Jan Steen’s delightfully suggestive painting about love and desire is played out in a courtship ritual that is both universal in its human dynamics and distinctive in the way it unfolds. Music serves here as a metaphor for love, as an infatuated young woman strumming her lute looks imploringly at her companion while he reaches over to pluck the strings of her instrument. The sexual meaning of his gesture is reinforced not only by the recorder protruding from his pocket but also by the gesture of his left hand, which forms a circle between thumb and index finger as he holds his hat in his lap. That this encounter takes place within the elegant confines of the woman’s private chamber is evident from the bed, its curtains pulled back to reveal two pillows, one above the other. The small sculpture of Cupid above the doorway reinforces the amorous nature of the scene.
Steen’s painting has traditionally been called The Music Lesson, and the young man perched on the table has been seen as a music instructor teaching the woman how to play her lute. A music lesson, however, is not the couple’s main concern, as is clear from the music book that lies unattended and forgotten on the wooden bench next to the man’s foot. The presence of an older woman standing behind them and a man peering in mischievously from the half-opened door indicates that Steen’s painting is not a generic genre scene but is based on a literary source: Bredero’s tragicomedy Over-gesette Lucelle (translated as Lucelle), first published in Amsterdam in 1616 and reprinted frequently throughout the 17th century.
Gerbrand Adriaensz Bredero (1585–1618) was the first important Dutch poet, songwriter, and playwright to focus upon everyday reality, matching his insights about human nature with a gentle warmth and humor. With a keen eye for detail and a sharp ear for language, Bredero enlivened his poetry and plays with words drawn from local dialects rather than from classical prototypes. As he explained in the preface to his widely read Groot lied-boeck (Large Songbook), published posthumously in 1622, “The only book from which I learned is the book of use.” Bredero, who was a painter as well as writer, also wrote, “The best painters are those who come closest to life.”
Lucelle belongs to the genre of tragicomic plays that developed in Italy and France in the 16th century. A subplot generally encountered in these plays features lovers from different social classes trying to overcome the restrictions placed on their love through ruse and deceit. Inevitably, the lovers are betrayed, leading to a dramatic denouement, but things always work out well in the end. It frequently turns out that the protagonist from the lower social class actually has a royal or princely heritage, a startling development that solves all of the lovers’ problems in a delightful and engaging way.
Steen greatly admired Bredero’s humor and pictorial language, and the thematic content of his paintings, as in Ascagnes and Lucelle (The Music Lesson), often reflects the playwright’s influence. In this painting, Steen focused on the most intimate and transformative moment in Bredero’s play, which occurs in act 3, when the two lovers try to overcome the obstacles they face in pursuit of their happiness. The heroine, Lucelle, and her lover, Ascagnes, have come together in the privacy of her room on the pretext that he will give her a music lesson. This ruse is necessary because Lucelle’s wealthy father has forbidden her to associate with Ascagnes, his clerk, owing to the young man’s humble background. The gilded leather wall covering and expensive oriental carpet on the table in Steen’s painting clearly indicate that the elegant bedchamber in which they meet is that of a wealthy young woman. Undoubtedly taking a cue from theatrical productions, Steen also contrasted the difference in the social status of the lovers through their wardrobes, juxtaposing Lucelle’s shimmering white satin dress with Ascagnes’s plain ocher-colored jerkin, baggy red trunk hose, and floppy white socks. The ploy is the brainchild of Lucelle’s maid, Margriet, who, looking somewhat like a procuress, is the older woman staring at the lovers in the painting. Music lessons were a common occurrence in upper-class Dutch homes, where musical proficiency for a young woman was highly valued and indicative of social status.
The key to identifying the scene’s literary source as Bredero’s Lucelle is the man peering through the half-opened door. He is the comic character Lecker-Beetje (Juicy Bit), the servant of Lucelle’s father who spies on the lovers and overhears them as they vow eternal love. Steen depicts Lecker-Beetje with his finger resting on his cheek, a gesture often associated with troublemaking fools in his paintings. Indeed, Lecker-Beetje betrays the lovers to Lucelle’s father, who, in order to avoid a scandal, promptly arranges for his daughter and Ascagnes to be poisoned. Just as the couple is about to die, however, a messenger arrives to announce that Ascagnes is actually the son of the king of Poland. Fortunately, the poison turns out to be merely a sleeping potion, and the lovers are revived. Bredero’s play ends, fittingly, with the celebration of their marriage.
Steen’s vignette from Lucelle is filled with light-hearted sexual innuendo that only a master storyteller like him could convey. Gestures and body language seem carefully observed from life and, were it not for the presence of Margriet and Lecker-Beetje, one would never guess that Steen derived this narrative from a literary source. Many of the painting’s pictorial components are comparable to those that appear in Steen’s genre scenes with musical subjects. For example, in Acta Virum Probant (Actions Prove the Man) of 1659 in the National Gallery, London (there titled A Young Woman Playing a Harpsichord to a Young Man), music similarly serves as a device for exploring complex human relationships of love and harmony. As in Ascagnes and Lucelle (The Music Lesson), Steen depicted two main protagonists around a musical instrument, an elegant interior, and a figure peering through a doorway in the back of the room.
Eight years separate Acta Virum Probant (Actions Prove the Man) and Ascagnes and Lucelle (The Music Lesson). By 1667, Steen’s compositions had become more organic and his brushwork had loosened, as seen, for example, in Lucelle’s shimmering white satin dress. The fact that Steen had by then moved to Haarlem from Leiden, thereby leaving the orbit of the fijnschilder (fine painting) techniques of his friend Frans van Mieris (Dutch, 1635 - 1681), partly accounts for these differences. Also important for Steen’s stylistic evolution was his renowned contemporary Gerard ter Borch the Younger (Dutch, 1617 - 1681). Steen not only responded to the subtle brushwork with which Ter Borch rendered fabrics but also to the informal character of his intimate genre scenes, including those featuring music. One particularly compelling comparison is between Ascagnes and Lucelle (The Music Lesson) and Ter Borch’s A Woman Playing the Theorbo-Lute and a Cavalier (c. 1658, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), where a young admirer similarly sits on a table as he listens to a love-struck woman playing a stringed instrument.
Only a few drawings by Steen have survived, yet it seems likely that he made many figure drawings that are now lost. He probably adapted the poses and gestures of these figure drawings to accord with the different narratives he wanted to express. Ascagnes’s gesture of reaching out with bent wrist, for example, is akin to that of Cleopatra in Steen’s The Banquet of Antony and Cleopatra (Georg-August-Universität, Göttigen), which he also executed in 1667. Similar associations can be made between Lucelle’s pose and other figures in Steen’s oeuvre.
Steen returned to the subject of Lucelle and Ascagnes in a painting in the Bute Collection (Mount Stuart, Isle of Bute), this time with a more theatrical approach, not only in terms of the anachronistic costumes of the figures but also the ample drapes hanging from a fanciful architectural setting. In this latter version, however, Steen radically rethought his narrative and moved away from the scene described in Bredero’s play. Lecker-Beetje, dressed as a fool and with finger raised to his cheek, looks on while Ascagnes rather than Lucelle plays the lute. She, with hand on cheek, gazes adoringly at him, as though any pretense of a lesson had disappeared. Steen envisioned a different moment than even Bredero had anticipated, an indication of how freely and imaginatively this great master could reinterpret renowned literary sources.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
December 9, 2019