Early Guitars and Vihuela

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Hello all

I'm researching this painting: http://www.essentialvermeer.com/catalogue/guitar_player.html

I have no knowledge of baroque guitar and have some questions forum members may be able to answer.

Two friends who play modern guitar suggest that the sitter was a real guitarist, but a relative novice, as shown by the position of two common beginners' mistakes: the little finger is resting on the body of the guitar, and the left wrist should be lower, with the thumb more anchored at the back.

My questions are:

- are these comments about beginners' mistakes as applicable to baroque guitar as to modern guitar?

- do we know if they would have been identified as mistakes in the Dutch Republic in the seventeenth century?

- do we know how people tended to learn baroque guitar in this time and place?  Would it have been usual to have a teacher, or were most amateur musicians self-taught?

-do we know what a baroque guitar cost in this time and place?  (This may have a bearing on the sitter's identity.  Some people have suggested she's Vermeer's daughter, but the family was in debt, and I'm wondering if a guitar would have been within their reach).

Any answers, guesses, musings, insights on any of these questions extremely welcome!

James

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I don't think it quite answers any of your questions, but may I suggest that my little article - 'What is wrong with Vermeer's guitar?' - in FoMRHI Quarterly, bulletin 110, November 2008, p. 20 is probably relevant. All, except the very latest, quarterlies are viewable online.

The article does suggest that this guitar was not owned by the family, although I think that they did own at least one harpsichord, and various keyboards, viols, citterns, etc were available to Vermeer.

Others know more than me, but little finger on the soundboard was more or less obligatory lute technique at this period?

I believe there is some doubt about whether the painting is genuinely by Vermeer.   This was discussed among members of the Lute Society at the time when there was an exhibition of Vermeer's painting in London.  There are some features of the instrument and the painting which are suspicious.   I think there may be a report about this in Lute News but haven't time to track it down at present.  As to your questions I don't think it was regarded as good practice to play with the little finger of the right hand resting on the soundboard.   The practice is clearly condemned by Santiago de Murcia in 1722 - of course he may have mentioned it because amateur players did just that. It was more usual to play over the rose and towards the fingerboard with the hand completely free. The left hand is completely wrong.  My guess would be that it was just a prop which was borrowed for the occasion.

Some players may have taught themselves and lots of "teach yourself to hold down a chord" books were printed especially in Italy in the early 17th century.   However certainly people who wanted to play properly would have found a teacher.   The booklets often urge reader to do that and players like Corbetta, Granata and Pesori and others clearly worked as teachers.

As to the cost of them - a basic instrument was probably quite cheap compared with the lute - the Vermeer instrument looks rather plain.  But there are elaborately decorated instruments which wold have been costly.  Hope that is helpful.

Many thanks Peter and Monica - as well as your insightful comments here, I read Peter's article and the Lute News piece with great interest.

Monica, could I check I'm understanding you on one point - when you say "the left hand is completely wrong", am I right in thinking you see the woman as most likely being a non-musician who was asked to pose with a guitar?  To me, as a non-musician, the overall way she holds the guitar looks very natural - as if she's very used to it.  I'm now wondering if the hand could have been a passage of the painting completed in the model's absence.  Unfortunately nothing is known about Vermeer's working practices beyond what can be deduced from examination of his paintings.

Thinking about the inaccuracies in the depiction of the guitar (which I hadn't been aware of before), I suspect some are best explained by Vermeer's not having the guitar in front of him when he completed the painting, some by decisions to depart from realism for formal reasons (e.g. moving the change of direction in the binding to behind the player's wrist; the apparent harpsichord rose looks to me like an exercise in abstraction designed to echo the similarly blurry, disorganised gold of the picture frame above).  Vermeer rarely painted exactly what he saw, and in this painting he's probably further from photorealism than in any other work.  For various reasons, I have very little doubt this is a genuine Vermeer, in its original form, despite the guitar's oddities.  This is perhaps beyond the scope of this forum, but I'm happy to elaborate if anyone is interested.

The left hand... well she appears to be grasping the neck between her thumb and fingers and almost resting it on her hand.  It is impossible to play properly like this. In particular it would be difficult to hold down a barre which is crucial in baroque guitar music.  Sanz says " the left hand must be placed elegantly on the neck without grasping it with the thumb because this is the helm of this little boat and should not be fixed..but pressed against the back of the neck.  The left hand should not be supporting the instrument at all.  Nor should the right hand -both hands should be free.  In fact the usual way of supporting the guitar is with a strap.  So yes - I think she is just posing with the guitar.   Incidentally the yellow coat with ermine trimming which she is wearing appears in other Vermeer paintings so was also possibly a prop.

We can't know of course whether Vermeer had the instrument before him when painting.

There are other things about the painting which seem odd.   She is not in the centre of the painting.   She is cut off down the left hand side whilst the right hand side is more or less blank so that the whole is unbalenced.

I am not an expert on painting but I understand that it is not lined and the wooden strainer is the original one so that the painting is very fragile but nevertheless in an almost perfect state of preservation which is unusual for paintings this old.   I may be completely wrong about this but I seem to  recall that there is something about the brush work which is atypical too.  I would be interested to know any relevant technical details.

I live in London close to Kenwood House where the picture is hung and have seen it many times.   Ironically it is the most iconic painting of the baroque guitar but possible the least authentic.  I will try and attach a different painting showing a more accurate way of holding the guitar.   This lady does seem to be resting the little finger of her right hand lightly on the instrument but not in a way which wold be restrictive.

Attachments:

Many thanks Monica, for a very clear and well-informed opinion.  I'n giving a talk to the Kenwood volunteers next week on the painting, and I'll show them a slide of the Nattier, which I wasn't familiar with, as a counterexample of what a real baroque guitarist probably looked like in action.

It's worth noting that Vermeer is by no means a strict realist.  For instance in his depiction of a painter at work (The Art of Painting, in Vienna), most things are wrong, when compared with artists' actual studio practice.

I am not a Vermeer expert, so wouldn't want to pronounce on The Guitar Player's authenticity: but I would note that no Vermeer expert has questioned the attribution, at least in recent decades.  Albert Blankert is the most cautious of the leading Vermeerists, recognising 32 works when his peers generally recognise 34-37, but he doesn't seem to have doubts about The Guitar Player.  Recently, as well as the National Gallery's technical examinations, the painter and Vermeer connoisseur Jonathan Janson examined the painting from a stylistic point of view in some depth, and neither of these studies seems to have raised any doubts.  To me, the painting's oddities look like Vermeeresque oddities.

very best

James

Thank your for this.  Yes - there was an exhibition at the Narional Gallery very recently which as I remember included the Guitar player - it was featured in all the publicity which prompted some discussion with friends.  I don't seem to have bought a catalogue when I went - it must have been very expensive.  I don't know much about painting and actually paintings are rarely a reliable source of what instruments were really like and how they were played.   Painters had a completely different agenda from what early music specialists have today.

Good luck with the talk.

The left hand... well she appears to be grasping the neck between her thumb and fingers and almost resting it on her hand.  It is impossible to play properly like this. In particular it would be difficult to hold down a barre which is crucial in baroque guitar music.  Sanz says " the left hand must be placed elegantly on the neck without grasping it with the thumb because this is the helm of this little boat and should not be fixed..but pressed against the back of the neck.  The left hand should not be supporting the instrument at all.  Nor should the right hand -both hands should be free.  In fact the usual way of supporting the guitar is with a strap.  So yes - I think she is just posing with the guitar.  

Very true , but I see many, many people playing in this rather  inefficient way, sometimes doing quite well (though they will find limitations, I think) In fact she is quite modern to my eyes :-)

I used to live within cycling distance of Kenwood and often had coffee and cake there,   with a look at the painting. Her look suggests she knew  it wasnt right, but she knew with a bit more teaching and encouragement her hand position  would improve!

You may have a point there! It has been suggested that some of the painting was done at a later time i.e. latish 18th century.

Really most opinions are just speculation in the end. 

A bit off a digression, perhaps, but Eric Clapton holds his left hand similarly sometimes. That doesn't say that it was proper baroque guitar technique at all, of course, but that it is what a humans hands might actually look like when playing a guitar, certainly. I was going to post an image link, but I certainly don't hold the rights to any images of Eric Clapton. But google will help, if you ask. the points that seem similar to me are the obvious, thumb over the top, guitar neck against the large knuckle on index finger, and the wrist bent back. Incidentally, these are all things I encourage my students not to do, as they lead to problems, but hey, some people seem to make music that way anyway.

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