Tuning the strings of her theorbo-lute, a beautiful musician directs an engaging glance at the viewer. The foreground of the picture displays a viola da gamba and sheet music for tenor and soprano voices, suggesting that the lute player anticipates a duet. Dutch painters of the seventeenth century frequently associated music-making and courtship with amateur concerts, providing opportunities for mingling and flirtation.
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Fig. 1. In this microscopic paint sample taken from the blue book, the red/brown ground layer, which fills the weave of the canvas, and the overlying warm gray priming are visible in the bottom two layers. A thin brown layer, visible on top of the warm gray priming, may be evidence of the artist’s preliminary undermodeling.
Fig. 2. In the x-radiograph of the painting, arching radio-opaque bands, which relate to the warm gray priming layer, indicate that this lead-white rich paint was applied with a palette knife or spatula rather than a brush.
Fig. 3. In this microscopic paint sample taken from the green ribbon near the right edge of the painting, a brown paint layer, probably part of the artist’s preliminary undermodeling, can be seen on top of the warm gray priming.
Fig. 4. In this microscopic paint sample from the figure’s blue dress, a red layer, which may be part of the artist’s preliminary undermodeling, can be seen on top of the warm gray priming. In this case, the red undermodeling is visible on the painting’s surface, imparting a purplish tinge in the figure’s blue dress. In general, however, the undermodeling in this painting is concealed by the upper paint layers.
Fig. 5. In this infrared reflectogram, which was made prior to the 2018 conservation treatment, multiple artist alterations are visible: the position of the fingers on the figure’s left hand, the contours of the right side of the urn, the position of the sound hole on the viola da gamba, and the contour of the theorbo-lute were all adjusted.
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Artist:Bartholomeus van der Helst (Dutch, Haarlem, born ca. 1612–15, died 1670 Amsterdam)
Medium:Oil on canvas
Dimensions:54 1/2 x 43 3/4 in. (138.4 x 111.1 cm)
Credit Line:Purchase, 1873
In style and execution this painting is a typical work of Van der Helst’s mature years, and it is reliably signed and dated 1662. The woman tunes a theorbo-lute, and a viola da gamba lies in front of her. Printed music in tenor and soprano parts rests on a carpet-covered table nearby. By her direct gaze, the woman seems to address a male viewer, inviting him to take up the gamba and join her in a duet.
Although usually treated in later scholarly literature as a genre scene, Liedtke (2009) raises the possibility that it may be a portrait of the artist's wife, Anna du Pire.
The composition was etched by Jules Jacquemart (see Decamps 1872).
[2010; adapted from Liedtke 2007]
Support and Preparation: The painting is on canvas, probably made from a bast fiber such as linen. The canvas is primed with a red/brown ground layer, primarily composed of earth pigments, which fills the weave of the canvas. On top of this initial layer, a warm gray priming was applied (see fig. 1 above). Arching radio-opaque bands visible in the x-radiograph appear to relate to this second layer and indicate that this lead-white rich paint was applied with a palette knife or spatula rather than a brush (fig. 2).
Paint Layers: Examination of paint samples in cross section suggests Van der Helst first laid out the composition on top of the warm-gray priming using thin paint layers that range in color from brown to red (figs. 1, 3, and 4). This step, commonly referred to as undermodeling, is generally concealed by the upper paint layers, but it remains partially visible in certain areas. For instance, in the figure’s blue garment the red undermodeling imparts a purplish tinge, especially in the shadows.
Van der Helst’s depiction was achieved in an economical fashion, for the most part using two final paint layers. He made use of both opaque and transparent pigments to achieve his desired visual effect: for instance, using vermilion in the orange-red cushion in the foreground and deepening the shadows with a transparent red glaze. He also layered a transparent green glaze (probably a copper-containing pigment) on top of a blue layer to make the green ribbon on the right side of the composition. Van der Helst used a wide variety of blue pigments in this painting; X-ray fluorescence (XRF) analysis and optical microscopy suggest he used the costly pigment ultramarine blue to paint the figure’s dress, but to paint the gray-blue book lying on the carpet-covered table he chose the cheaper pigment smalt. Smalt was also found mixed into some of the clouds in the sky to give them a cool gray hue. Indigo, the third blue pigment, is an organic pigment. It was found in touches in the gray-blue book mixed with lead white, but it seems likely this pigment was used elsewhere as well.
While the general outlines and contours had been established in the undermodeling, Van der Helst made changes to the composition in the final paint layers. For instance, he adjusted the position of three of the fingers and the thumb on the figure’s left hand, altered the contours of the right side of the urn where it meets the sky at the top, adjusted the position of the sound hole on the viola da gamba, and changed the contour of the theorbo-lute from a shorter, rounder-bodied instrument to a more elongated one. All of these changes can be seen in the infrared reflectogram (IRR) (fig. 5) and, in some cases, on the painting’s surface itself. The change in the shape of the theorbo-lute appears to have been made quite early, as the contours appear sketchy in the IRR image, and an initial sketch of the carpet’s pattern, with its quick and imprecise brushwork, can be seen in the IRR image beneath the brown music book. This area was never brought to any degree of finish like the rest of the carpet because the book was painted over it. These many changes suggest the painting is an original composition that the artist was developing and resolving as he painted.
Condition: The paint layers are relatively intact with little actual paint loss except along the top and left edges where the painting was folded over, perhaps to accommodate an earlier smaller frame. The paint surface is slightly worn in some areas and the impasto slightly flattened from past cleaning and lining procedures. There is an overall craquelure pattern with slightly cupped edges.
Some of the paint layers have undergone a color change over time. For instance, the smalt in the clouds near the top of the painting and in the gray-blue book on the table has discolored. Smalt is a brilliant blue pigment that is known to discolor to brown over time. In these cases, the clouds were most likely originally a cool gray hue, rather than the warm brown they are now, and the book was probably a much more vibrant blue. The ultramarine paint layers also appear degraded, with certain passages in the blue dress appearing grayer than they would have originally.
Gerrit Albertson 2019
 See Maartje Stols-Witlox, A Perfect Ground: Preparatory Layers for Oil Paintings, 1550–1900 London, 2017, pp. 112–13.
Inscription: Signed, dated, and inscribed: (lower left) B. vanderhelst / 1662; (on sheet of music) iris; (on cover of book) Supe[r]ius
?[Léon Gauchez, Paris, until 1872; sold to The Met]
University Art Museum, University of California at Berkeley. "Dutch Masters from The Metropolitan Museum of Art," November 25, 1969–January 4, 1970, checklist no. 6.
Houston. Rice University. "Dutch Masters from The Metropolitan Museum of Art," January 18–March 1, 1970, checklist no. 6.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art," September 18, 2007–January 6, 2008, no catalogue.
Louis Decamps. "Un musée transatlantique (3e article)." Gazette des beaux-arts, 2nd ser., 6 (December 1872), p. 479, ill. opp. p. 478 (etching by Jules Jacquemart), as "La musique".
René Ménard. Entretiens sur la peinture. Paris, 1875, pp. 95, 97, ill. opp. p. 94 [English ed., "Chapters on Painting," London, pp. 94, 96, ill. opp. p. 94], as "Music"; calls it "one of the jewels of the New-York museum . . . very real, very well painted, very pretty," but adds that it lacks emotion and personality.
Emil Kegel. "Berichte und Mittheilungen aus Sammlungen und Museen, über staatliche Kunstpflege und Restaurationen, neue Funde: New-York, das Metropolitan-Museum." Repertorium für Kunstwissenschaft 7 (1884), p. 461, considers it an allegory but also a flattering portrait of someone.
F[ritz von]. Harck. "Berichte und Mittheilungen aus Sammlungen und Museen, über staatliche Kunstpflege und Restaurationen, neue Funde: Aus amerikanischen Galerien." Repertorium für Kunstwissenschaft 11 (1888), p. 75, calls it Portrait of a Lute Player; reads the inscribed date as either 1663 or 1665.
Alfred von Wurzbach. Niederländisches Künstler-Lexikon. Vol. 1, Vienna, 1906, p. 672, as Portrait of a Lute Player, 1663 or 1665.
J. J. de Gelder. Bartholmeus van der Helst. Rotterdam, 1921, pp. 22, 120, 123, 160, no. 17, records the correct date of 1662; notes that the landscape recalls Weenix; calls the work an allegory and identifies the two instruments as a theorbo and a viola da gamba.
J. J. de Gelder inAllgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler. Ed. Hans Vollmer. Vol. 16, Leipzig, 1923, p. 355.
Josephine L. Allen and Elizabeth E. Gardner. A Concise Catalogue of the European Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1954, p. 47.
Pieter Fischer. Music in Paintings of the Low Countries in the 16th and 17th Centuries. Amsterdam, 1972, pp. 109–12, ill., remarks that it is uncertain whether the work is a portrait or an allegory; discusses the symbolism.
John Walsh Jr. "Vermeer." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 31 (Summer 1973), unpaginated, fig. 48.
Anne Hollander. "Fashion in Nudity." Georgia Review 30 (Fall 1976), p. 661, fig. 9.
Peter C. Sutton. A Guide to Dutch Art in America. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1986, pp. 183, 190, compares it with Vermeer's "Woman with a Lute" (MMA, 25.110.24).
Bärbel Hedinger. Karten in Bildern: Zur Ikonographie der Wandkarte in holländischen Interieurgemälden des siebzehnten Jahrhunderts. Hildesheim, 1986, p. 100, fig. 99.
Jacques Foucart inMusée du Louvre: Nouvelles acquisitions du Département des Peintures (1983–1986). Paris, 1987, p. 82.
Walter Liedtke. "Dutch Paintings in America: The Collectors and Their Ideals." Great Dutch Paintings from America. Exh. cat., Mauritshuis, The Hague. Zwolle, The Netherlands, 1990, p. 36, states that this was the only seventeenth-century Dutch work acquired by the Museum between 1871 and 1889.
Katharine Baetjer. European Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art by Artists Born Before 1865: A Summary Catalogue. New York, 1995, p. 322, ill.
Irene Netta. Das Phänomen "Zeit" bei Jan Vermeer van Delft: Eine Analyse der innerbildlichen Zeitstrukturen seiner ein- und mehrfigurigen Interieurbilder. Hildesheim, 1996, pp. 133, 278, fig. 32.
Eric Jan Sluijter. Seductress of Sight: Studies in Dutch Art of the Golden Age. Zwolle, The Netherlands, 2000, p. 292, fig. 240.
Walter Liedtke. Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2007, vol. 1, pp. 324, 328–31, no. 77, colorpl. 77; vol. 2, p. 884.
Walter Liedtke. Vermeer: The Complete Paintings. Antwerp, 2008, p. 102, fig. 14a.
Judith van Gent. Bartholomeus van der Helst (ca. 1613–1670): Een studie naar zijn leven en werk. [Zwolle, The Netherlands], 2011, pp. 112, 304, 416, no. 127, ill. p. 304 and fig. 68 (color).
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