The Judith Leyster exhibition at the National Gallery is small, just ten paintings by Leyster, and sixteen others by artists including Frans Hals and Leyster’s husband Jan Miense Molenaer. During a tour of the show for journalists, the question arose: Why the particular concentration on musical instruments in these paintings from the 1630s? Possible answers include the discovery of St. Cecilia’s body—supposedly “incorrupt” after more than a thousand years—in Rome, in 1599. Given Cecilia’s saintly associations with music and musicians, this may have sparked particular interest in music as a subject matter.
I don’t think you have to go to such lengths to find an answer, at least on the visual level. The current exhibition features historic instruments side by side with the paintings, including a late 16thcentury lute with a beautiful carved rose, a transverse flute and a kit, a teensy-weensy fiddle small enough for a dancing master to carry with him to lessons. This is an invitation to make comparisons between the iconographic evidence about the instruments in the paintings (always a tricky business), and the real thing. But it also suggests an obvious and vital reason for painting instruments: The pure craftsmanship and visual richness of them.
Compare the rough wood floorboards in Molenaer’s The Duet, which depicts the artist and his wife playing, respectively, the lute and cittern, with the instruments in the painting. Or in the cases near the painting. Underfoot, wood is seen rough and raw; in the hand, it is fine and finished, and that suggests multiple metaphors for human existence. We refine the world even as we must refine ourselves. Both instruments are particularly associated with middle-class music making, as opposed to the lower-class fiddle, which appears in Leyster’s Merry Company and in the allusion to Merry Company in the famous self-portrait of 1632-33.
Painting an instrument can serve many purposes: To animate the face and figure of the instrumentalist or suggest harmonies beyond the merely musical. But instruments are also purely and sensuously objects, and in this case, objects that demonstrate not only the wealth and cultivation of the user, but the power of painting, as a profession, to fix images on canvass, and propel the painter into the ranks of the prosperous.
Images provided by the National Gallery of Art. Top: Judith Leyster, Self-Portrait. Bottom: Jan Miense Molenaer, The Duet, collection of Mr. Eric Noah.