Ter Brugghen focusses on a lute player lost in his art, drawing us close to the man by using strong, dramatic lighting to highlight the folds under his eyes, the long shadows of his fingers and his shiny red nose – so red that ter Brugghen may have been exaggerating for comic effect. Perhaps he was suggesting that the man had a few glasses of wine before launching into song. All this makes the player seem more real, as though he is singing directly to us.
Pictures of single musicians painted half-length were a particular specialism of a group of painters based in Utrecht in the 1620s. They were know as the ‘Dutch Caravaggists’ because they had lived and studied in Rome and were heavily influenced by the distinctive, dramatic style of Caravaggio and his followers.
How do you paint music? It was a challenge which fascinated many Dutch artists in the early sixteenth century, when pictures of musicians and musical parties were very popular. Here ter Brugghen focuses on a lute player lost in his art, drawing us close to his subject by using strong, dramatic lighting to highlight the folds under his eyes, the long shadows of his fingers and his shiny red nose – so red that ter Brugghen may have been exaggerating for comic effect. Perhaps he was suggesting that the player had a few glasses of wine before launching into song. All this makes him seem more real, as though he is singing directly to us.
Such pictures of single musicians painted half-length were particularly popular among a group of painters based in Utrecht. They were know as the ‘Dutch Caravaggists’ because several, including ter Brugghen, had lived and studied in Rome and been heavily influenced by the distinctive style of Caravaggio and his followers. They imitated his dramatic lighting effects and his preference for painting his subjects close up – and copied his subject matter too.
Genre paintings of solo instrumentalists were not new – there are examples from the early sixteenth century – but Caravaggio’s two (or possibly three: the authorship of one version is disputed) paintings of a lute player of around 1596/7 seems to have reignited interest in the subject. Caravaggio included flowers, a violin and, in one version, a recorder in his compositions, perhaps to suggest an intellectual link between music, love and the transience of life. His Dutch imitators preferred to strip out extraneous detail, focusing entirely on the relationship between musician and instrument. A clue as to how the painting may have been understood at the time has been found in an engraving, made in 1624, of another painting of a singing lute player by ter Brugghen. Underneath was printed: ‘I play expertly on the sweet full strings of the lute / Thereby I can also sing lustily and know that it sounds good.’
Ter Bruggen and his fellow Utrecht painters – such as van Honthorst, who had been in Rome at the same time – made many such paintings. As well as lutenists, he depicted players of bagpipes, viols, violins and flutes. As here, the colourful, flamboyant costumes they wear are not typical of Dutch fashion of the time. They may reflect the dress used by stage performers, or may simply be intended to add a touch of exoticism to the pictures.
While ter Brugghen was clearly heavily influenced by Caravaggio he also developed his own distinctive style (which you can see here). His brushwork is much looser than Caravaggio’s, suggestive rather than precise – look at the short, broad brushstrokes he has used to depict the ostrich feather in the hat, for example. Nevertheless, ter Bruggen’s observation is acute: he is careful to render the slightly concave surface of the soundboard (front panel) of the lute, and the musician’s shiny red nose and glistening lips are highlighted with precision.
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