Sir Peter Lely was the foremost portraitist at the Restoration Court of King Charles II. Following his arrival in Britain in the mid 1640s, the painter established himself in London where, with the assistance of the artist-dealer George Geldorp, he was able to gain an introduction to numerous significant patrons. The death of Sir Anthony van Dyck in 1641 and of William Dobson in 1646, opened the way for the prodigiously talented Lely to quickly establish himself as one of the country’s most sought-after and most brilliant painters.
This painting probably formed part of a series of six pictures painted by Lely between circa 1648 and 1650. Five of these were recorded in the posthumous inventory made after the death of William, 3rd Baron Craven (1700-1739) at Coombe Abbey, as ‘Five Italian Musicians by Francis Halls [sic]’. This attribution to Frans Hals was repeated several years later by Horace Walpole who noted seeing ‘a Lady, and three [sic] Musicians, by Francis Halls’ when he visited the Abbey in September 1768. The paintings are believed to have been commissioned by William, 1st Baron Craven, later Earl Craven (1608-1697) possibly as a direct commission to the artist. Lord Craven also held paintings from the collection of his friend Prince Rupert, of the Rhine (1619-1682) in trust for Rupert’s mistress, Margaret Hughes (c.1630-1719), and her daughter Ruperta (b. 1673). Though the Man playing the Violin was not amongst the group recorded at Coombe Abbey in the 18th century, the similarities in subject, treatment, and tone all suggest that it was part of the original series and that it was separated from the other pictures sometime before 1736. Four of the Craven pictures, another Man playing a Violin, the Lady playing a Therbo-Lute (both private collection), the Man playing a Pipe (London, Tate Britain, T00885) and the Boy playing a Jew’s Harp (London, Tate Britain, T00884) all appear to have originally been the same size. The present picture is somewhat smaller and appears to have been designed as a pendant for the picture of a Man playing an Eleven-course Lute, now also in a private collection. Both of these smaller paintings show the figure of a man, half-length and dressed in silk doublet and loose cap, with their mouth open, suggesting that they are singers accompanying the other musicians. About both, it has been suggested that they represent portraits of the artist. Lely is known to have had a fond appreciation for music and comparison to his known self-portraits, like that in the National Portrait Gallery, London (fig. 1; inv. no. NPG 3897), does reveal similarities in the features of the artist and the musicians. The paintings appear to have been designed to hang as a group, with the two larger canvases flanking the smaller ones, perhaps centred around a fireplace. In this way the two Tate pictures, in which both musicians face the left, would have hung to the right, while the privately-owned Man playing a violin and Lady playing a Therbo-lute would have hung on the left. It is plausible that the smaller, putative self-portraits would have then been placed in the center of the group.
Pictures of music making were common in 17th-century painting, with music often understood to possess connotations of love and courtship in the visual arts. As Vasari wrote in his Lives of the Artists, ‘Love is born from Music, or rather, Love is always in company with Music’; a sentiment echoed by Cesare Ripa in his famous Iconologia that ‘music was invented to make the spirits happy’. The thematic associations of love and music, which Lely had begun to explore in his series of Musicians can be seen to reach its most explicit form in The Concert (fig. 2; London, The Courtauld Institute of Art, inv. no. 1947.LF.216), painted in circa 1650, the ‘most beautiful of Lely’s early landscapes’ (O. Millar, Sir Peter Lely 1618-80, exhibition catalogue, National Portrait Gallery, London, 1978, p.10). The artist’s allegorical scene shows a group of musicians playing and singing for two richly dressed women, the seated figure likely representing Poetry. Indeed, a connection with contemporary poetry is useful in understanding Lely’s Concert more fully. George Wither’s lines in his Fair Virtue, the Mistress of Phil’arete: ‘Sweet groves…/… humble vales, adieu!/You wanton brooks, and solitary rocks,/My dear companions all!.../Farewell my pipe, and all those pleasing songs, whose moving strains/Delighted once the fairest nymphs that dance upon the plains!’ seem to align perfectly with Lely’s painted Arcadia.
The tonality and treatment of the group, and of the Man playing a violin, also demonstrates the painter’s engagement with the work of a group of Caravaggesque painters based in Utrecht during the first half of the 17th century, notably Dirck van Baburen (c.1595-1624), Gerrit van Honthorst (1592-1656) and Hendrick ter Brugghen (1588-1629). Ter Brugghen, in particular, seems to have influenced Lely’s musicians. His use of a plain brown background, nearly life-sized genre (rather than portrait) figure and dynamic effects of light and shadow, observable, for example, in his Singing Lute Player (fig. 3; London, National Gallery, inv. no. NG6347), can all be seen to have affected the way in which Lely chose to treat his series of Musicians. Indeed, until he returned it to the newly restored Royal Collection in 1660, Lely owned ter Brugghen’s A laughing Bravo with a Bass Viol and a Glass (London, Hampton Court Palace, inv. no. RCIN 405531), which had been sold from the collection of Charles I in 1649. Though Lely trained in Haarlem, the impact of the Utrecht Caravaggisti was felt across the Dutch Republic, influencing the work of Haarlem painters like Pieter de Grebber (who trained in his father, Fransz. Pieter de Grebber with Lely) and even Frans Hals, whose Buffoon playing a lute (Paris, Musée du Louvre, acc. no. RF 1984-32) owes a clear debt to ter Brugghen and Honthorst.