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 painted himself quietly tuning 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.
In this finely wrought self-portrait, Jan Miense Molenaer sits with a lute balanced high on his left thigh, adjusting a tuning peg with one hand and thumbing a string with the other. His furrowed brow and fixed gaze convey the level of concentration needed to coax just the right note from the instrument. A still-life ensemble of food, instruments, and smoking paraphernalia lies beside him: walnuts cracked on a plate, a small violin known as a pochette resting atop a recorder, and coals in a brazier burning low. Together with the soft lighting, the scene exudes a sense of calm and quiet.
Much of the painting’s charm comes from the extraordinary naturalism that Molenaer conveyed through his exquisite attention to detail and deftly handled brush. He modelled his fabrics and metals with carefully blended colors, applying quick highlights at curves and contours to give his materials form and substance, as is evident in his creamy gray ensemble with a broad white collar. Molenaer may have even used the blunt end of his brush to scrape away paint to indicate the individual curls of his moustache and leonine mane.
Molenaer’s identity as the sitter is confirmed by comparisons with other known self-portraits. One sees the same curly hair, broadly set eyes, bulbous nose, and cleft chin in The Duet, the double-portrait he painted of himself and his wife, the artist
According to Dennis P. Weller in personal communication with the author, Sept. 16, 2015, other self-portraits may possibly appear in Artist in His Studio with an Old Woman, c. 1632–1633, oil on panel, Private Collection; Man with a Pipe, c. 1632–1634, oil on panel, Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt am Main, inv. no. 221; and in the background of Woman Playing a Virginal, c. 1635, oil on panel, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, on loan from the City of Amsterdam, inv. no. SK-C-140.
The painting has previously been dated to 1635 in Gemälde Alter Meister, auction catalog, Galerie Sanct Lucas, Vienna, Autumn 1996, no. 32; and Dennis P. Weller, “Self-Portrait as a Lute Player” in Jan Miense Molenaer: Painter of the Dutch Golden Age, ed. Dennis P. Weller (Raleigh, 2002), 130–132.
Dennis P. Weller, “Jan Miense Molenaer: Painter of the Dutch Golden Age” in Jan Miense Molenaer: Painter of the Dutch Golden Age, ed. Dennis P. Weller (Raleigh, 2002), 17–24.
Dennis P. Weller, personal communication with the author, May 14, 2016.
See Technical Summary.
The sensitivity with which Molenaer treated the details of playing versus tuning the lute make it likely that the instrument was a real part of his life. Lutes were an integral component of musical culture in the Dutch Golden Age, and the inventory of the artist’s possessions made after his death lists a number of instruments, including a violin, two transverse flutes, and three “cyters,” which may refer either to cithers or lutes.
For the complete inventory of Molenaer’s possessions recorded on Oct. 10, 1668, see Frima Fox Hofrichter, Judith Leyster: A Woman Painter in Holland’s Golden Age (Doornspijk, 1989), 85–103.
For a discussion of lute music and manuals, see especially Jan W. J. Burgers, The Lute in the Dutch Golden Age: Musical Culture in the Netherlands 1580–1670 (Amsterdam, 2013), 89–140; Burgers also discusses the celebrity of lutenists in The Lute in the Dutch Golden Age: Musical Culture in the Netherlands 1580–1670 (Amsterdam, 2013), 51–64.
Vallet’s music and playing instructions are discussed in Louis Peter Grijp, “The Ensemble Music of Nicolaes Vallet,” in Proceedings of the International Lute Symposium Utrecht 1986, ed. Louis Peter Grijp and Willem Mook (Utrecht, 1988), 64–85; Louis Peter Grijp, ed., The Complete Works of Nicolaes Vallet, vol. 3, Secretum Musarum I (Amsterdam, 1615; repr., Utrecht, 1992), xxx; and Jan W. J. Burgers, The Lute in the Dutch Golden Age: Musical Culture in the Netherlands 1580–1670 (Amsterdam, 2013), 140–144.
Apart from demonstrating his familiarity and facility with the instrument, Molenaer may also have chosen to portray himself as a lute player because of music’s many symbolic associations, among which was intellectual activity. As one of the liberal arts, music was highly regarded as an art form in the early modern period and considered an essential component of high education. For painters keen to exalt their craft, music and musical instruments became an important touchstone for comparison between the two art forms.
See Ivan Gaskell, “Gerrit Dou, His Patrons, and the Art of Painting,” The Oxford Journal 3 (1980): 15–23; Ignacio Lamarque Moreno, “Music and Its Symbolism in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Painting” (PhD diss., University of Maryland, College Park, 1990), 53–54.
Notable self-portraits that follow such a model include Gerrit Dou, Self-Portrait, c. 1665, Private Collection, Boston; Jan Steen, Self-Portrait, c. 1663–1665, Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid; and Frans van Mieris, Self-Portrait of the Artist Holding a Small Painting, c. 1677, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. For the Dou self-portrait, see Ronni Baer, “Self-Portrait,” in Gerrit Dou, 1613–1675, ed. Ronni Baer (New Haven, 2000), 122, no. 29. Musical instruments are also a staple of images of artist studios. See, for example, Jan Miense Molenaer, The Artist’s Studio, 1631, Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin; Quiringh van Brekelenkam, The Artist in His Studio, c. 1659, State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg; Frans van Mieris, A Connoisseur in the Artist’s Studio, c. 1655–1657, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden; Gabriel Metsu, Artist Painting a Woman Playing a Cello, whereabouts unknown; Jan Steen, The Drawing Lesson, c. 1665, Getty Museum, Los Angeles; and Johannes Vermeer, The Art of Painting, c. 1666, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. For the Metsu self-portrait, see Franklin W. Robinson, Gabriel Mestu (1629–1667) (New York, 1974), fig. 42.
Along with intelligence, inspiration, and imagination, music, and particularly the lute, was naturally also associated with harmony. The Haarlem printmaker Gillis van Breen (c. 1560–after 1602) articulated the harmonious relationship between men and women through lute imagery in an engraving made circa 1600 after Cornelis Ysbrantsz Cussens’s Allegory of Marriage (Rijksprentenkabinet, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) that shows a man playing a lute beside a woman playing a violin. Van Breen added an inscription to the image that likens a strong marital relationship to a successful musical duet: “Just as the slenderest string reverberates around the male string, and the melodious strings of the heavy-voice lyre follow, so you, harmonious strings, must accord to the tone of marriage, in which as the consort accepts the commands of her lord.”
Quoted in Dennis P. Weller, “The Duet,” in Jan Miense Molenaer: Painter of the Dutch Golden Age, ed. Dennis P. Weller (Raleigh, 2002), 137.
Shortly before Molenaer painted Self-Portrait as a Lute Player he had become a member of the Haarlem painter’s guild and had also married Judith Leyster.
Molenaer became a member of the Guild of St. Luke in 1634, though he had been signing and dating works since 1629. He and Leyster posted their wedding bans in Haarlem on May 11, 1636, and were married three weeks later on June 1. For Molenaer’s biography, see Dennis P. Weller, “Jan Miense Molenaer: Painter of the Dutch Golden Age,” in Jan Miense Molenaer: Painter of the Dutch Golden Age, ed. Dennis P. Weller (Raleigh, 2002), 9–25.
Molenaer had also used the musical motif to suggest a concordant and balanced existence before. In The Duet Molenaer pictures himself and Judith Leyster seated together in a well-appointed interior playing string instruments—he a lute and she a cittern (fig. 1). Dressed in their finest attire with a lap dog curled up at their feet, they gaze out at the viewer as they strum their instruments in unison. In Self-Portrait with Family Members, his brothers and sisters engage in a musical performance that includes voice, cittern, lute, violin, and cello. The group performs in the shadow of two large portraits hanging on the back wall that depict the deceased patriarch and matriarch of the family, Molenaer’s parents, Jan Mientsen and Grietgen Adrianes (fig. 2). The message in both paintings is clear: music expresses the harmonious bond that unites family.
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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).
The support is a single oak (estimated) panel with vertical grain. The right side is more tangential than the left, but the panel remains quite flat.
Restoration materials cover much of the panel edges. However, most of the growth rings appear to be oriented approximately 45 degrees to the panel surface, except near the right edge where the board becomes more tangential. This shift on the right can be seen in the x-radiograph of the painting.
The ground layer is off-white, and under magnification, blue shard-like pigments can be seen scattered throughout the layer. An underdrawing is not visible with infrared reflectography (IRR). However, when painting the background, the artist appears to have left parts of the central compositional elements in reserve, including the sitter’s face and hat, and the central part of the lute.
Infrared reflectography images were captured using the following: a Santa Barbara Focalplane InSb camera with J filter (1.1–1.4 microns), a Si CCD with 55 mm Nikon macro lens and a spectral band of .85–1.0 microns, and a Xenics 640 × 512 InGaAs camera with 55 mm Nikon macro lens and J filter (1.1–1.4 microns).
The artist depicted some details by scratching through upper paint layers with a thin tool, which in most instances reveals the ground layer. These elements include the sitter’s hair and moustache, a lute-string loop, the lute tuning pegs, a line on the red plate at the left of the table, and the signature. A few letters of the signature are visible under normal light, including the “J” and “ӔR” but there are small islands of a darker nonoriginal material, possibly overpaint or old discolored varnish residue, within the lines of the characters. This embedded material is more transparent than the surrounding paint, but also appears to be composed of fine particles, making the signature difficult to distinguish. With IRR, the complete signature is visible.
Some pentimenti are just visible under normal light. The most noticeable is that of the proper right hand, where the artist changed the positioning of the sitter’s fingers. Examination with IRR reveals that the hand was first painted much like the lute player’s hand in Molenaer’s The Duet (Private Collection), with the little finger extended and the other fingers more curved.
See Entry, fig. 1.
The panel and paint layers are in good condition. There are minor indentations in the wood and there is a crack at the upper left that has been retouched. There is also scattered retouching, particularly within the background and tablecloth. The natural resin (estimated) varnish saturates the paints and is fairly even.
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- 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.