Jan Miense Molenaer possessed the remarkable ability to create works that were as expressive as they were diverse. Taking inspiration from proverbs, poems, and the Bible, he painted merry companies, tavern groups, biblical scenes, and portraiture with brushwork that ranged from precise and refined to loose and free. Musical themes were a particular favorite of the artist and his wife, the painter Judith Leyster (1609–1660), whom he married in 1636.
Self-Portrait as a Lute Player, which Molenaer painted a few years after his marriage, is one of his most engaging works with a musical theme. Unlike his wife, who depicted herself painting, as seen in the Gallery’s wonderful Self-Portrait from around the same time, Molenaer quietly tunes his lute. The activity was symbolically linked in 17th-century literature to conducting one’s life in a balanced and harmonious manner. Because the dulcet tones of the instrument were difficult to maintain, tuning was a careful and time-intensive act, requiring a patient and steady hand. Molenaer’s forthright gaze and calm demeanor underscore these notions of stability and constancy; significantly he pays no attention to the nearby array of sumptuous foods, drinking vessels, and smoking implements—items commonly associated with the transitory nature of sensual pleasures.
Self-Portrait as a Lute Player is not only an appealing image; it is also in excellent condition. Part of the painting’s charm, moreover, is the extraordinary naturalism Molenaer was able to convey through his deftly handled brush. He modeled fabrics and metals with carefully blended colors and dabbed quick highlights at curves and contours to give each texture form and substance. In one of the painting’s most stunning passages, he even used the blunt end of his paintbrush to scrape away paint to indicate the individual curls of hair.
Private collection; (sale, Christie, Manson & Woods, London, 11 July 1980, no. 112); exported to Switzerland; (Galerie Sanct Lucas, Vienna), by 1981; private collection; (Galerie Sanct Lucas, Vienna); purchased 1996 by Philip and Lizanne Cunningham, Alexandria, Virginia; (Christie's, New York); purchased 2015 by NGA.
- Gemälde Alter Meister, Galerie Sanct Lucas, Vienna, 1996, no. 13, repro.
- Loan to display with permanent collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 2001-2015.
- Jan Miense Molenaer: Painter of the Dutch Golden Age, North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh; Indianapolis Museum of Art; Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, New Hampshire, 2002-2003, no. 22, repro.
- Judith Leyster 1609-1660, National Gallery of Art, Washington; Frans Halsmuseum, Haarlem, 2009-2010, unnumbered NGA brochure, fig. 12 (shown only in Washington).
- Welu, James A., and Pieter Biesboer. Judith Leyster: A Dutch Master and Her World. Exh. cat. Frans Halsmuseum, Haarlem; Worcester Art Museum. Haarlem, 1993: 306-307, fig. 33e.
- Burgers, Jan W.J. The Lute in the Dutch Golden Age: Musical Culture in the Netherlands 1580-1670. Amsterdam, 2013: 12, pl. 5.
- Libby, Alexandra. "Jan Miense Molenaer, Self-Portrait as a Lute Player." National Gallery of Art Bulletin, no. 53 (Fall 2015): 38, repro.