Norton Simon Museum Displays Vermeer’s ‘Woman with a Lute’

The Norton Simon Museum Presents Vermeer’s ‘Woman with a Lute,’ On Loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. On view July 8 through Sept. 26, 2011. One of about 36 known works by the Dutch master, five of which make their home at the Metropolitan Museum. Its presentation at the Norton Simon Museum marks the painting’s first appearance in California.

Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, 1632–75), Woman with a Lute, ca. 1662–63. Oil on canvas. Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Collis P. Huntington, 1900.

The loan of “Woman with a Lute” comes as part of an agreement with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which borrowed the Simon’s Raphael painting “Madonna and Child with Book,” 1502–03, for the 2006 exhibition “Raphael at the Metropolitan: The Colonna Altarpiece.” In return, the Norton Simon Museum was given the opportunity to host this remarkable painting.

“We are delighted to welcome Vermeer’s ‘Woman with a Lute’ to Southern California,” says Norton Simon Museum President Walter W. Timoshuk. “Vermeer’s works are housed in museums in Europe and the Northeastern United States exclusively, thus the painting’s installation at the Norton Simon Museum presents a unique and riveting art-viewing experience to our visitors.”

“Woman with a Lute” will be installed in the Norton Simon Museum’s 17th-century Dutch gallery, alongside the Museum’s significant collection of Rembrandt portraits and other genre paintings. During the three-month installation, the Museum will present a series of free public programs centered on the special loan. This exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

The Painting
Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, 1632–1675) is one of the world’s most venerated artists, yet he left behind only a few dozen paintings and no drawings or prints. One of Vermeer’s beloved “Pearl Pictures,” “Woman with a Lute” evokes expectation, longing, and perhaps even mindful restraint or temperance, all in a mere 20 x 18 inches. Objects familiar to viewers of Vermeer’s work, such as the remarkable pearl drop earring that catches the sunlight, the chair with lion-headed finials, the map of Europe and the yellow jacket trimmed in ermine, are carefully and precisely staged in this quiet interior scene. There is no doubt that the musician is the focal point here, and the large map, the imposing profiles of the lions’ heads and the signature-blue curtains on the leaded window all frame her face, and especially her eyes. Vermeer’s muted tones and gauze-like shadows capture a moment where we can imagine the music stopping long enough for this young woman to tune her instrument and perhaps catch the first glimpse of the object of her desire. The sheet music and the viola da gamba in the middle foreground hint at a pending duet, as does her look of longing and desire. The map of Europe, however, studded with sailing ships, may be a subtle suggestion that her wait, and the duet itself, may be somewhat delayed.

“Woman with a Lute” was in the collection of railroad developer Collis Potter Huntington, who bequeathed it and numerous other paintings to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His second wife, Arabella, and her son, Archer, were both given life interest in the painting, but it was passed to the Metropolitan Museum in 1925, the year after Arabella’s death. Other paintings from a collection that she herself assembled now reside at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, which was erected by Arabella’s later husband, Henry Huntington, the nephew of Collis Potter.

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