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Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., “Jan Steen/Ascagnes and Lucelle (The Music Lesson)/1667,” Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century, NGA Online Editions, (accessed April 16, 2024).

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Jan Steen’s suggestive courtship scene uses music as a metaphor for love and desire. An infatuated young woman strumming her lute has eyes only for her companion, who has reached over to pluck the strings of her instrument while fully returning her gaze. The downturned bed with two pillows and the small sculpture of Cupid above the doorway reinforce the amorous nature of the scene.

Steen’s painting has traditionally been called The Music Lesson, but the presence of the older woman behind the couple and the man standing in the doorway indicate that Steen’s genre painting actually depicts a scene from the tragicomedy Over-gesette Lucelle (translated as Lucelle) by Amsterdam’s famous poet and playwright Gerbrand Adriaensz Bredero (1585–1618). Lucelle, the heroine, and Ascagnes, her father’s clerk, are lovers from different social classes trying to overcome the restrictions placed on their love. Steen shows the couple as they pledge their eternal devotion. The inevitable betrayal (by another servant of Lucelle’s father, the man in the doorway) leads to a dramatic finale during which it is discovered that the humbly born—and thus socially ineligible—Ascagnes is actually the son of the king of Poland, and that the poison used by the father on the lovers was in fact only a sleeping potion. The play ends on a happy note with the couple’s wedding.

Steen, one of the most versatile and prolific Dutch painters of the 17th century, often drew inspiration for his scenes of daily life from contemporary literature and popular theater and used characters from both the Italian commedia dell’arte and the native Dutch rederijkerskamers (rhetoricians’ chambers). His vignette from Lucelle is filled with light-hearted innuendo that only a visual storyteller as masterful and humoristic as Steen could convey with such flair.


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.[1] 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.[2] 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.[3]

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.”[4] Bredero, who was a painter as well as writer, also wrote, “The best painters are those who come closest to life.”[5]

Lucelle belongs to the genre of tragicomic plays that developed in Italy and France in the 16th century.[6] 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.[7] 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.[8] 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.[9] 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.[10]

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.[11] Steen depicts Lecker-Beetje with his finger resting on his cheek, a gesture often associated with troublemaking fools in his paintings.[12] 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.[13] 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.[14] Similar associations can be made between Lucelle’s pose and other figures in Steen’s oeuvre.[15]

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.[16] 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


lower right, on music book, J and S entwined: JSteen / 1667


Possibly (sale, Willem Fabricius, Haarlem, 19 August 1749, no. 26).[1]Richard M. Foster, Clewer Manor, near Windsor, Berkshire;[2] his son, Edmund Benson Foster [1830-1862], Clewer Manor; (Richard Foster's estate sale, Christie, Manson & Woods, London, 3 June 1876, no. 1, as The Guitar Lesson); Samuel Addington [1806-1886], London; (his estate sale, Christie, Manson & Woods, London, 22 May 1886, no. 107, as The Guitar Lesson); Davis.[3] Sir Julian Goldsmid [1838-1896]; (his sale, Christie, Manson & Woods, London, 13 June 1896, no. 82, as The Guitar Lesson). (Charles Sedelmeyer, Paris). Baron Michael Ephrussi [1845-1914], Paris; purchased 1900 by William A. Clark [1839-1925], New York; bequest 1926 to the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; acquired 2014 by the National Gallery of Art.

Exhibition History

Exhibition of Works by the Old Masters and by Deceased Masters of the British School. Winter Exhibition, Royal Academy, London, 1880, no. 71, as The Guitar Lesson.
Loan Exhibition. Masterpieces of the Corcoran Gallery of Art: A Benefit Exhibition in Honor of the Gallery's Centenary, Corcoran Gallery of Art, unnumbered catalogue, repro., as The Music Lesson.
The William A. Clark Collection: Treasures of a Copper King, Yellowstone Art Center, Billings; Montana Historical Society, Helena, 1989, unnumbered checklist, as Music Lesson.
Antiquities to Impressionism: The William A. Clark Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 2001-2002, unnumbered catalogue, repro.

Technical Summary

The primary support is a medium-weight plain-weave canvas that was wax-resin lined to plain-weave linen. The original canvas threads are visible in x-radiographs of the painting, and the canvas has approximately 12 threads per centimeter in the vertical direction and 14 threads per centimeter in the horizontal direction.[1] The original tacking margins have been cut away, but original cusping along the canvas edges suggest that the image dimensions were not significantly reduced when the tacking margins were removed. The lining canvas is secured along the tacking edges with tacks and on the reverse by heating the excess wax-resin-infused canvas to the stretcher.

There is a double ground that consists of an upper, warm tan layer over a thinner, red-toned layer.[2] Infrared reflectography did not reveal an underdrawing, but Steen blocked out the composition using a monochrome sketch in brownish-black paint, which serves as shadows in the final composition.[3] The paint medium is estimated to be oil, and paint was generally applied thinly and wet-into-wet. Typical of Steen’s technique, he painted from the back of the composition toward the front, though there are a few instances in this composition where that does not hold true.[4]

The painting is in good condition. It is taut and, due to the lining, rigid and has some weave enhancement. The painting was last treated in 1954, and there are tiny scattered brushstrokes of retouching and old varnish residues. The largest areas of retouching are in the upper right, above Lucelle’s proper right shoe, and in the proper left arm of each of the two main figures. There are also tiny scattered losses and areas of mild abrasion. The overall synthetic varnish is even and saturates the paint.

Dina Anchin, based on the examination report by Sarah Gowen and the technical entry by Melanie Gifford in Antiquities to Impressionism: The William A. Clark Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art (Washington, DC, 2001).

December 9, 2019


Sedelmeyer, Charles. Illustrated Catalogue of 300 Paintings by Old Masters of the Dutch, Flemish, Italian, French, and English schools, being some of the principal pictures which have at various time formed part of the Sedelmeyer Gallery. Paris, 1898: 56, no. 42.
Hofstede de Groot, Cornelis. A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch Painters of the Seventeenth Century. 8 vols. Translated by Edward G. Hawke. London, 1907-1927: 1:108, no. 415.
Hofstede de Groot, Cornelis. Beschreibendes und kritisches Verzeichnis der Werke der hervorragendsten holländischen Maler des XVII. Jahrhunderts. 10 vols. Esslingen and Paris, 1907-1928: 1:96-97, no. 415.
Trautscholdt, E., "Jan Steen." In Allgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart. Edited by Ulrich Thieme and Felix Becker. 37 vols. Leipzig, 1907-1950: 31(1937):512, no. 415.
Valentiner, Wilhelm R. Catalogue of a collection of paintings by Dutch masters of the seventeenth century. The Hudson-Fulton Celebration 1. Exh. cat. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1909: 20, no. 19, repro.
Graves, Algernon. A Century of Loan Exhibitions, 1813-1912. 5 vols. London, 1913-1915: 3(1914):1258.
Carroll, Dana H. Catalogue of Objects of Fine Art and Other Properties at the Home of William Andrews Clark, 962 Fifth Avenue. Part I. Unpublished manuscript, n.d. (1925): 130, no. 66.
Corcoran Gallery of Art. Illustrated Handbook of the W.A. Clark Collection. Washington, 1928: 53.
Corcoran Gallery of Art. Illustrated Handbook of the W.A. Clark Collection. Washington, 1932: 56.
Gudlaugsson, S.J. "Bredero's Lucelle door eenige zeventiende-eeuwsche meesters uitgebeeld." Nederlandsch Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek I (1947): 177-195, 191, fig. 5, 195, fig. 15.
Breckenridge, James D. A handbook of Dutch and Flemish paintings in the William Andrews Clark collection. Washington, 1955: 46 repro., 47.
Lyckle de Vries. Jan Steen "de kluchtschilder." Ph.D. dissertation, University of Groningen, 1977: 62-63, 165, no. 136.
Corcoran Gallery of Art. The William A. Clark Collection: An Exhibition Marking the 50th Anniversary of the Installation of the Clark Collection at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington. Exh. cat. Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 1978: 51-59, no. 45, repro.
Braun, Karel. Alle tot nu toe bekende schilderijen van Jan Steen. Rotterdam, 1980: repro. 125, no. 279, 125.
Sutton, Peter C. A Guide to Dutch Art in America. Washington and Grand Rapids, 1986: 300 (repro.)-301, no. 453.
Coyle, Laura, and Dare Myers Hartwell, eds. Antiquities to Impressionism: The William A. Clark Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art. Washington, DC, 2001: 23, 68, repro.
Eberhart, Marlene L. "Amourous Intentions? The Mythological Flute: A Cultural and Iconographical Study Inspired by the Dayton C. Miller Collection, Library of Congress." Ph.D. Dissertation, Indiana University, Bloomington, 2004: 136, fig. 25, as Ascagnes and Lucelle, The Music Lesson.

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