Everyone was able to admire the painting of the Lady Standing at the Virginals by Johannes Vermeer during the Vermeer exhibition at the Mauritshuis. What a privilege it was to be able to view the painting in The Hague surrounded by so many other works by the artist. Johannes Vermeer surely has no equal; he has a way of subtly overwhelming the viewer. Each object, each form has a unique magic in the paintings of this Delft master, so that we almost forget what we are looking at. We willingly allow ourselves to be swept along in Vermeer’s fine colours, the calm of the movement, the almost abstract composition, the apparently simple technique. In this article we break the spell and examine one particular painting by Vermeer with a sober, searching eye. The Lady Standing at the Virginals, currently at the National Gallery in London, contains an intriguing phenomenon which is discussed here for the first time.
Vermeer often included paintings in his interiors. But a closer examination of his Lady Standing at the Virginals reveals three other pictures in this painting. Behind the lady hangs a large portrait of a Cupid and beside it a landscape in a gilt frame. A second landscape is depicted on the opened lid of the virginals.
Johannes Vermeer borrowing of art
Gregor Weber, curator of Italian paintings at the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden, has long been involved in research into the paintings Vermeer incorporated in his masterpieces. Recently, he discovered that Vermeer had included the painting of Caritas Romana by an artist from the school of Dirck van Baburen in his Music Lesson in the collection of H.M. Queen Elizabeth II. In 1994 he had shown how Vermeer had used a landscape by another Delft artist, Pieter Jansz. van Asch, in his paintings of the Lady with a Guitar and the Lady Seated at the Virginals. Clearly, Vermeer did always employ these examples literally, in fact he used some parts and left out others. New elements were not added, although Vermeer did give existing aspects more volume and accentuation. This form of borrowing was relatively common in the seventeenth century.
Quite surprisingly, it became clear that Vermeer had used Pieter Jansz. van Asch’s landscape to invent two entirely different paintings. Viewing the two interpretations of Van Asch’s work separately it is not immediately obvious that they are based on the same painting.
Armed with this knowledge, Weber studied the two landscapes in Vermeer’s Lady Standing at the Virginals. He noted that the landscape on the wall and on the lid of the virginals showed remarkable similarities. In addition to the structure, with its succession of light and dark layers, of rocks and trees, various characteristic details, such as the roofs of the houses and the blue waterfall in the right corner were almost identical. Weber concluded that both landscapes must have been based on the same example.
The similarities between the Mountain Landscape with Travellers by Pieter Anthonisz. van Groenewegen and the derivative landscapes by Vermeer are remarkable. It seems quite probable that Van Groenewegen’s landscape was Vermeer’s model.
Pieter Anthonisz. van Groenewegen
In his search for the original painting, Weber eventually realised that the landscape followed a relatively familiar pattern: to the right in the painting we see a high mountain surmounted by a fortification, in front of which is a wedge-shaped layer that leads diagonally into the distance and to the left, rounding off the composition, a tall tree silhouetted against the background. Many landscape artists composed their paintings along these lines; depictions by artists such as David Teniers the Younger and Allard van Everdingen reveal a similar layout. But Weber noted a remarkable similarity between the two landscapes in the Lady Standing at the Virginals and the works of another landscape painter from Delft, Pieter Anthonisz. van Groenewegen. After seeing a photo of Van Groenewegen’s Mountain Landscape with Travellers, quite by coincidence, he was struck by the similarities between this painting and the two Vermeer landscapes. He informed John and Willem Jan Hoogsteder of his discovery. When they read his letter, they were amazed.
This work was probably painted shortly after Van Groenewegen returned to Holland in 1626. It reflects his first impressions of his visit to Italy, as well as revealing traces of his collaboration with Esaias van de Velde. The latter may have been responsible for painting the figures. Groenewegen belongs to the first generation of Italianists. His landscapes are characterised by their circular composition. At one side an accent is created by a hill or building, balanced on the other side by a cluster of trees. Roman ruins form a recurring motif in his landscapes.
The similarity to Van Groenewegen’s painting is remarkable, although some differences are also evident. The trees on the left are closer to the hill. The crowns are more voluminous. In addition, the corrected landscape by Vermeer has a lower horizon. Here the waterfall defines the bottom of the painting. The dark layer in the foreground has an undulating line, while the figures have also been omitted.
Variations on the original
Although Weber was surprised by the similarities, he also noticed a number of discrepancies when he compared the two paintings. This was especially evident in the structure of the dark layer in the foreground where Vermeer left out the dead trees to present a more undulating line, in the absence of the figures and in the crown of the tree to the left. Weber therefore tentatively concluded that Vermeer may have used a second, slightly different version of our painting as an example. Unfortunately, no such work is currently known.
To establish with a little more certainty whether Vermeer actually used the Mountain Landscape with Travellers by Van Groenewegen as his model, we decided to employ some modern technology.