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Work Buffoon with a Lute

Department of Paintings: Dutch painting

Jester with a Lute

© 2005 RMN / Franck Raux

Paintings
Dutch painting

Author(s):
Collange Adeline

This work can be dated back to 1624-26, to the beginning of the artist's brilliant Caravaggist period when he was part of the Utrecht school. It is an allusion to the world of the theater (antique costume) and possibly an allegory of hearing or vanity (the vanities of music and pleasure). There is a copy in the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum that was famous for a long time, but its reputation has now been usurped.

Actor or buffoon?

The upper half of a young man's body is set against a neutral background; he is playing the lute. Hals has placed him within a very tight frame, which makes it seem as if the figure is emerging from the picture. Thus there is a heightened impression that the lutist is moving, accentuated by the fact that his head and shoulders are twisted in the opposite direction. The character's identity is uncertain. Is he simply a musician on tour? Does he play a buffoon as his very jolly appearance might have us believe? Or is he a theatrical figure as indicated by his fantasy costume, which is both elegant and archaic (sixteenth century)?

A genre portrait

A wide, mischievous, perhaps ironic smile lights up the whole of the lutist's face, giving it enormous life. The natural spontaneity that the picture exudes is undoubtedly due to the fact that the artist studied a real man, the same model who is found in several other of his pictures. However, this is not strictly speaking a portrait, although Hals became famous for these too. Portrait commissions were restricted to the upper classes of society-the nobility, the middle classes, or perhaps men of letters who had themselves painted in conventional, rather static poses. The portrayal of "little people" from the lower classes-peasants, merry drinkers, or loose women-obviously did not have the same purpose of social recognition. In fact these pictures, which belong to what are known as genre portraits, were often the means of making a moral judgement on the pleasures of the senses and their attendant dangers. Thus this lutist might well be an allegory of hearing or a lesson about the vanity of music, which by definition is ephemeral.

The artist's Caravaggist period

This genre portrait, half realistic and half allegorical, resembles similar subjects treated by the followers of Caravaggio in Utrecht. The method of illuminating a figure by means of a strong light from the side that molds the contours and gives them relief was typical of Caravaggio's style and the movement that followed it. However, there is no evidence that the Master of Haarlem had any direct contact with artists like Hendrick Terbrugghen (1588-1629) or Gerrit van Honthorst (1590-1656). The stylistic similarity is probably explained by the vogue for this type of picture that was current throughout Europe. But Hals differs from his contemporaries, with their rather stereotyped representations, bringing great vitality to his picture. Great colorist that he is, he emphasizes the play of brightness on the blacks and reds by introducing golden highlights. The lutist, with his dynamism, heralds that lightness and freedom of touch that was to culminate with the famous Bohemian (Musée du Louvre, MI 926). The artist's Caravaggist period was short (from 1620 to around 1625) but brilliant, and it brought his work to prominence during the nineteenth century, leading him to be seen as a forerunner of Édouard Manet.

Bibliography

- GRIMM Claus, "Le Joueur de luth de Frans Hals au Louvre", in La Revue du Louvre, 1988, 5-6, pp. 399-408.

- SLIVE Seymour, Frans Hals, catalogue d'expositionMünchen, Prestel, 1989.

- FOUCART Jacques (dir.), Musée du Louvre. Nouvelles acquisitions du département des Peintures, 1983-1986, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, Paris, 1987, pp. 78-81.

Technical description

  • Frans HALS (Antwerp, c. 1581-85 - Haarlem, 1666)

    Jester with a Lute

  • H. 0.70 m; W. 0.62 m

  • Acquired in lieu of inheritance tax, 1984

    R.F. 1984-32

  • Paintings

    Richelieu wing
    2nd floor
    Holland, first half of the 17th century
    Room 28

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Additional information about the work

Monogrammed inscription (old, on reverse): "FH" (intertwined initials) "F(ECIT) (M.H.D.); ETIENNE LEROY" (in ink, on the canvas).