In a pristine domestic parlor, two women and a man concentrate on making music. The standing woman holds a sheet of music and raises her hand to beat time for her companions. Turned enigmatically away from our gaze, the seated gentleman wears an elaborate decorated sash that indicates his membership in a civic militia. Some scholars have been tempted to interpret Dutch musical scenes like this as moral warnings against seduction and illicit sex. Indeed, hanging on the wall at the right is a painting of a procuress by Dirck van Baburen. Although the subject of this painting-within-a-painting seems to suggest that something improper is taking place, the Procuress was in fact owned by Vermeer’s family. Moreover, the figures in the room are intently preoccupied with their music: they do not look at each other, and seem unaware they are being observed. Their intensity does not invite interruption. Lying on the large table at left is a lute, while a viola da gamba lies on the floor. Are these instruments soon to be taken up by the trio, or are others to join the group? Vermeer crafts rather deliberately a sense of mystery: this study in social interaction is a comedy of manners open to our interpretation.
The mystery is intensified by Vermeer’s famed attention to the reflections of light. It sparkles off the women’s pearls (Mrs. Gardner’s favorite), the gold threads of the man’s sash, the white silk skirt, and even the Persian carpet heaped on the table.
Isabella Stewart Gardner may have been drawn to the painting by its elegant depiction of the domestic music-making that she herself was so fond of. The painting was her first major acquisition, and she bought it without the help of experts. It was bought at the Paris auction of the estate of Théophile Thoré (1807–1869), a prominent critic who wrote under the pseudonym William Bürger. He had been instrumental in reviving the reputation of Vermeer, which made this painting especially important.
Source: Alan Chong, "The Concert," in Eye of the Beholder, edited by Alan Chong et al. (Boston: ISGM and Beacon Press, 2003): 149.