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Johannes Vermeer, A Young Woman seated at a Virginal

Key facts
Full title A Young Woman seated at a Virginal
Artist Johannes Vermeer
Artist dates 1632 - 1675
Date made about 1670-2
Medium and support Oil on canvas
Dimensions 51.5 × 45.5 cm
Inscription summary Signed
Acquisition credit Salting Bequest, 1910
Inventory number NG2568
Location Room 16
Collection Main Collection
Previous owners
A Young Woman seated at a Virginal
Johannes Vermeer

It appears to be dark outside this elegant room: a blue curtain covers the top part of the window, but the glass below it is black. The light which glints in the heavily dilated pupils of the woman seated at the keyboard comes from in front of the painting, an unusual effect for Vermeer.

Significantly, the picture hanging on the wall shows a prostitute flirting with a client. It’s particularly prominent, and this is important because musical scenes like this could be understood in different ways. Some were depicted as bawdy occasions, while others were entirely decorous. Vermeer tended to hedge them with uncertainties, but here the background picture gives an unusually strong hint, which encourages us to wonder if the keyboard player has more than music on her mind.

This painting may have been made to contrast with A Young Woman standing at a Virginal (also in the National Gallery’s collection), which seems to show an example of faithfulness in love.

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