Rare Vermeer painting makes a rare appearance at Philadelphia Museum of Art

People do not collect Vermeers, they collect viewings of Vermeers. There are only 36 Johannes Vermeer paintings known to exist, but they are scattered throughout the world. Even if you traveled to New York, Berlin, Amsterdam, London, Paris and The Hague, you still will not have seen them all.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art will have “Young Woman Seated at a Virginal” until March on loaned from the private Leiden Collection. The painting was exhibited over the summer at the National Gallery in London.

Although the subject of a best-selling novel and subsequent film “Girl With the Pearl Earring,” little is known of Vermeer beyond his basic biographical stats: He was a 17th century Dutch artist who was born and died, at the age of 43, in the city of Delft.

“There was an urge to describe things naturalistically by 17th century Dutch painters, and Vermeer does that to a certain degree,” said Philadelphia Museum of Art curator Christopher Atkins. “But instead of working in line, he works in volumes and he works in light. He really strips things down.”

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The small, perfect paintings are just as mysterious as the painter.The quiet domestic scene of an upper-class woman pausing as she plays a virginal — a keyboard instrument similar to a harpsichord — is more about light and shape than activity or character.

“What is she doing there? What happened before this? What is happening next?” said Atkins. “She turns from the keyboard to look out at us, but the picture itself doesn’t give us narrative. There’s a freedom for the viewer to project our own stories, our own ideas of what happened.”

Although the museum has one of the world’s largest collections of 17th century Dutch paintings, it does not have a Vermeer of its own. Atkins gave the small painting its own wall so the work will not succumb to the still-lifes surrounding it.

“Young Woman Seated at a Virginal” is on loan along with other items from the Leiden Collection, including “Portrait of Samuel Ampzing” by Frans Hals, another popular Dutch artist not represented in the museum’s permanent collection.

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