There is no doubting who is the star of this group of musicians. The fair-haired woman in a bright pink dress with gold-trimmed sleeves and elaborate lace collars is clearly the centre of our attention. She is bathed in sunlight which also catches the curves and polished surface of her viola da gamba. The other musicians around the table wear far more muted colours and are mostly cast in shadow.
What we see now is probably only an edited version of the original composition. The figure of a boy removing a flask from a wine cooler was painted out in 1969–70; at the time it was considered to be a later addition, but it is now believed to have been painted by Olis himself. Reinstating the boy would reintroduce a very subtle hint that such innocent gatherings are always vulnerable to the corrupting influence of alcohol.
There is no doubting who is the star of this group of musicians. The fair-haired woman in a bright pink dress with gold-trimmed sleeves and elaborate lace collars is clearly the centre of our attention. She is bathed in sunlight that also catches the curves and polished surface of her viola da gamba, and seems to be singing as she plays.
The other figures wear far more muted colours and are mostly cast in shade. Only the left side of the man who sits with his back to us and strums a lute and the lower part of the flautist’s face catch the light. In the shadows behind we see a violinist and a fourth man who seems to be studying a musical score. He may be singing too, but if so, he is either not showing much enthusiasm for his task or has a long wait before it is his turn to join in.
Paintings of musical gatherings were very common in seventeenth-century Holland. They reflected a popular pastime among young people and would have been associated with ideas of harmony and love. This love might be depicted as entirely innocent in nature, but such pictures often included hints that these gatherings might lead to less respectable activities, especially if alcohol and tobacco – both then considered aphrodisiacs – were involved. From what we can see here, however, only the slightly conspiratorial look in the eye of the flautist suggests that anything untoward might be going on.
However, this is probably only an edited version of the original composition. When the painting was cleaned in 1969–70, a figure was painted out: a boy in the left background who was removing a flask from a wine cooler. At the time, the figure was considered to be of inferior quality and therefore a later addition. This was probably a mistake. Although the boy is no longer visible, judging from photographs of the uncleaned painting, it is now believed that he probably was painted by Jan Olis himself. Reinstating the boy with his flask would create a more balanced arrangement of figures, though the woman would still be clearly at the heart of the composition. And it would reintroduce another – very subtle – hint that innocence is always vulnerable to corruption.
This type of scene, depicting elegant figures gathered around a table playing music in a neutral interior, shows the influence of Willem Duyster and Pieter Codde, though Olis probably also visited Rome, so may have also seen works by Caravaggio and his followers.
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