The spectrum of sound: Keyboard instruments & women in seventeenth-century Dutch painting

Dominique Baines

    Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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    The seventeenth-century Netherlands was a time of great wealth due to success in commerce and trade, and new-found independence from Spanish rule, which resulted in mass migration because of religious loyalties; subsequently, there was an exponential increase in easel painting. These factors culminated in an era unique to the Dutch Republic. Simultaneously, there were developments in music, the production of musical instruments and musical compositions; these affected how music was learned, distributed and performed. Keyboard instruments including clavichords, harpsichords, organs and virginals, as well as their associated music, reached a zenith during this time. These extravagant instruments were owned by and played for the wealthy stratum of Dutch society. Artists, and particularly genre painters, were keen to represent the world around them in a distinctively Dutch manner, and so they depicted the musical reverie alongside instruments such as the lute, guitar, viola da gamba, violin, hurdy-gurdy, rommelpot, trumpet, drum and more, but most importantly the keyboard instrument. Successful Dutch artists like Pieter Codde (Amsterdam, 1599–1678), Gerrit Dou (Leiden, 1613–75), Gabriel Metsu (Leiden, 1629–67), Jan Steen (Leiden, 1626–79), and Johannes Vermeer (Delft, 1632–75), began to establish a genre-within-a-genre by repeating and refining the theme of elite women with keyboard instruments situated in the domestic interior.

    Purely ocular modes of viewing visual culture have dominated art history since the time of the Renaissance, culminating in an ‘ocularcentrism’ throughout current literature. However, the modes of sound, silence, noise, hearing and listening are all depicted within seventeenth-century Dutch genre paintings. This thesis aims to approach these case studies with a new lens – a way of listening that has not been considered before – and place these sources on a spectrum of sound. Perception studies in art interpretation can illuminate greater information for the observer; after all, our senses assist us in understanding the world around us, therefore these pictures are carriers of information. Using visual analysis, I examine the meaning and function of Dutch paintings featuring women and keyboard instruments in order to discover what they reveal about the significance of sound. Moreover, the impact of space on sound and in turn sound on space is especially important, as each illusion fosters the other. Spatial devices allow spectators entry into and through pictures, and so this too will be discussed in relation to aurality. Finally, keyboard instruments were often decorated with Latin mottoes, usually of a Biblical or classical nature. Several artists even repeated the use of Latin mottoes in their work, thus highlighting a significant relationship between image and text, particularly the influence of emblem books prevalent during the era. Literature and terminology from various fields including film and sound studies will be applied to these paintings so as to explain the ways aurality functions in the images. Overall, these paintings are a form of cultural communication; they capture and preserve a time, place and soundscape that was the elite Dutch household during the seventeenth century.
    Original languageEnglish
    QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
    Awarding Institution
    • Charles Sturt University
    • Bowker, Sam, Principal Supervisor
    • Wood, Susan, Co-Supervisor
    Place of PublicationAustralia
    Publication statusPublished - 2020


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