A painting by Johannes Vermeer
, depicting a young woman in an ermine
-edged yellow robe playing a guitar
, and looking out towards her right, smiling. There's a small landscape
painting above her head, in a striking gold frame to complement the golden warmth of her garment and the luminous wood of the guitar face.
The light's from our left, where she's facing. Her head is turned up, and her welcoming smile makes it seem she can see someone, perhaps complimenting or encouraging her. Her eyebrows are raised, her hair is in ringlets. The painting's in pretty good condition but there's just a tiny bit too much smudginess for it to be an intentional sfumato effect, and it looks like her mouth and possibly an eye have been retouched at some point.
On the other side there's a pile of three books on a chest, in the side of the room that's fairly dark. The composition is lopsided, elegantly so. All the light is falling on her. The ermine reflects snowily, the three kinds of gold and the ruddy brightness of her face and chest and the tips of her hands shine out.
The rose of the guitar is very ornate, the body is banded with a thin edge of black and white around it; and the strings are being plucked. She's making music, not posing, but playing. Her other hand curls expertly up the neck and makes the twangling delight in that still room: almost, but not quite, lost forever.
Today she's in Kenwood, the great house on the edge of Hampstead Heath in London, one of the stars of Kenwood's great painting collection. It was bought in 1794 by Lord Palmerston in The Hague, and had several owners between 1871 and 1889, when the Guinness heir Lord Iveagh acquired it. Near the end of his life he bought Kenwood and installed his collection there, bequeathing it all to the nation.
There was a sale of Vermeer's paintings in Amsterdam in 1696; in many cases they can not be identified with certainty with extant ones, but this was probably the "young lady playing the guitar: excellent" that fetched seventy florins.
The Guitar Player was stolen from Kenwood on 23rd February 1974, the frame being discarded nearby. The Times received a ransom letter demanding the transfer of the imprisoned Price sisters to a jail in Northern Ireland. I have no idea who they were: some political cause of the time; but this painting was over three hundred years old and one of the nation's and the world's treasures. The columnist Bernard Levin wrote a moving plea in an open letter to the thieves, describing how her hands are placed, how the strings shimmer in musical motion, how the light falls, irreplaceably. I don't know if they were ever caught. They spared it. The Guitar Player was found undamaged in the churchyard of St Bartholomew's on 6th May 1974.
Oil on canvas, 53 cm high by 46.3 cm wide, painted about 1667. Nearest tube: Hampstead. Entry to Kenwood is free.
Provenance from Bianconi, The Complete Paintings of Vermeer, Rizzoli 1967 (Penguin 1987)
All the rest from my many hours and days spent at Kenwood