Scenes of small groups of people making music were common in seventeenth-century Dutch painting. They reflected a popular social activity among sophisticated families and as such might symbolise the harmony of family life or friendship groups. But such parties were also an accepted way for young men and women to meet and were therefore often associated with erotic encounters.
In this painting, the relationship between the three characters has been left uncertain. They're not obviously flirting and their body language is neutral, but a couple of subtle clues might tempt us towards a particular conclusion. There is a bed in the background – perhaps this is also on the minds of the protagonists – and the ace of spades suggests a game of cards, which was often associated with seduction. It’s only a hint, but it is enough to set our minds wondering about what is going on behind the inscrutable expressions of the musicians.
Three figures seem absorbed in making music. The young woman playing the lute has propped her score on a book on the table, though her eyes seem focused on the upraised hand of the man seated opposite her. He seems to have another copy of the music and is marking the beat. It is hard to way whether he is also singing, or whether he is perhaps teaching or directing her playing. Meanwhile a man in a cloak and hat stands behind, also focused on his friend’s conducting.
Such scenes of couples or small groups of people making music were common in seventeenth-century Dutch painting. They reflected a popular social activity among wealthy and sophisticated families and as such they might symbolise the harmony of family life or friendship groups. But such parties were also an accepted way for young men and women to meet and were often associated with flirtation and erotic encounters – so much so that many song books of the time were exclusively devoted to love songs.
As a result, these paintings often have sexual overtones: a young woman may hold a phallic symbol and her dress may be not be entirely modest; her suitor might leans towards her eagerly; there might be aphrodisiacs like wine or tobacco in evidence. But in this painting, the relationship between the three characters has been left uncertain. There is no clear flirtation between them; their body language is neutral; the lutenist’s dress is suitably modest. The set up seems entirely respectable.
A couple of subtle clues might tempt us towards a conclusion, however. There is a bed in the background – perhaps this is also on the minds of the protagonists – and a spaniel has wandered in through the open door; is he a symbol of animal lusts, or just a much-loved pet? On the floor under the table is a playing card: the ace of spades. Card games were often associated with vice, and especially with seduction (though generally the ace of hearts was used to signal this theme). It’s only a hint, but it is enough at least to set our minds wondering about what is going on behind the inscrutable expressions of the musicians.
It’s important to keep in mind that the situation is not a portrait of ‘real’ people in a ‘real’ situation. Ter Borch – who specialised in such scenes of small groups of people set in elegant interiors – composed this from elements he had used before. For example, the spaniel appears in several of his paintings, including another in the National Gallery: An Officer dictating a Letter. The woman and the central man appear separately in the same poses but in different company, and the silver box and candlestick on the table also appear elsewhere.
As well as his ability to create an air of mystery, ter Borch was also particularly admired for his ability to capture the textures of fabrics. Here he contrasts the sheen on the lutenist’s soft satin jacket and dress with the matt weave and complex patterns of the heavy Turkish carpet which is draped over the table.
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