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.
I would like to thank Henriette Rahusen for her thoughtful comments about this entry.
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.
The current title was adopted by the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1997 at the recommendation of Mariët Westermann (see correspondence in the NGA curatorial files).
The first scholar to associate this painting with Bredero’s play was S. J. Gudlaugsson in his article “Bredero’s Lucelle door eenige zeventiende-eeuwsche meesters uitgebeeld,” Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek 1 (1947): 177–195. Bredero’s plays were performed regularly at the Amsterdam Schouwburg (Theater), and it is possible that Steen would have traveled from nearby Haarlem to Amsterdam in the mid-1660s to see a production of Lucelle. Other Dutch artists were also inspired by Bredero’s play, although none chose the scenario that Steen depicted in this work.
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.”
“Ick heb anders geen Boeck geleert als het boeck des gebruycx.” G. A. Bredero, Groot Lied-boeck (Amsterdam, 1622), 17, http://www.dbnl.org/tekst/bred001groo01_01/bred001groo01_01_0005.php (accessed March 18, 2018).
“Het zijn de beste Schilders die ’t leven naast komen.” G. A. Bredero, Groot Lied-boeck (Amsterdam, 1622), 18, http://www.dbnl.org/tekst/bred001groo01_01/bred001groo01_01_0005.php (accessed March 18, 2018).
Lucelle belongs to the genre of tragicomic plays that developed in Italy and France in the 16th century.
Bredero based his play on a French text written by Louis Le Jars, which was first published in Paris in 1576. This text was frequently reprinted, and C. A. Zaalberg has determined that Bredero likely consulted the version published in Paris in 1600. For an excellent overview of Bredero’s text and the ways in which it differs from the French edition, see Zaalberg’s introduction in G. A. Bredero, Lucelle, ed. C. A. Zaalberg (Culemborg, 1972), 7–49, http://www.dbnl.org/tekst/bred001luce01_01/index.php (accessed March 18, 2018).
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.
See Baruch D. Kirschenbaum, The Religious and Historical Paintings of Jan Steen (New York, 1977); and Ariane van Suchtelen, Jan Steen’s Histories (The Hague, 2018).
G. A. Bredero, Lucelle, ed. C. A. Zaalberg (Culemborg, 1972), 131–141, http://www.dbnl.org/tekst/bred001luce01_01/index.php (accessed March 18, 2018).
C. A. Zaalberg notes that Bredero’s play was frequently performed throughout the 17th century in Amsterdam. G. A. Bredero, Lucelle, ed. C. A. Zaalberg (Culemborg, 1972), 46–47, http://www.dbnl.org/tekst/bred001luce01_01/index.php (accessed March 18, 2018).
See Marjorie E. Wieseman, Vermeer and Music: The Art of Love and Leisure (London, 2013), particularly 14–17.
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.
C. A. Zaalberg notes that one of the ways in which Bredero added humor to the original French text was to have the protagonists, particularly Lecker-Beetje, speak in dialects. Bredero, in fact, changed the French name for this character, Philippin, to Lecker-Beetje, a name with far more humorous connotations. G. A. Bredero, Lucelle, ed. C. A. Zaalberg (Culemborg, 1972), 23, http://www.dbnl.org/tekst/bred001luce01_01/index.php (accessed March 18, 2018).
See, for example, the gesture of the fool at the right in Steen’s Esther, Ahasuerus, and Haman (c. 1668, Cleveland Museum of Art). For this painting, see Ariane van Suchtelen, Jan Steen’s Histories (The Hague, 2018), 114–119, no. 9.
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.
For a discussion of this painting, see H. Perry Chapman, Wouter Th. Kloek, and Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., Jan Steen, Painter and Storyteller, ed. Guido Jansen (Washington, DC, 1996), 129–131, no. 10.
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
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.
See Ariane van Suchtelen, Jan Steen’s Histories (The Hague, 2018), 154–157, no. 18.
For a discussion of Steen’s probable adaptation of drawn models, see Wouter Th. Kloek, “Jan Steen, His Repertoire of Motifs and History Painting,” in Ariane van Suchtelen, Jan Steen’s Histories (The Hague, 2018), 33–54.
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.
For a discussion of this painting in the Bute Collection at Mount Stuart, see Ariane van Suchtelen, Jan Steen’s Histories (The Hague, 2018), 166–169, no. 21.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
December 9, 2019
lower right, on music book, J and S entwined: JSteen / 1667
Richard M. Foster, Clewer Manor, near Windsor, Berkshire; 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. 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 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, Wildenstein, New York, January-March 1959, 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.
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.
X-radiography was carried out with a Comet Technologies XRP-75MXR-75HP tube, and the images were digitally captured using a Carestream Industrex Blue Digital Imaging Plate 5537 (14 in. × 17 in.). The parameters were 25 kV, 5 mA, 40 seconds, and 40 in. distance (from source to plate). The resulting digital images were composited and processed using Adobe Photoshop CS5.
There is a double ground that consists of an upper, warm tan layer over a thinner, red-toned layer.
The ground coloring on this painting is rare in Steen’s oeuvre, but the canvas may have been prepared by a professional primer, which was suggested by Melanie Gifford in an examination report from September 2008. A commercially prepared canvas would also explain the lack of strong cusping along the right and left edges: a professional primer would have stretched and applied the ground to a wider canvas that was later cut into smaller sections. Also see Michael Palmer and E. Melanie Gifford, “Jan Steen’s Painting Practice: The Dancing Couple in the Context of the Artist’s Career,” Studies in the History of Art 57 (1996/1997): 127–155.
Infrared reflectography was carried out using a Santa Barbara Focalplane InSb camera filtered to 1.1–1.4 microns (J filter).
Michael Palmer and E. Melanie Gifford, “Jan Steen’s Painting Practice: The Dancing Couple in the Context of the Artist’s Career,” Studies in the History of Art 57 (1996/1997): 127–155.
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
- 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.
- Breckenridge, James D. A handbook of Dutch and Flemish paintings in the William Andrews Clark collection. Washington, 1955: 46 repro., 47.
- 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.
- 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.