Flemish Harpsichords and Virginals

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  • Spinet
  • Double Virginal
  • Double Virginal
  • Muselar Virginal
  • Jan Ruckers harpsichord
  • Harpsichord

Works of Art (7)


Flemish harpsichords and virginals have long been greatly valued and prized. Antwerp was a major manufacturing center for keyboards from the mid-sixteenth to the end of the seventeenth century. Flemish makers belonged to the artists’ Guild of Saint Luke, and cooperation between artists and keyboard makers is evident. Many instruments were decorated with printed papers and embellished with Latin epigrams. Although it is rare to encounter musical instruments decorated by the most celebrated of Flemish artists, records survive of one harpsichord (now lost) by Joannes Ruckers, intended for the Spanish Infanta and on the market in the 1630s, which featured an image of Cupid and Psyche that had been painted by Peter Paul Rubens. By contrast, these instruments were frequently depicted in the paintings of Flemish and other northern European artists. The most famous use of Flemish virginals is in the works of Johannes Vermeer, but others include Pieter Codde, Gabriël Metsu, Gonzales Coques, Emanuel de Witte, Frans Francken, and Jan Brueghel the Younger.

The Early Harpsichord in Northern Europe
The early development of the harpsichord took place in Northern Europe. The instrument emerged as a particularly sophisticated version of the plucked medieval psaltery, but the keyboard mechanism allowed the player to activate several notes at once, or in quick succession in a manner that was already possible for the organ. The earliest image of a harpsichord is from the polychrome sculpture in an altarpiece from Minden in Germany, where it is shown being played with two hands next to a psaltery of similar shape. During the years 1438 to 1446, while in the employ of Philip III, duke of Burgundy, the Netherlandish polymath Henri Arnault de Zwolle (1400–1466) assembled a series of manuscripts in Latin on a wide variety of technical subjects (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, F-Pn Lat. 7295). Among the technical drawings of the clavichord, the lute, and the organ is a detailed plan of a harpsichord similar to that at Minden. Both of these early examples are strongly reminiscent of the shape of the psaltery from which it had evolved.

Harpsichord and Virginal Making in Sixteenth-Century Antwerp
During the sixteenth century, Antwerp grew to become the second largest city north of the Alps, and a major center for European trade. Prosperity spurred a demand for luxury goods, and the city became a noted center for publishing and the arts. The earliest keyboard instruments to survive from Antwerp are by Joes Karest. A polygonal virginal dated 1548 (Musical Instruments Museum, Brussels, inv. no. 1587) is of particular interest not only for its early date, but because the design is similar to contemporaneous surviving Italian examples. Polygonal virginals were occasionally made in Antwerp but are overwhelmingly characteristic of Italian traditions (53.6a,b). After about 1550, Antwerp makers concentrated on developing their own distinctive style of instrument. A handful of surviving works are known from this period by such makers as Hans Bos, Marten van der Biest, and Johannes Grouwels that demonstrate a uniformity of style: virginals are rectangular instead of polygonal and are typically decorated with millefleur designs on the soundboard (similar to those of Flemish tapestry), with distinctive repeating arabesque work on the surfaces of the instrument case.

In 1557, eleven keyboard makers working in Antwerp were admitted into the Guild of Saint Luke, for the first time affording them the same protection and incentives to remain in the city that were given to such artists as Quentin Metsys, Joos van Cleve, Maerten de Vos, Frans Floris, and the families of Pourbus, Francken, and Brueghel.

Antwerp was part of the Spanish Netherlands. Increasing religious intolerance led to a revolt against Philip II of Spain, the declaration of a Dutch Republic in 1568, and the beginning of the Eighty Years’ War in 1572. Antwerp remained under Spanish rule, but the following years saw the exodus of its population to the fledgling Dutch Republic. On November 4, 1576, Spanish soldiers massacred 6,000 people and burned 800 houses in the city, and in 1585 Protestant citizens were given two years to put their affairs in order and leave. Among Antwerp’s community of keyboard makers, Lodewijk Theewes settled in London and Marten van der Biest escaped to Amsterdam. The keyboard maker Johannes Grouwels, appointed master of the Guild of Saint Luke in 1579 despite being Protestant, fled with his family in 1593, becoming a citizen of Middelburg, a Calvinist stronghold of the Dutch Republic. One of the most important instruments produced by an exiled Antwerp maker during this period is a “mother and child” virginal made by Grouwels’s son Lodewijck around 1600 (89.4.1196).

Meanwhile, after the marriage of Philip II of Spain to Anna of Austria in 1570, music had become a particularly important aspect of the Spanish court, and keyboard instruments (as well as other art objects) made in the northernmost provinces of the Spanish empire became symbolic of the wide scope of imperial domination. On certain instruments, the paintings decorating the lids of virginals made during this period reflect the nature and riches that were unique to this province. Gilded medallions of Philip and Anna formed part of the decoration of instruments made as diplomatic gifts. The “mother and child” virginal by Hans Ruckers the Elder made in 1581 (29.90) is a singularly important example. It has both of these decorative elements and is believed to have been sent to the Americas as a diplomatic gift to the Inca nobleman, the marquis of Oropeza, in Peru.

The Ruckers-Couchet Dynasty
The earliest presumed member of the Ruckers family was Arnold Rücker, a maker of organs who traveled between Marburg-an-der-Lahn, Aschaffenburg, Würzburg, Amerbach, and Seligenstadt during the period 1508–36, and appears to be the “Master Arnold of Seligenstadt” who was the subject of a sketch made by Albrecht Dürer during his visit to Antwerp in 1520 (Musée Bonnat, Bayonne). Hans Ruckers the Elder (1545–1598) became a member of the Guild of Saint Luke in 1579, and occupied a workshop very close to the studio of Peter Paul Rubens. By the time of Hans’s death in 1598, the Ruckers family was established as the preeminent harpsichord dynasty in Antwerp. Joannes (Jan) Ruckers (1578–1642) took over the family workshop, while his younger brother Andreas (1579–after 1645) established himself as a competing builder of instruments and was succeeded by his son Andreas II (1607–before 1667). Jan Couchet the Elder (1615–1655), a grandson of Hans Ruckers, became an apprentice in the Jan Ruckers workshop in 1626 and took it over following the death of the master in 1642. The last maker of the tradition was probably Joseph Joannes Couchet, who died after 1694. By 1700, the Ruckers-Couchet dynasty had come to an end.

Although the instruments of Hans Ruckers are typically Flemish, like the other early Antwerp makers, there is a flexibility of style that was eradicated in the following generation. Under the influence of Joannes and Andreas Ruckers I, in the seventeenth century Antwerp reached its peak of production and began producing more uniform instruments. Painted arabesques and lid paintings were replaced in most instances by block-printed papers, including the dolphin motif that is captured on so many Flemish paintings of the period (which can also be seen on a muselar virginal by Joannes Ruckers from 1622 [11.176.1]).

Eighteenth-Century Reputations
As musical repertoire advanced in the eighteenth century, the English, French, and German schools of harpsichord making were at the forefront of producing more sophisticated new instruments with a greater range of notes and varieties of tone. Meanwhile, antique harpsichords, especially those made in Antwerp, were greatly valued for their tonal qualities, and their antiquity added to their prestige.

The Parisian harpsichord-making tradition was notable for its recognition of the importance of Flemish harpsichords, and makers found ways of producing new instruments that upheld the fundamental principles of the Ruckers workshop. The majority of Flemish harpsichords that passed through the French market underwent a ravalement in which they would be rebuilt in order to conform to the most modern standards. In addition, the type of decoration that was considered suitable in the seventeenth century, in particular the use of marbling on the exterior, had fallen out of fashion. As a testament to their sustained use and importance, many of the finest Ruckers harpsichords would be redecorated following the latest Rococo style, and therefore it is normal to find examples in much altered condition. Those that have evaded any sort of alteration are very rare.

The success of the piano in the last few decades of the eighteenth century slowly displaced the harpsichord, which became virtually obsolete after 1800.

Benjamin Hebbert
Independent Scholar

September 2016


Hebbert, Benjamin. “Flemish Harpsichords and Virginals.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/flhv/hd_flhv.htm (September 2016)

Further Reading

Ernst, Friedrich. "Master Arnold Rucker." Galpin Society Journal 22 (March 1969), pp. 35–39.

Hebbert, Benjamin. "Influssi della liuteria bresciana in Spagna e Inghilterra." In Gaspar da Salò, architetto del suono, edited by Flavio Dassenno, pp. 45–52. Cremona: Cremonabooks, 2009.

Ripin, E. M. "The Couchet Harpsichord in the Crosby Brown Collection." Metropolitan Museum Journal 2 (1969), pp. 169–78. See on MetPublications

Pollens, Stuart. "Flemish Harpsichords and Virginals in The Metropolitan Museum of Art: An Analysis of Early Alterations and Restorations." Metropolitan Museum Journal 32 (1997), pp. 85–110. See on MetPublications