Hendrick ter Brugghen was unparalleled in capturing the rhythms of music, and he did so in the very way he composed his paintings. His musicians lean into their instruments, their bodies alive with the joy of the sounds they bring forth, whether coaxed from a violin, lute, recorder, or bagpipe. In this remarkable image, a bagpipe player, seen in strict profile, squeezes the leather bag between his forearms as he blows through the instrument’s pipe and fingers a tune on the chanter. Two large drones, composed of different wooden sections, rest on his bare shoulder. The interlocking rhythms of this ensemble—the broad, round shapes of the musician’s shoulder, beret, and brown bagpipe bag; the flowing patterns of folds in his creamy shirt and taupe robe; the pronounced diagonals of the drones and pipe; and the verticality of the chanter—parallel those of a musical score. In music, broad, fulsome notes, quickly cadenced flourishes, and strong beats not only punctuate melodies with dynamic accents but also culminate in a well-defined and emphatic finale; Ter Brugghen achieves the same effects in this painting.
Though muted in tonality, the Bagpipe Player is both bold and forceful in its scale and painting techniques. The musician’s larger-than-life-size form fills the picture plane, his passion for his music reflected in the energy of Ter Brugghen’s sure, broad brushstrokes, which flow across the canvas. The numerous adjustments the artist made in the folds of the shirt and robe, as well as in the shape of the bagpipes, indicate the freedom with which he approached his subject. Also astonishing is Ter Brugghen’s control of light, which falls most strongly on the bagpipe player’s shoulder, shirt, and fingers while leaving his face in shadow—evidence that the painting focuses primarily on the sensuality of music and not on a specific individual.
The bagpipe player is a muscular, rough-hewn type, hardly an ideal of grace and refinement. His head is large, his nose is round, and he sports a shepherd’s mustache and beard. His hands and knuckles are thick, yet from the manner in which he fingers the chanter, leaving the vent hole uncovered, it is clear that he is adept at playing the instrument. The same feeling is evoked in a second depiction of the bagpipe player, also dated 1624 [fig. 1] [fig. 1] Hendrick ter Brugghen, Portrait of a Man Playing the Bagpipes, 1624, oil on canvas, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, in which the musician, wearing the identical beret and cap medal, and with his shoulder similarly sensually exposed, looks intently out at the viewer while playing a three-drone instead of a two-drone bagpipe. The turn of his head and the apparent movement of his fingers on the chanter make it the more active of the two images, but both paintings are equally about the player’s complete engagement in his music.
Bagpipes were traditionally viewed as folk instruments, played at country dances or by herdsmen and shepherds whiling away their time. These types of portrayals were common throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, appearing in the works of Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471 - 1528), Lucas van Leyden (Netherlandish, 1489/1494 - 1533), Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Netherlandish, c. 1525/1530 - 1569), David Teniers the Younger (Flemish, 1610 - 1690), and Jan Steen (Dutch, 1625/1626 - 1679), among others. Ter Brugghen’s musician, however, is not a local peasant or shepherd the artist might have encountered on a foray into the countryside; it is unlikely that shepherds played their bagpipes with drones resting on a bare shoulder. The loosely draped robes here reflect a manner of dress based on antique fashions. Like the brightly colored, fanciful outfits in Ter Brugghen’s depictions of violinists, flutists, and lute players from the 1620s, which derive from sixteenth-century Spanish and French prototypes as well as from Caravaggio (Roman, 1571 - 1610), this all’antica mode of dress alluded to an arcadian ideal of country living that was popular in aristocratic and court circles, and among the urban elite, particularly in Utrecht and The Hague. Essential to this mythology were notions of the purity and bounty of country existence, as well as the romantic ideals of love and beauty that emanated from Renaissance literary and pictorial traditions.
Bagpipes were often included in these odes to pastoral life, which may help explain the appeal of paintings of musicians for aristocratic patrons during the early to mid-seventeenth century. In Daniel Heinsius’ 1616 poem “Pastorael,” the shepherd Cordion sits quietly in the countryside dreaming of his beloved while he soulfully plays his bagpipe and sings his lover’s lament [fig. 2] [fig. 2] Anonymous, Cordion Playing a Bagpipe, engraving from Daniel Heinsius, “Pastorael,” in Heinsius, Nederduytsche poemata, Amsterdam, 1616. Two extremely popular pastoral plays of the period, Giovanni Battista Guarini’s Il Pastor Fido, 1590, and Pieter Cornelisz Hooft’s Granida, 1615, similarly evoke an arcadian ideal of bucolic existence quite different from the profligate ways of urban and courtly life. Musicians playing bagpipes, flutes, and other pastoral instruments created the auditory ambience for such plays. In 1637, for example, Sir Anthony van Dyck (Flemish, 1599 - 1641) depicted the engraver and print dealer François Langlois playing a bagpipe and dressed as a savoyard, a type of itinerant shepherd-musician found performing in French aristocratic circles [fig. 3] [fig. 3] Anthony van Dyck, Portrait of François Langlois, probably early 1630s, oil on canvas, National Gallery, London, Bought jointly by the National Gallery and the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham, with the assistance of the Heritage Lottery Fund, 1997. Photo © National Gallery, London / Art Resource, NY. An anonymous portrait of 1632 portrays a distinguished and well-dressed Dutch gentleman proudly holding his bagpipe, a further indication that the instrument was also played by respectable members of the upper class [fig. 4] [fig. 4] Anonymous, Musician Holding Bagpipes, 1632, oil on panel, Concordia University, Montreal.
The specific character of Bagpipe Player—a single, larger-than-life-sized musician shown against a plain grayish ocher background—owes much to the influence of Gerrit van Honthorst (Dutch, 1592 - 1656) and Dirck van Baburen (Dutch, c. 1595 - 1624), Dutch Caravaggist painters who returned to Utrecht from Rome in 1620. They brought with them stylistic and thematic predilections appropriate for expressing the sensuous, idealized concepts of arcadian subject matter that they adapted from paintings by Caravaggio and his followers, particularly Bartolomeo Manfredi (1582–1622). There were also other significant pictorial sources for half-length depictions of musicians. Marten Jan Bok has persuasively argued that the inspiration for this new subject matter owes much to the existence in Utrecht of an early sixteenth-century Venetian painting of a flute player, which at the time was attributed to Correggio (Parmese, 1489/1494 - 1534) but which was almost certainly painted by Giorgione (Venetian, 1477/1478 - 1510) or Titian (Venetian, 1488/1490 - 1576).
Even though Ter Brugghen had been in Italy earlier and presumably had seen some of Caravaggio’s paintings of musicians, these additional pictorial sources probably inspired his initial foray into this subject matter in 1621, when he painted the Flute Player and the Shepherd Flute Player, both now in Kassel. It was not until 1624, however, the date of the Gallery’s Bagpipe Player, that Ter Brugghen fully turned his attention to the depiction of musicians. In that year alone he painted no fewer than five separate compositions devoted to music, featuring not only bagpipers but also musicians—sometimes singing—who play the lute and the violin. He continued this interest in the years to follow. Just what prompted this output is not known, but the appeal of this subject was such that Ter Brugghen and/or his workshop made replicas of a number of these works, including Bagpipe Player.
Similarities in subject matter, style, and size among the canvases have led to the supposition that Ter Brugghen conceived of a number of these paintings as pendants. Indeed, Leonard Slatkes has proposed that the Bagpipe Player has a pendant, the so-called Pointing Lute Player [fig. 5] [fig. 5] Hendrick ter Brugghen, Pointing Lute Player (A Seated Lutanist Pointing), 1624, oil on canvas, private collection. Photo © Christie's Images / The Bridgeman Art Library. He and Wayne Franits argue that the two works—which are identical in size, are both signed and dated 1624, and have complementary compositions—are also thematically conjoined. They believe that the lute player’s laughing demeanor and pointing gesture are meant to mock the bagpipe player as he plays this rustic instrument, an interpretation that draws its bite from ancient mythology, specifically the musical contest between Marsyas, who played Pallas Athena’s cast-off aulos (which was occasionally depicted as a bagpipe in fifteenth-century publications), and Apollo, who won the contest by playing a lyre.
Even though wind instruments were indeed considered to be less refined and elegant than string instruments [fig. 6] [fig. 6] Claes Jansz Visscher, "Niet hoe veel, maer hoe eel" (Not how many, but how fine), 1614, engraving, the hypothesis that Bagpipe Player and Pointing Lute Player were pendants is not convincing and does not take into account the positive connotations of the bagpipe in seventeenth-century Dutch culture discussed above. The composition of Pointing Lute Player clearly indicates that it had a pendant, but the Bagpipe Player almost certainly was not the companion piece. Visually, the compositional relationships between the two works are not as compelling as they initially seem. The scale and disposition of the figures differ: the bagpipe player is larger than the lute player, higher in the picture plane, and more fully fills the space around him. Most important, the Bagpipe Player is an image of quiet grandeur and dignity. Nothing about the figure’s pose, expression, or gestures suggests that Ter Brugghen conceived this image as the focus of a lute player’s mockery.
Ter Brugghen’s Bagpipe Player, thus, should be seen as part of a broad cultural interest in the pastoral during the early seventeenth century that evoked the idyllic pleasures of country existence, particularly as experienced through music. Ter Brugghen fully embraced this theme in a series of remarkable paintings of musicians and singers that capture both the joy and the sensuality of life. As with this masterpiece, these engaging images invite us into a world where, through the boldness of the artist’s brush and the rhythms of his forms, we feel the enduring power of music on the human spirit.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
April 24, 2014