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Paintings of Merry Companies (a group of people playing music together or otherwise entertaining themselves in a domestic setting) were very popular in Holland in the early 1630s. This is a particularly distinctive example: a shaft of bright sunlight gives the composition a clear structure and brings sharpness and life to the details depicted. The artist has also restricted himself to just two key colours – luminous yellows and vibrant pinks – which glow and shimmer against the cool, shadowy greys of the background.
But while the composition has been carefully structured and coloured, the meaning of the painting is much less clear. It seems a straightforward evocation of a happy company enjoying making music. But it is possible that, while clearly celebrating the pleasures of life, van Velsen also intended to present a subtle warning that alcohol, smoking and sexual temptation all had the power to undermine domestic harmony.
Paintings of Merry Companies (a group of people making music together or otherwise entertaining themselves in a domestic setting) were very popular in Holland in the early 1630s. This is a particularly distinctive example: a shaft of bright sunlight gives the composition a clear structure and brings sharpness and life to the detail depicted – the crisp white frills of the lace cap worn by the woman on the left, or the pegs in the neck of the violin where the twisted ends of the strings have been painted with a single brush hair.
This sense of clarity is also enhanced by the limited palette. The artist has restricted himself to just two key colours – luminous yellows and vibrant pinks – which glow and shimmer against the cool, shadowy greys of the background, the lady’s dark grey bodice and the violinist’s hat. There is order too, to the arrangement of the figures. The central grouping of the three musicians is framed by a pipe-smoking observer on one side and the maid and boy busy laying (or perhaps clearing) the table on the other.
But while the composition has been carefully structured and coloured, the meaning of the painting is much less clear. Is it a straightforward evocation of a happy company enjoying their music-making? Or should we read into it moralising allusions about the perils of alcohol, smoking and sexual temptation – themes which are apparent in some similar paintings of the time?
Clearly this is a wealthy household which enjoys its food, drink and other pleasures. There is both red and white wine in the cooler on the floor, a fancy meat pie on the table and the shadowy smoker in the foreground is enjoying his pipe so much that he allows two streams of smoke to blow from his nostrils. Even the little dog seems well fed, and distinctly sleepy. But it is hard to detect, for example, erotic tension between the musicians. The violinist is looking intently at the woman conducting with her left hand – but it’s surely a look of concentration, one which suggests musical focus and domestic harmony rather than romantic collusion. But there’s no doubt that alcohol and tobacco were then associated with immoral behaviour. Given that the musicians are framed by the pipe smoker and an apparent offer of wine from the small boy who holds up a glass, it is possible that van Velsen may have been hinting at a potential threat to the peace and order which the musicians currently enjoy. If he is, it is a subtle hint in a painting which also celebrates life’s pleasures.
With the exception of one portrait, van Velsen painted only genre scenes like this one. He worked in the style of the early paintings of Anthonie Palamedes, who was slightly older than him and became a master in the painters’ guild at Delft, where they both lived, four years earlier than van Velsen. In fact, this painting was once falsely signed as the work of Palamedes.
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