This scene of two men and a woman making music is not a representation of everyday life. Positioned on a wide terrace overlooking an impressive formal garden, the figures don’t quite seem to belong in their surroundings. The men sit on either side of the singing woman, one holding a glass of wine and the other tuning a lute. They both wear old-fashioned costumes with outdated collars and hats that were used on the comic stage of Steen’s time.
While the lutenist is concentrating on his instrument, the older man is clearly more interested in the woman, leaning over and staring at her. The contemporary viewer would have recognised her admirer as a popular stock character known from plays: the old lecher who is hoping for the affection of a woman half his age. The woman’s body language makes it clear that his feelings won’t be reciprocated.
This scene of two men and a young woman making music is far removed from the representations of everyday life by Jan Steen and other Dutch genre painters of the seventeenth century. The trio are seated on a wide terrace, possibly of a large country house, overlooking an impressive formal garden and an extensive flat landscape. They don’t quite seem to belong in their surroundings.
The young woman is sitting with outstretched legs on the tiled floor, casually leaning her elbow on the stone parapet behind her. She is singing from the songbook in her lap. Her clothes are in slight disarray: the laces of her bodice are somewhat loosened and her reddish-brown skirt is pushed up, revealing the yellow skirt underneath. The men, one holding a glass of wine and the other tuning a lute, both wear old-fashioned costumes with outdated collars and hats. While the lutenist on the right is concentrating solely on his instrument, the older man is clearly more interested in the woman, leaning over and staring at her. A bottle of wine stands near the stone parapet, and orange peel is scattered about the terrace: there is a basket of oranges at the woman’s feet.
In several of Steen’s paintings, figures appear in fanciful and archaic costumes that clearly distinguish them from everyday contemporary life. Here, the older man’s doublet, broadly striped sleeves and hat are reminiscent of late sixteenth-century fashion. Costumes of this type were used on the comic stage in Steen’s time, but in this painting he has not depicted wandering performers resting on their travels, as has been suggested in the past. He has employed these kinds of theatrical costumes to emphasise the comical character of his protagonists. The contemporary viewer would have recognised the woman’s admirer as the popular stock character of the old lecher, drunk on wine and hoping for the affection of a woman half his age. This character was well known from plays performed by the Dutch chambers of rhetoric (amateur literary societies). The woman’s body language makes it clear that his feelings won’t be reciprocated; she seems quite oblivious to him. The lutenist, no less drunk, as his red nose and face suggest, is so immersed in his play that he doesn’t notice what is going on around him. It’s not apparent if he is straining his eyes to read the sheet of music on the ledge before him, but his squint is intended to add to his comical appearance.
Steen probably painted this scene in around 1670, the year he returned from Haarlem to his native Leiden. He lived in Leiden for the next nine years, until the end of his life.
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