Golden Age of Dutch Painting Brought to Life with Music at Dallas Museum of Art

Gerard ter Borch, “A Musical Company"
Gerard ter Borch, “A Musical Company"
Dallas Museum of Art

Beyond the reaches of the art world, the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer is a familiar name. The book about his painting The Girl with a Pearl Earring was later made into a movie with Scar-Jo. There was also a documentary called Tim’s Vermeer where a guy tries to figure out how Vermeer captures light in his paintings. But most people have not had the opportunity to see a Vermeer in person because of the surviving 35 or 36 (that number is in dispute), only 14 are in the United States, mostly in New York. This explains the high enthusiasm about the exhibit Vermeer Suite at the Dallas Museum of Art. But be aware there is only one Vermeer in the eponymous show and, just like the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, this Vermeer is smaller than you will expect. But don’t let that dissuade you. Vermeer Suite (think suite, as in music, which denotes short pieces organized around a theme) fascinatingly unites eight Dutch paintings around the theme of music.

Through August 21, the Dallas Museum of Art presents Vermeer Suite: Music in 17th Century Dutch Painting. The exhibit brings together eight paintings by various artists from the Golden Age of Dutch painting, with the highlight being Johannes Vermeer’s "Young Woman Seated at a Virginal." Vermeer Suite combines a brief history of the music and musical instruments of the period with the genre of painting which portrayed everyday musicians from Holland in the 1600s.

Because many of the instruments represented in the paintings are unfamiliar, the DMA offers a brief tutorial in the anteroom which features a sound bar with recordings of period instruments,  including that of the virginal depicted in the Vermeer. During the course of the exhibit, music composed during the period will be played in the exhibition foyer.

Olivier Meslay, associate director of curatorial affairs at the Dallas Museum of Art and organizing curator of Vermeer Suite, chose to center this exhibit around music because of the frequency with which Vermeer and other Dutch artists — including Gerard Dou, who apprenticed with Rembrandt — painted their subjects with a musical instrument. Of the 36 surviving paintings by Vermeer, 12 depict people playing music, include a musical instrument or in some way allude to music.

Several aspects unique to the Netherlands in the 1600s contributed to the prevalence of music and musical themes in the work of the Dutch painters. Because the Netherlands was a Protestant nation, unlike much of Europe which remained strictly Catholic, people were allowed to enjoy secular music in their own homes and many people played instruments. Dutch artists painted men or women practicing on musical instruments or receiving music lessons rather than the classical themes of gods or Biblical stories painted by most Italian painters of the time. The Netherlands was also actively engaged in commerce and trade around the world and the wealthy of Dutch society were not the clergy or landowners but businessmen and merchants. Artists responded to the demands of these middle-class tradesmen and began to paint smaller works depicting average people, all engaged in the dominant leisure activity of the time which was music.

Music unites the exhibit but the paintings represent a cross section of Dutch society in the 1600s. from the low-brow denizens of the taverns to the tranquil domesticity of upper-class women playing instruments at home. Vermeer’s "Young Woman Seated at a Virginal" is the embodiment of a quiet scene of home life in which very little is happening. The eye is drawn toward the pearls around the neck of the young woman, demonstrating Vermeer's legendary skill at painting light. The quiet harmony of the home was a favorite subject of Vermeer but his own life was far from calm. He was the father of 10 children and between that and the expensive pigments he used in his painting, he was always in debt. He did not achieve fame in his lifetime and when he died, he didn't have a single painting of his own in his possession. He'd even used one to pay his food bill at the neighborhood baker. He was largely forgotten after his death and not rediscovered until the late 19th century.

Meslay hopes this exhibit will call attention to the DMA collection’s weakness in the area of Dutch painting, with the goal of addressing it moving forward. The hope is that audiences will come to see the Vermeer, be treated to the artists of the Netherlands, and in turn encourage the DMA and Meslay to expand the collection of Dutch artists.  

Vermeer Suite: Music in 17th Century Dutch Painting continues at the Dallas Museum of Art through August 21. Admission is free.

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