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Art review: 'Woman With a Lute' by Johannes Vermeer at Norton Simon Museum

July 26, 2011 |  3:30 pm

On loan from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Woman With a Lute,” by Johannes Vermeer, is on view through Sept. 26 at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. As no West Coast museum actually owns a Vermeer, it’s a rare opportunity to see a painting by the 17th century Dutch master, celebrated for his marvelous handling of light and his mysterious portraits of women.

However, viewers expecting the enchantment of “Girl With a Pearl Earring” might be disappointed by this dark, tight composition. The subject is not unusual: A woman sits alone at a table, tuning a lute. Her attention is taken not by her instrument but by something, or more likely someone, she spies through a window. The light is characteristically tender, illuminating the woman’s moon-like face and glinting off her fur collar and pearl earring — also Vermeer staples.

Like these accouterments, room furnishings often signify wealth and status, but here they seem to press in on the woman from all sides. Not only is her body truncated by the cloth-draped table, but fully one quarter of the painting is dominated by another rectangle: a large map on the wall behind her. The rod along its bottom edge looks as if it’s about to poke her in the head. On the other side, her arm is clipped by an equally insistent finial on the back of a chair.

A quick look at other Vermeers ( reveals that the painter had something of a penchant for this awkward intersection of heads and wall hangings. Perhaps he was interested in the discord between subject and setting.

In “Woman With a Lute,” the preponderance of rectilinear forms feels constricting, but the hard lines also direct us more forcefully to the soft glow that alights on the woman’s brow and beak-like nose. Looking eagerly out the window, tuning her instrument, she’s ready for music to take flight. 

-- Sharon Mizota

Image: "Woman With a Lute," about 1662–63, Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, 1632–75). Oil on canvas.
Lent by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, bequest of Collis P. Huntington, 1900.