National Gallery's Vermeer-themed show gets musical accompaniment

Strains of harpsichord, viola da gamba and violin to add atmosphere to small but evocative Vermeer and Music exhibition

Feature: Richard Egarr on music in Vermeer's time

Music from instruments such as the harpsichord, viola da gamba and violin will echo around the rooms of the National Gallery's Sainsbury wing to add atmosphere to a new exhibition exploring the importance of music in 17th-century Dutch art and society.

Musicians from the Academy of Ancient Music will perform on the hour three days a week at a small but evocative show, opening on Wednesday, that will have at its heart five paintings by the Delft master Johannes Vermeer.

The gallery's director, Nicholas Penny, said it was "not a large international loan exhibition" but one based around artworks in its own collection.

It echoes the Titian-themed show it staged last summer in partnership with the Royal Ballet.

"I hope this will be the first of many such collaborations with the other arts," said Penny. "None of which plays a more important part in any of our paintings than music."

The show features music-themed paintings from the Dutch golden age in the same rooms as instruments close to what are depicted, including a virginal, a lute and a lavishly decorated guitar, as well as songbooks that would have been carried around in the hope of finding the right moment.

It includes five of the 36 Vermeer paintings that are known to exist: the National Gallery's two Vermeers of women playing virginals, plus The Music Lesson, loaned by the Royal Collection, and The Guitar Player, which has been on loan to the gallery while its normal home, Kenwood House in north London, is closed for restoration. The fifth Vermeer is being loaned by a private collector from New York.

The show's curator, Betsy Wieseman, said music was far more important and pervasive across society in 17th-century Holland than other European countries. "It was a much more enjoyable musical culture in many respects, focusing on songs rather than grandiose compositions and orchestral pieces."

As well as paintings by artists including Jan Steen, Pieter de Hooch and Gerard ter Borch, a final room shows the latest technical examination carried out on Vermeer's works, showing even hidden fingerprints.

"It gives you an opportunity that curators and restorers and scientists can often take for granted and that is seeing these exquisite, up-close details of the painting," said Wieseman.

Vermeer and Music, the Art of Love and Leisure is at the National Gallery, 26 June-8 September, £7

See also: The Academy of Ancient Music's Richard Egarr on music in Vermeer's time


Mark Brown, arts correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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