A Harmonious Composition
A tapestry is drawn back to reveal a young woman sitting alone in an unlit room. She plays a clavichord, a portable and fairly quiet keyboard instrument, with a decorated lid. Sunlight enters the room through a window to the left, illuminating the figure of the woman and touching on the different still life elements dispersed across the space: an empty birdcage hanging from the ceiling, a velvet cushion on a carved wooden stool, a ewer and basin encircled by a vine, a viol da gamba (the large stringed instrument) and a table with an open music book, flute, platter and wine glass. They are illustrated so realistically that there is a temptation for the viewer to reach out and caress them. The woman looks out towards us as though we have intruded: a momentary interruption of her intimate solo concert. Perhaps, she is awaiting the return of her lover, who will play the viol and join her in a duet. Maybe it is we, the onlooker, who is meant to take her partner’s place.
A Woman Playing a Clavichord was painted by Gerrit Dou around 1665. Dou was the most famous of the group of painters active in the city of Leiden, in the Dutch Republic, who were known as the fijnschilders (literally “fine” painters), who specialized in small-scale paintings full of minute detail and which concentrated on the faithful depiction of different surfaces and textures—a talent that is clearly evident in the Dulwich painting. Dou was the youngest son of a glass-engraver and from an early age trained in his father’s profession. It was this background that doubtless enabled the young Dou to develop his meticulous technique. He began his formal training as a painter in 1628 when he was sent to the studio of Rembrandt, remaining with the master for three years before completing his apprenticeship.
A Woman Playing a Clavichord is regarded as one of Dou’s finest works, and is one of only two paintings that take this musical theme as its subject. The other is A Young Lady Playing the Virginal, c. 1665 (above), and the early histories of the two works have been frequently confused. Indeed, the paintings were first displayed together in 1665, when they were shown in an exhibition organized by Dou’s patron Johan de Bye in Leiden; possibly the first ever monographic exhibition of a living artist.
The paintings show how Dou was able to approach this subject in remarkably different ways. Dou still uses the device of the drawn back tapestry-curtain, delicate rendering of fabrics and textures, and the figure of the woman looking up from her playing (although this is definitely not a portrait of the same woman). However, our eye is drawn to the presence of other figures in a room beyond. Wine is flowing and the woman’s lover already sits waiting with glass in hand whilst another couple sing from songbooks, meanwhile a young serving boy tops up their drinks. The woman in the foreground plays a virginal: significantly louder than a clavichord and presumably intended to accompany the singers. In this way, the Young Lady Playing the Virginal is definitely a noisier and more hedonistic scene than A Woman Playing a Clavichord. In contrast to the intimate affair of the Dulwich painting, here the emphasis is very much on the pleasures of life. Whilst Woman Playing a Clavichord may have alluded to the possibility of a male lover, Young Lady Playing the Virginal makes more explicit the woman’s position as a courtesan-type figure whose role is to entertain men.
Nevertheless, interpreting the intricate layers of meaning in Dou’s paintings is far from straight forward. On the one hand the various still life details can be taken at face value—as a testament to Dou’s meticulous technique when it came to representing the world around him. On the other, each element can be seen as symbolic, and the painting full of hidden meanings. Many of these meanings would underline the idea that the missing “partner” in the Dulwich painting is the woman’s lover, and that the painting has various erotic or sexual connotations.
The latter interpretation, which developed with art historical theory of the 1960s, cites the prevalence of emblem books as a reference point for artists; a kind of book popular in medieval and Renaissance Europe that contained drawings accompanied by allegorical interpretations. In this light, the flute, ewer and bow become symbolic of the male sex; whilst the basin and viol become representative of the female. Likewise, the closed birdcage represents the woman’s virginity which may have already been taken. Critically, the argument against seeing this in such a way is that there are no contemporary sources that confirm such an interpretation for this genre of painting.
Dou’s meticulous style of painting was incredibly influential for both the Leiden painters and the renowned artist Johannes Vermeer, who soon after began to paint his own interior scenes showing women playing keyboard instruments, most notably A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal, c. 1670-2 (The National Gallery, London).
Essay by Helen Hillyard, Assistant Curator at Dulwich Picture Gallery, London.
This essay was produced in conjunction with the Making Discoveries display series at Dulwich Picture Gallery, London. The displays coincide with the release of the Gallery’s Dutch and Flemish Schools Catalogue, published 2016, and aims to disseminate important findings from this major research project.