Music bridges centuries at the DMA

Codie Barry, Contributing Writer

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“Vermeer Suite: Music in 17th-Century Dutch Painting” is currently on display at the Dallas Museum of Art. One of Vermeer’s more famous paintings, “Girl with the Pearl Earring,” is on display at the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague, the Netherlands. Photo by Elizabeth Kerin.

A collection of Jackson Pollock’s work is currently on view at the Dallas Museum of Art. His large paintings are visually ambiguous and, for the most part, black and white. A neighboring room holds a show that is the polar opposite of Pollock’s: “Vermeer Suite.”

The show is small, even tiny; the paintings have clear and simple subjects. Despite dark and muted palette tones, the works include a vibrancy of light and color. This show traces the use of musical instruments and objects in the art of Vermeer and his contemporaries, the 17th century Dutch artists.

“Vermeer Suite: Music in 17th-Century Dutch Painting,” comprises eight works by different Dutch artists during the mid to late 1600s, the height of the Baroque period. The paintings are displayed against dark walls, hung in intricate frames, and visitors can hear the instruments represented in the paintings with the help of audio stations and headphones, offering a musical context to the pieces.

Seeing these people from long ago play the same instruments we play today was most fascinating, like the violin in “A Man Tuning a Violin” by Frans van Mieris. Other subjects play historic instruments, like the lute (a stringed instrument similar to a mandolin), as in “Self-Portrait with a Lute” by Jan Steen. The scenes are strikingly normal, as they are not lofty paintings of the Baroque churches, but small glimpses of what life was like.

Some of the paintings are contemplative, such as Gerard Dou’s “Portrait of a Lady Seated With a Music Book on her Lap,” which depicts a young woman seated with a music book open in front of her. She does not read the book but instead gazes out at the viewer, perhaps learning a music lesson or simply enjoying her leisure time. Other paintings are raucous, even a bit silly, like the melodramatic male violinist, leaning out a window in “A Singing Violinist” by Jacob Adriaensz Ochtervelt. This variety of mood within the works suggests the varied nature of music itself — sometimes calming, affirming and quiet, and, at other times, a loud, fun mess.

The show exemplifies the Dutch style of portraiture, featuring life-like individuals and emphasizing light, color and rich texture. These paintings are small and were probably meant for the home, for the everyday person.

The show’s gem is Vermeer’s “Young Woman Seated at a Virginal” (a piano-like, seated instrument). The entire show is contextualized around this work. In this painting, the girl’s hands are on the instrument’s keys, but she turns to face the viewer, as if shy that we are watching her perform. Light from an unseen window bathes her in light and calls attention to the care and detail Vermeer has placed on her skirt and shawl.

Only about 36 Vermeer paintings exist today, making any Vermeer a rarity.

Although the Vermeer painting is the highlight of the exhibit, I think the most beautiful painting in the show is “A Lady Playing a Lute in an Interior,” by Eglon van der Neer. The lute-player’s shoulders are bare, and she is focused on her instrument and song. The piece is passionate yet restrained.

What makes this show appealing is that it highlights both a popular genre of painting and a human pastime, music. These portraits are not rigid, and the subjects are not royalty, but ordinary men and women playing music together in a band for simple enjoyment. As we see the show, we see ourselves in the Dutch figures.

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