Music and meaning: Artemisia's 'Lute Player' in context

Self Portrait as a Lute Player (c. 1615-18) by Artemisia GentileschiWadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art

This remarkable self portrait was made during the years she was living and working in Florence (1613–20).
Painted about 1615–17, when she was nearing her twenties, it is a work of tremendous presence and self-assurance.

In a shimmering blue dress that exposes her neck and chest, Artemisia fixes the viewer with a steady – almost challenging – gaze. Her hair, worn loose at the back, is wrapped in a striped scarf and she wears a gold hoop earring. 

In her arms Artemisia holds a lute with confidence. 
The fingers of her left hand form a chord while those of her right hand are poised to pluck the courses (paired strings). 

Artemisia made a number of self portraits during her time in Florence. In them she often appeared in the guise of recognisable characters, including saints. 
But why might she have chosen to portray herself as a musician and what might such an image have meant to her contemporaries?

Saint Cecilia and an Angel (c. 1617/1618 and c. 1621/1627) by Orazio Gentileschi and Giovanni LanfrancoNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

The playing of music was ubiquitous in 17th-century Europe. In the Christian tradition, sacred music was viewed as an essential way to offer praise during religious ceremonies.
Music was commonly associated with heaven (angels were often depicted with musical instruments) and it also had its patron saint, the youthful martyr Cecilia – seen here in a painting begun by Artemisia's father Orazio Gentileschi and completed by another artist, Giovanni Lanfranco.

Learning music and gaining the proficiency to perform well were viewed as essential skills for educated young women from noble and wealthy families.

Sixth interlude: temple of peace (Intermedio sesto: tempio della pace), from the series 'Seven Interludes' for the wedding celebration of Cosimo de' Medici in Florence, 1608 (1608) by Remigio Cantagallina|Giulio ParigiThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Music was also an essential part of courtly life, with most royal and noble houses keeping resident musicians on hand to entertain at any time of day or night. 
This illustration depicts one of seven elaborate stage sets in a spectacular performance given to celebrate the wedding of two of Artemisia’s patrons in Florence, Cosimo II de’ Medici, the city’s ruler, and Maria Maddalena d'Austria in 1608. 

As shown in this scene, large numbers of musicians were perched on clouds that may well have been mechanically winched up and down.

A Man playing a Lute (1624) by Hendrick ter BrugghenThe National Gallery, London

Music-making was so widespread among wealthy patrons that depictions of musicians were extremely popular in Artemisia’s day. A singing musician, representing sound, might also feature in groups of works depicting the five senses.

In this work from 1624 by a Dutch contemporary of Artemisia’s, Hendrick ter Brugghen, the senses of both sound and touch are evoked. 

The young man is shown in full song, plucking a chord on his lute, and the artist skilfully suggests the feel of different textures, such as crumpled folds of his sleeve, the satin of his doublet and the soft plumes of his hat.

Ter Brugghen also humorously notes the redness of the young man’s nose, suggesting that he has been drinking.

The Concert (1623) by Gerrit van HonthorstNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

The association of making music with drinking and licentious behaviour was also very common. Here in a work from 1623 by Gerard (Gerrit) van Honthorst – a painter Artemisia later knew in Rome – a group gathers together to sing and play from a number of printed scores.

The man raising a glass at the back and putting his finger to his lips calls for silence, but also for our discretion. The figures might be dressed in fine fabrics but the women’s revealing clothes suggest this is not a respectable gathering. 

The equation of music with love, and of playing instruments with sexual innuendo, was a common theme in art at the time.

The Concert (about 1626) by Hendrick ter BrugghenThe National Gallery, London

Music was also associated with the darker side of 17th-century life – low-life taverns, drunkenness and prostitution.
In this nocturnal scene by Ter Brugghen, a group of musicians appears to be playing in the corner of a public house. They turn a rather unwelcoming gaze towards us, as if we are to be viewed with suspicion. 

Unlike the well-dressed figures in Honthorst’s concert, these musicians wear simple clothes of rough cottons rather than silks. And the woman wears a headscarf and bares a shoulder suggesting she, like her companions, is a travelling musician. 
These itinerant players, often referred to as ‘gypsy’ musicians, tended to live at the margins of society and were associated with crime and licentious behaviour in the popular imagination.

Self Portrait as a Lute Player (c. 1615-18) by Artemisia GentileschiWadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art

Why then might Artemisia depict herself as a travelling musician in a revealing dress, wearing a headscarf and a gold hoop earring? 

The clue might come in an account from 1615 which notes that a certain ‘Sig.ra Artimisia’ (‘Signora Artemisia’), dressed as a gypsy, sang and danced with three other women at a performance at the Medici court.

Members of the Medici family were already patrons of Artemisia’s work. And we know that this very portrait was once part of their collection. 

It hung at 'La Ferdinanda', the Medici villa at Artimino outside Florence - where there was another self portrait by Artemisia (now lost) of her dressed as an Amazon warrior.

Perhaps in painting her own likeness, Artemisia decided to evoke her part in a court entertainment in which she performed for these illustrious patrons. Her guise, while showing off her beauty (for which she was renowned), also respectfully acknowledges her place within the Florentine court.

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