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Behind the Scenes: Time-Traveling to Seventeenth-Century Holland

Posted On February 25, 2020 | 11:33 am | by Julia Ostmann | Permalink
Dutch Golden Age masterpiece loaned to Dumbarton Oaks

By Julia Ostmann

Curious about what happens at Dumbarton Oaks when the museum closes and the garden gates lock? Recently relaunched series “Behind the Scenes” uncovers the hidden activities, surprising jobs, and remarkable discoveries that make a home of the humanities.

Their eyes meet. Standing in the light, she points to a music score, grasping a violin in her left hand. He gazes up at her from the shadow. Caught forever in a playful glance, the young man and woman seem poised to resume their musicmaking. 

One of the finest works by seventeenth-century Dutch painter Jacob Ochtervelt, The Music Lesson captures an intimate scene with delicate light—illuminating also a rare musical instrument and the intermingled histories of music, colonialism, social status, and American collecting practices. Thanks to an exchange with the Art Institute of Chicago, the painting is hanging in the Music Room of the Dumbarton Oaks Museum through early summer.

“The Art Institute is entrusting us with a really beautiful treasure,” says Elizabeth Dospěl Williams, Dumbarton Oaks associate curator of the Byzantine collection. “It’s a sign of the great esteem between the two institutions.”

Jacob Ochtervelt, The Music Lesson
Jacob Ochtervelt, “The Music Lesson,” 1671, 80.2 × 65.5 cm (31 × 25 3/16 in.), oil on canvas. Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection, 1933.1088.

From its elegant furniture to its large background map to its theme of music, the painting evokes features of the Music Room surrounding it—a major reason Dospěl Williams and other curatorial staff selected The Music Lesson for the exchange.

But much remained a mystery to the curators when they chose the painting. For instance, who are the two figures? In Dutch Golden Age painting, the music lesson scene often served as an allegory for courtship, conjuring up sentiments of love and temptation. According to the Art Institute, The Music Lesson portrays an ironic role reversal: it is the female figure who gestures authoritatively and holds a violin, an instrument more often reserved for men.

And besides the violin, what are the other musical instruments, more unusual to modern eyes? A typical Baroque instrument, the viola da gamba, rests on the table. But the instrument the young man holds turned out to be an unusual lute played for only about 80 years in Holland, France, and England.

“The lute was a highly malleable instrument, and went through a number of permutations over time because of changing fashions and because of the relative ease of expanding the capabilities of the instrument,” says Daniel Boomhower, director of the Dumbarton Oaks library, who holds a doctorate in musicology. “The painting offers a visual confirmation that this particular variety of lute was in use at this time.”

Which variety, exactly? Valerie Stains, artistic director of the Music at Dumbarton Oaks concert series, noticed an unusual extension on the neck of the lute. So she queried early-music specialists and renowned lute players Stephen Stubbs and Paul O’Dette. They zeroed in on the theorboed lute, sometimes called a 12-course English lute, played from roughly 1620 to 1700. The extension makes available seven additional notes that expand the musical range of the instrument, providing stronger bass support to the melody.

“Over the years, it has been a joy to hear the lute, viola da gamba, and baroque violin in our Music Room, in several historically informed performances,” says Stains. 

Details in the Ochtervelt painting also reveal global connections that went far beyond music. Celebrated cellist Yo-Yo Ma points to the lute in The Music Lesson as an example of cross-cultural exchange and trade between central Asia, the Arab world, and Europe. The map in the background represents a common symbol of world power in Dutch paintings of the time. “This was of course a contested period because of the complexities of European colonialism,” says Dospěl Williams. “It’s a point of interesting conversations for museums today about this kind of art and the idea of a Dutch Golden Age.” 

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, American collectors thronged to acquire Dutch Golden Age paintings. Dumbarton Oaks cofounders Mildred and Robert Bliss were no exception, collecting such well-known works as a self-portrait by Judith Leyster as she paints a violin player. Eventually, though, the Blisses donated or sold all but a few of the seventeenth-century Dutch paintings to support other collecting interests. “The Music Lesson is a nice homage to the Blisses, it’s a type of painting I think they would have enjoyed,” says Dospěl Williams. The work even features the kind of little dog Mildred Bliss loved.

With so many parallels across the centuries, the painting finds a special home in the Music Room, preserved to resemble the domestic space where the Blisses once entertained. “The Music Room and the gatherings they hosted in it allowed the Blisses to exhibit their taste and refinement, the same way whoever bought this painting originally would have used it as a status symbol,” says Boomhower.

El Greco
El Greco, “The Visitation,” ca. 1610–1614, 96.5 cm × 71.4 cm (38 in × 28.1 in), oil on canvas. Dumbarton Oaks, House Collection, HC.P.1936.18.(O). Image taken in the Dumbarton Oaks Music Room by Elizabeth Muñoz Huber.

While The Music Lesson is on view, a seventeenth-century masterpiece from the Dumbarton Oaks collections, El Greco’s The Visitation, joins more than 57 works in the Art Institute of Chicago’s landmark exhibition El Greco: Ambition and Defiance, from March 7 to June 21.

The painting is one of the rare late works by the distinctive artist, revealing “the extraordinary incandescence of his palette, the daring of his compositions, and the fluidity of his brushwork in his late years,” the Art Institute exhibition’s curators note. “The magnificent Visitation . . . is the most striking demonstration of the extraordinary vitality of the painter’s art in this period.” 

In February, curators and art handlers packed up the El Greco and drove it to Chicago, where it will help make the Dumbarton Oaks collection accessible to new audiences and deepen the scholarship around a major artist. In its place in the Music Room now hangs The Music Lesson, perfectly fitted in size and style to its home for the next few months. “It’s an Art Institute masterpiece that has come in exchange for a Dumbarton Oaks masterpiece,” says Dospěl Williams. “Like all Dutch paintings of this period, you feel almost like you’re part of their world. It’s like time-traveling to seventeenth-century Holland in an incredible and immediate way.”


Julia Ostmann is postgraduate writing and reporting fellow at Dumbarton Oaks. Photos courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago and by Elizabeth Muñoz Huber, postgraduate digital media fellow.