An elegantly dressed young woman plays a harpsichord for a man leaning on the instrument. Music is often related to love in Dutch paintings, but in contrast to other genre scenes of this kind the couple don‘t appear to be flirting. The young woman is concentrating on her sheet of music.
The Latin inscriptions placed on the instrument provide a witty and ironic commentary. The words ‘SOLI DEO GLORIA’ (’Glory to God alone‘) appear below the keys, implying that the young woman is playing solely for the glory of God. But the inscription on the open lid reads ‘ACTA VIRUM PROBANT’ (’actions prove the man'): the young woman’s admirer is about to take more active steps. Presumably he will soon join the woman in an intimate duet, accompanying her on the theorbo that the pageboy seen through the open door is carrying.
In a dark interior framed by a stone arch, an elegantly dressed young woman plays a harpsichord for the man leaning on the instrument. Music is often related to love in Dutch paintings, but in contrast to other genre scenes of music making the couple don‘t appear to be flirting. The young woman is concentrating on her sheet of music, and the man only dares to glance coyly towards his companion.
The Latin inscriptions on the instrument provide a witty and ironic commentary and identify this as a scene of courtship. The words ‘SOLI DEO GLORIA’ (’Glory to God alone‘) appear below the keys, implying that the young woman is playing solely for the glory of God. Her lowered gaze and upright posture express dignity and emotional restraint. But the inscription on the open lid reads ‘ACTA VIRUM PROBANT’ (’actions prove the man‘): the young woman’s admirer, slouching over the instrument, is about to take more active steps. Through the open door in the right background we can see a pageboy approaching, carrying a theorbo (a large type of lute). The man will soon try to charm the woman by suggesting an intimate duet, which was at the time a common metaphor for two people joined in harmonious love.
The harpsichord was the largest stringed keyboard instrument in use from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, and the one depicted here was probably painted after an existing model. Common examples like this one were decorated with patterned paper with printed mottoes and biblical quotations. A similar design of seahorses and arabesque patterns above the keyboard can be found in Johannes Vermeer’s Lady at a Virginal (Royal Collection). The painted instruments were probably inspired by the ones built by the famous Ruckers workshop in Antwerp.
As well as demonstrating his wit here, Jan Steen has also proven his mastery in rendering different materials; the surfaces of the woven tapestry hanging in the background and the bright, shiny satin of the women’s skirt and bodice are especially noteworthy. By employing the device of the painted stone arch that frames the scene and focuses the viewer’s attention, we are made to feel as if we are spying on the couple.
Steen wrote his own name just above the keyboard of the harpsichord, typically where the instrument maker would have signed his work. The inscription also bears the date the painting was made. The last two numbers are no longer legible to the naked eye, but under the microscope the last number can be read as ’9'. Stylistic similarities with other paintings by Steen from around the same time seem to confirm that the work was painted in 1659, during the short period when the artist lived in Warmond, a village north of Leiden.
This was the first painting by Jan Steen to enter the National Gallery’s collection, when in 1871 it was bought with the rest of the collection of Sir Robert Peel (1788–1850), former prime minister and trustee of the Gallery.
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