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Essay – Theodoor Rombouts – Musical company with Bacchus

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Essay - Theodoor Rombouts - Musical company with Bacchus

A musician with a flamboyant feathered beret tunes his lute at a table at which a man and woman are also seated. Bacchus enters from the right with a raised glass of wine and carrying bunches of grapes and apples in his robe. Not only the scene itself, with its colourfully attired half-length figures, but also the rich contrasts of the painting style are characteristic of the Caravaggesque manner, of which Theodoor Rombouts was the most important Flemish representative.

In 1625 Rombouts returned to his native city of Antwerp after a sojourn of some nine years in Italy.1 There he had moved in the circles of the inter­national followers of Caravaggio (1571-1610), who in the second decade of the seventeenth century had caused a great stir in Rome – among them Bartolomeo Manfredi (1582-1622), the Frenchman Valentin de Boulogne (1591-1632), and the Utrecht painters Hendrick ter Brugghen (cat. no. 11), Gerrit van Honthorst (cat. nos. 27 and 28) and Dirck van Baburen (c.1592-1624), with whom Rombouts had shared living quarters. The circa 30 pictures by Rombouts known today – of which only 12, including the one described here, are signed – were probably all painted after his return to the north. In addition to several religious and allegorical works, he painted a number of large-scale genre pieces comprising a motley crew of musicians, card and trictrac players, smokers and dentists. The Caravaggesque influence on Rombouts is strongest in the first years following his return from Italy; later, from the early 1630s onwards, his style gradually became more elegant. Inspired by Rubens (1577-1640) and Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641), his palette paled and the lighting becomes more diffuse. The exuberant colours and strong chiaroscuro seen here indicate this picture was painted before this stylistic metamorphosis, probably around 1630. Rombouts was then about 33 years of age.

Both the artist’s self-portrait and portraits of his wife have been recognised in a number of Rombouts’s genre paintings,2 the former thanks to the likeness engraved by Paulus Pontius (1603-1658) after a design by Van Dyck (fig. 1).3 Vlieghe believed he had discovered Rombouts in our work in the man tuning his lute at the left.4 According to Vlieghe, this is confirmed by his identification of Rombouts and his wife as the sitters in two portraits by Anthony van Dyck in Munich (figs. 3 and 4). In my opinion, however, the engraved portrait has more in common with the man in the centre: although his hooked nose is somewhat less pronounced, his hairstyle, the shape of his eye sockets, eyebrows and cheeks are very similar. By choosing to render the face from the same angle, the painter in fact seems to have deliberately based himself on the Van Dyck model. Another reason to identify this man as the artist is the woman seated next to him, who resembles Rombouts’s wife, Anna van Thielen.5 She has laid her hand on his gesturing arm, implying they are a couple. The books on the table, with the characteristic oblong format of music books, suggest that they will begin singing as soon as the musician has finished tuning his instrument.

According to Jacob Cats, ‘Love makes one sing’ and the link between music and love was a popular theme in seventeenth-century art and literature.6 Moreover, a lute being tuned was an obvious symbol for harmony in marriage.7 In addition, it was widely believed that music was a cure for sorrow. This is expressed, for example, in the inscription on a print by Schelte à Bolswert (c. 1586-1659) after Theodoor Rombouts’s Singing couple (fig. 2) – also identified as the Rombouts’ – which states that music ‘invigorates the miserable and offers comfort to the weary’.8 In the scene described here the pleasures of music and love are enhanced by the wine brought in by Bacchus.9 Wine, love and song (‘Wein, Weib und Gesang’) are the subject of Rombouts’s picture. He thus follows in the footsteps of Caravaggio, in whose influential Concert of youths of around 1595 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) the grapes allude to Bacchus, while Eros embodies the relationship between music and love.10

This examination of the painting’s themes does not, however, help explain why the couple are shown looking so intently at someone or something outside the picture frame. The man points with his left hand at the lute player, while his wife lays her hand on his arm, and both look beyond Bacchus to the right. Given that the canvas has not been substantially cut on this side, one might speculate that the poses were originally meant to relate them to figures in a pendant picture: in this constellation it seems possible that the lute player and Bacchus are meant as symbols of Hearing and Taste, as in Rombouts’s Five senses in the Museum voor Schone Kunsten in Ghent.11 The other senses would then have been shown in the – now lost – pendant.