If you were a seventeenth-century bourgeois Netherlander looking at a painting like Vermeer's The Music Lesson, you surely wouldn't have needed an art historian to fill you in on the social scene, the clothes, the décor or the musical instruments in the room that the artist depicted. Nor would you have needed an expert to tell you what sort of music the woman was likely to be playing as she stood at the keyboard of her virginals (a compact sort of harpsichord).
This summer and into the fall, London's National Gallery is mounting an exhibition called Vermeer and Music: The Art of Love and Leisure. Running from June 26 to September 8, it will bring together paintings by Vermeer and his contemporaries that portray scenes of domestic music-making, often as an adjunct to or metaphor for love, or at least flirtation (as in The Music Lesson). It is bound to be terrific - the UK is full of wonderful paintings from the Low Countries - and it will certainly attract music-lovers as well as museum-goers (not that these are two notably different cohorts).
What makes me particularly eager to visit this exhibition if Jackie and I are in Britain during its run is the appointment of the Academy of Ancient Music - one of the great orchestras playing seventeenth-century, eighteenth-century and other "old" music on period instruments - as Resident Ensemble for the summer of 2013. Every Thursday, Friday and Saturday throughout the exhibition's run, every hour on the hour (like a traffic report), members of the group will be performing music of the time and place on instruments that might have been plucked out of the paintings on display.
It is not unheard-of for museums to use music to round out their displays - I remember recorded music used to reasonably good effect in the period rooms of Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum - but world-class musicians playing live before these exquisite paintings will truly cast aural light on the subject. Let us hope to see and hear more of this in the future.