the period wanted to give a truthful picture of interiors and courtyards, in a celebration of bourgeois domestic values. But it is the way that people, or their material objects, occupy these spaces that is still of interest to us now. Never in this history of painting has there been a genre so invested with secrets and intrigue.

At the Fitzwilliam, I was struck by this painting by Jacobus Vrel, Woman at a Window, Waving at a Girl. It was painted ten years before the de Witte, but shares in common the idea of a narrative only partially revealed. Who is the woman with her back to us, practically going through the window, she is leaning so far forward? And who is the child she is greeting (or at the very least, trying to see in the darkness of night)? She is ghostly white, perhaps she is an apparition? It was not typical to portray what wasn’t there, as these domestic scenes are so much about the material items of living. But the woman seems startled, surprised, anxious; we cannot see her face, but this is what we surmise from her posture, the fact that the back legs of her chair have left the floor in her effort to see out the window. The room is very plain, which means the eye is particularly drawn to the nail on the wall in the upper right hand corner, and the crumpled piece of paper on the floor. Was there something hanging from the nail? And what is on the paper? The painting leaves us with more questions than answers. And that makes it endlessly interesting.

Back to the de Witte. I wanted to write a poem which provided a narrative, or at least gave voice to the clues de Witte has already given us. So this is in the voice of the woman at the virginal, but slightly later, after the man in the bedchamber has departed, and she is finally alone:

Interior with a Woman Playing the Virginals
Emanuel de Witte (c. 1660)

I played all morning, my fingers
light on the keys like birds. I wanted him
to love the full song I offered:

my husband was in the low countries
on business, this would never happen again,
I told myself, to have him so.

The maid kept busy in the hall, he stayed
behind the curtain while I played, but
I could smell him — frankincense, candlewax, sweat

and I swear it made my song dearer.
I played for him to keep him sweet,
I gave myself, like a sweetmeat on a plate.

He said words no man has said before,
and I was in love with him that moment
and for the hour he spent inside my chamber.

But a man like that is hard to hold, a bird
in the hand, so I let him go. He tipped his hat,
strolled into the afternoon. Now I am alone —

My chamber is as I’d left it,
the pitcher on the table full of daylight,
the mirror empty of a face,

and through the door,
the mop and pail wait patiently
to absolve the remnants of my folly.

Young Woman Seated at a Virginal

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: