It was not until its inclusion in the major 1984 exhibition Masters of Seventeenth-Century Dutch Genre Painting (see Exhibited) that this work achieved recognition as one of Sorgh's finest achievements. This type of subject is in fact relatively rare in Sorgh's oeuvre, which up to this date had chiefly consisted of low-life peasant subjects or the kitchen and market scenes for which he is best known. At the time this picture was painted in 1661, Sorgh had begun to paint the Family of Ewout Prins (Historisch Museum, Rotterdam) and the Lute Player (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, both exhibited Rotterdam, Historisch Museum, Rotterdamse Meesters uit de Gouden Eeuw, 1994, nos. 52 and 53). This may have been in part a reaction to the paintings produced in nearby Delft in the late 1650s by Pieter de Hooch and Jan Vermeer, or perhaps it was a reflection of Sorgh's own elevation to hoofdman (leader) of the Guild of Saint Luke in Haarlem in 1659. Curiously, but perhaps to enhance this sense of elegance and affluence, the costumes depicted here are almost theatrical variants of 16th and early 17th century dress. The elegant (and presumably expensive) viola da gamba on the left, and the beautifully rendered pitcher and smoking utensils on the bench opposite, are outstanding examples of Sorgh's more usual interest and skill in depicting still life elements.
As so often with paintings of this type, music is also mixed with potential allusions to love or passion, such as the bird in the birdcage. The use of a caged singing bird as a vehicle for illustrating love was widespread in Golden Age painting, as it was often linked with the loss of virginity. Furthermore, the young girl resting with her head on her hand while she watches the young man playing the theorbo conforms, for example, to contemporary depictions of soetepijn or lovesickness. However, whether her ailment is brought on or remedied by the music remains unclear. As Peter Sutton observed in the 1984 exhibition catalogue, the pretzels shown upon the table were also sometimes awarded for musical performances (for a continued and full examination of music’s importance in Dutch society as well as its iconographic deployment in painting, see M. Wiesman, Vermeer and Music: The Art of Love and Leisure, exhibition catalogue, London, 2013).
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