The Joys of Harmony Bring Us Together
'The Concert' (1623) by Gerrit van Honthorst (1592–1656)
Where you find a love for music, there will always be a party in the making. The painting, The Concert (1623), by Gerrit van Honthorst (1592–1656), depicts an informal social scene where people gather to drink and enjoy music together that comes alive with illumination and warm tones. The party is open to the viewer as if he or she could step in and join. The merriment the performance holds for the five musicians gathered around a table and three listeners can be felt as one examines this painting. The musical ensemble in The Concert is an English mixed consort (Wheelock). There are both men and women seated around a table, singing and playing music with various instruments. From left to right, there is a bass viol, a violin, a bandora, and a lute. Those performing are dressed in theatrical outfits painted in bright, stunning colors. The women are also wearing elaborate headdresses. The musicians sing and play from partbooks as they are instructed by the concertmaster in red on the left, who is playing the bass viol and directing with his bow (Wheelock). The maestro urges focus, but the joyous quartet is having a pleasant time. The Concert by Gerrit van Honthorst is a genre painting depicting five musical performers and three bystanders; the scene is filled with a harmony between the performers and listeners that is directed by the concertmaster.
Honthorst captures the scene in The Concert down to the most minute detail with the use of different artistic styles. Similar to Honthorst’s work, Adoration of the Shepherds (1620), The Concert portrays figures with detailed human anatomy and halted movement along with the lighting to show the emotional states of his subjects (see fig. 1, Judson 31). The light source of the painting comes from the upper left. The scene appears to be lit by natural lighting from a window as the shadows are consistent throughout and are not characteristic of flickering candlelit shadows. As also seen in Honthorst’s painting Liberation of Saint Peter (1616-18), he uses the light as a tool to reveal “the human features and establishes a dramatic emphasis by spotlighting the body movement and facial expressions” (see fig. 2, Judson 40). He created a feeling of intimacy in his painting by following the “Caravaggesque characteristic” in placing his characters very close to the viewer in the scene (Judson 33). Honthorst follows the same Caravaggio style in another work, Merry Company with a Lute Player (1620), where the subjects in the scene are “… cut off at the knees and placed very close to the picture plane, though a certain feeling of depth is maintained” (see fig. 3, Judson 41). It feels as though the viewer has an intimate role in the scene and could walk through the frame and sit alongside the performers.
Additionally, the depth of the painting is detailed by the use of colors and shading on the subjects and objects. The same type of Italian-influenced rich and strong color scheme can be seen in Honthorst’s painting Christ Crowned with Thorns (1620) (see fig. 4). Honthorst’s King David Playing the Harp (1622) is another beautiful example of deep rich colors and bright light that enlivens the painting (see fig. 5, Judson 86). The Concert was painted during a time when Honthorst’s later career style began to move more towards Classicism and an “uncompromising naturalism,” as can be seen in his other work Saint Sebastian (1623) (see fig. 6, Brown 45). This leads to the style that is visible in Honthorst’s painting The Concert and that creates its unique appeal.
The Concert is one of Honthorst’s works depicting a “party scene based ultimately on Caravaggio” (Judson 56). It has a subject matter closely related to that of Honthorst’s Musical Group by Candlelight (1623) (see fig. 7). The painting “shows a group of entertainers amusing themselves or an audience with one of the numerous songbooks which had become so popular in the Netherlands at this time” (Judson 69). There are eight figures illustrated in this painting, and five of them are musicians. The five musicians—placed in the foreground and middleground—surround the table and are dressed fancily and brightly in elaborate outfits. Honthorst uses chiaroscuro to bring emphasis to the five center figures, highlighting that they are the performers. The three figures in the background are dimly lit. The three others are in the background are blandly dressed compared to the five performers. There is also a contrast in the lighting on them. They are shaded darker and are not a part of the central spotlight targeting the musicians. Musical activity is taking place while the bystanders quietly listen. The performers are all engaged in some musical activity. They are playing their various instruments and singing. This is indicated by the instruments they are holding and the various part books on the table. The viol player, who is the director, has everyone’s attention on the sheet music and uses his bow to point out their place in the song. Those in the background are not included in the music-making activity in any way. They are listening quietly making sure not to disturb those playing. The man with the drink has his finger to his lips to shush everyone watching. This all lends a hand to the overall theme of harmony as they sit together to revel in the music-making.
Along with the theme of harmony, there is also a slightly less obvious, contrasting tone related to prostitution. Both the lute and bandora are played by the two female musicians in the picture. Based on the environment and their fancy dresses and feather headdresses, both women are likely prostitutes. The woman with the lute is scantily dressed; her left shoulder is exposed and reveals a part of her chest hidden behind the instrument. The woman holding the bandora has her cleavage showing. It was common to have prostitutes working in scenes like inns, taverns, or music houses, and Honthorst’s scene appears to takes place in some form of a music house (Spicer 117). The lute in the hands of a woman represents lust. The body of the bandora is scalloped shaped (Kite-Powell 180). The symbolism of the scallop is representative of the birth of Aphrodite (Wells 433). Aphrodite was the goddess of love and pleasure and is associated with erotic love (Wells 437-438). She is also tied to the idea of harmony as she is the goddess of love “who resolves the discords of the world” (Wells 437) The theme of prostitution in this image clashes with the ideal harmony, yet both evoke the idea of love, which brings people together.
In The Concert, Honthorst paints four different instruments. Art historian Arthur Wheelock states that there is a lute, a violin, a bass viol, and a bandora (Wheelock). These instruments all look very realistic as if we could pull them from the canvas and play a song. Honthorst beautifully illustrates the consort’s instruments, but not to the best accuracy in some cases. In the instance of the violin and the bass viol, the instruments are accurate (see fig. 8, fig. 9). Incongruous with the theme of harmony, the composition of the bandora and the lute raises some red flags. When looking at the instrument that Wheelock identifies as the bandora, some conflicting information comes to light. The instrument is possibly a bandora or orpharion. Scholarly research by music historians regarding these two instruments gives inconsistent facts on their design and build. According to an image given in William Barley’s A New Book of Tabliture (1596), one can see that the instrument portrayed in the painting is an orpharion or a bandora based on the shape of the instrument’s body (see fig. 10). It has the scalloped edges that shown in images of orpharions (see fig. 11). A bandora has strings that “… run in double courses from the pegbox, usually ‘viol’ type with lateral pegs, over the fingerboard and soundboard to the bridge...” (Harwood). This textual description matches the instrument depicted in the painting. The terms bandora and orpharion have been used interchangeably in the past and present (Dolata 38). It is hard to visually identify which of the two instruments Honthorst has illustrated since there are no surviving bandoras and only two orpharions (Dolata 37-38). Historians and experts disagree as to which is which. In William Barley’s A New Booke of Tabliture, “… the orpharion is shown with seven pairs of strings and the bandora has only six” (Harwood). This could make the instrument in The Concert a bandora because Honthorst painted six courses. As for their playing techniques, orpharions are played with the fingers whereas the bandora is played with a plectrum or pick (Dolata 38). In the image, it is unclear what the technique the woman is using with her right hand to play the instrument because it is almost entirely blocked from view by the concertmaster. From what can be seen of the woman’s right hand and how she is holding her hands and fingers, it looks as though she could be holding a pick between her index finger and thumb. This could mean that the instrument is a bandora. Furthermore, it could be a bandora because they were used in consorts while orpharions were preferred for solo music (Dolata 38). This instrument has no definitive identification, causing unrest in contrast to the peaceful harmonic theme of the painting.
The pictorial representation of the lute likewise causes discord within the harmony. One of the women depicted in Honthorst’s painting is playing a lute. The lute is a plucked string instrument that was widely popular in Europe during the age of the Renaissance. Upon examining the painting in close detail, the viewer can see that the number of strings and tuning pegs conflict with each other (see fig. 12). Only thirteen tuning pegs are shown on the pegbox. The highest course, also called the chanterelle, was most commonly single on lutes, and this can be seen on Honthorst’s lute (Kite-Powell 171). This means there should be thirteen strings. It is unclear how many courses Honthorst meant for this lute to have. According to Ian Finlay, in seventeenth-century Dutch paintings, the number of strings on a lute varies from twelve to eighteen (Finlay 54). Honthorst added thirteen tuning pegs on the pegbox but does not have the number of strings drawn to match that. When looking at the ivory saddle, there are fourteen notches meant for the strings. Additionally, the viewer can count fifteen strings drawn farther down the neck, past the player’s hand on the highest frets. Looking at the tuning pegs to determine the number of courses as seven, the lute Honthorst has painted is likely a bass lute in d’ which was one of the most common lutes featured in the sixteenth century (Kite-Powell 171-172). Though the type of lute cannot be confirmed, the most plausible option is that Honthorst meant to depict a bass lute.
The individual parts played by each of these string instruments are Honthorst’s puzzle pieces coming together to create an encompassing feeling of harmony. Honthorst’s choice to paint a string consort helps strength the main idea of harmony in The Concert. The music books in this painting are similar to those seen in other Dutch works of art (Wheelock). These books were handwritten, and it was the responsibility of each of the musicians to transcribe their individual parts form a printed source (Wheelock). Though the notes written on the partbook closest to the concertmaster are clear as day, it is not possible to identify the music the group is playing (Wheelock). The string instruments of this ensemble would have to be tuned perfectly to create a pleasant and harmonious sound. This would be a difficult task especially with the lute and bandora that have multiple courses. Those two instruments would have to be tuned individually then brought into the ensemble to make it whole. Once tuned, they would produce a beautifully polyphonic sound with the violin, bass viol, and vocals.
In The Concert, Honthorst creates a wonderful polyphonic scene of colorful music-making. The bright lighting and the friendly faces seem to invite the viewer into the song. The concertmaster directs a precise sweet-sounding harmony. The beautiful string symphony accompanying the multiple vocal lines ties into the harmony as well. The overall melodious scene of music-making in a broken consort is accentuated by the band of theatrical performers and the quiet listeners. While Honthorst leaves questions regarding certain details of the two plucked instruments, these discordant elements are ultimately overcome by the perfect harmony.
Barley, William. A New Booke of Tabliture. London, UK: William Barley, 1596.
Brown, Christopher. Utrecht Painters of the Dutch Golden Age. London, UK: National Gallery Publications, 1997.
Dolata, David. Temperaments on Lutes and Viols. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016.
Finlay, Ian F. "Musical Instruments in 17th-Century Dutch Paintings." TheGalpin Society Journal 6 (1953): 52-56. http://www.jstor.org/stable/841717.
Harwood, Ian, and Lyle Nordstrom. “Bandora.” In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Accessed November 7, 2017. http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/ music/01945?q=bandora& search=quick&pos=1&_start=1#firsthit.
Judson, J. R. Gerrit van Honthorst : A Discussion of his Position in Dutch Art. Hague, The Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1959.
Kite-Powell, Jeffery T. A Performer’s Guide to Renaissance Music. 2nd ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007.
Spicer, Joaneath A., Lynn Federle Orr, and Marten Jan Bok. Masters of Light: Dutch Painters in Utrecht during the Golden Age. Baltimore, MD: Walters Art Gallery, 1998.
Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. "The Concert." The National Gallery of Art. Washington, D.C. June 14, 2017. Accessed October 12, 2017. https:// www.nga.gov/Collection/art-object-page.163184.html.
Wells, Robin Headlam. “The Orpharion: Symbol of a Humanist Ideal.”Early Music. 10, no. 4 (Oct. 1982): 433, 437-438. http://www.jstor.org/ stable/pdf/3126931.
Figure 1. Gerrit van Honthorst, Adoration of the Shepherds (1620). Oil on canvas. 338.5 x 198.5 cm. Galleria degli Uffizi, Italy.
Figure 2. Gerrit van Honthorst, Liberation of St. Peter (1616-18). Oil on canvas. 129 cm x 179 cm. Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister Dresden, Germany.
Figure 3. Gerrit van Honthorst, Merry Company with a Lute Player (1619-20). Oil on canvas. 144 x 212 cm. Galleria degli Uffizi, Italy.
Figure 4. Gerrit van Honthorst, Christ Crowned with Thorns (1620). Oil on canvas. 254.6 x 204.5 x 10.5 cm. The J Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.
Figure 5. Gerrit van Honthorst, David Playing the Harp (1622). Oil on canvas. 81 x 65 cm. Centraal Museum, Utrecht.
Figure 6. Gerrit van Honthorst, Saint Sebastian (1623). Oil on canvas. 101 x 117 cm. The National Gallery, London.
Figure 7. Gerrit van Honthorst, Musical Group by Candlelight (1623). Oil on canvas. 117 x 146 cm. Royal Museum, Copenhagen. On loan to Kronborg Castle, Elsinore, Denmark.
Figure 8. Gerrit van Honthorst, The Concert (1623), detail.
Figure 9. Gerrit van Honthorst, The Concert (1623), detail.
Figure 10. Gerrit van Honthorst, The Concert (1623), detail.
Figure 11. Orpharion. From William Barley, A New Book of Tabliture (London, 1596) reproduced in “The Orpharion: Symbol of a Humanist Ideal,” By Robin Headlam Wells. Early Music. 10, no. 4 (Oct. 1982): 433. http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/3126931.
Figure 12. Gerrit van Honthorst, The Concert (1623), detail.