De Hooch painted several musical company interiors in his late career, experimenting with the number and arrangement of figures and their poses. A similar grouping appears in A musical conversation (fig. 1) in the Honolulu Museum of Art. In both paintings, a window at left provides the soft lighting in the main room, while a further scene appears through a far doorway at right, and the same dog looks out at the viewer from the foreground. Yet the subtle interactions between the figures create slightly different moods in each of De Hooch’s compositions, and convey different types of musical and social harmony. In the Honolulu painting, De Hooch emphasized the romantic associations of music: the woman seated at the window seems to enjoy the closeness of the man behind her, who reads over her shoulder from a songbook as they sing. Here, on the other hand, each figure plays a different instrument and concentrates on their practice, while a figure watches from behind the organ. While the violinist looks into the distance, the two women watch one another for timing, and the organist turns his head as if to do the same.
The internal focus of the musicians and the minimal lighting from the window suggest soft music and a refined mood, in contrast to the more boisterous and flirtatious scenes conjured by other genre painters. While De Hooch took inspiration from artists like Jan Steen (1626 - 1679), the latter’s use of satire in his depictions of musical parties seems not to have appealed to De Hooch. Even in Steen’s high-life genre scenes such as The Family Concert in Chicago (fig. 2), he employed humorous motifs that create a lighthearted mood, like half-empty wine glasses, overturned vessels, the dog and cat squabbling over food, and the young boy plucking the cello strings with a clay pipe, itself a symbol of vice. These details contribute to a moralizing message that a family must constantly work toward harmony; De Hooch’s quieter scene appears to be an example of social and musical harmony at work. The genteel couple spied through the doorway provides an additional example of concordance in relationships.
De Hooch was also interested in exploring qualities of light and space, which aligns him with Delft painters including Johannes Vermeer (1632 - 1675). Like Vermeer, De Hooch used a window at left as a light source and placed his female figures near it; he also employed the door as a stolen view into another room with another story playing out. The present painting provides just enough information about each figure’s role in the narrative for comprehension, but leaves the viewer wondering, for example, what the figure in shadow behind the organ is thinking.
Interior with elegant figures playing music stands out in De Hooch’s mature oeuvre for its combination of the late-century attention to luxurious details, and the keen observation of human interaction for which De Hooch is celebrated.
We are grateful to John Somerville, Keeper of the Cook Collection Archive, for assisting with the Provenance and Literature for this lot.
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