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The Lute Player by Orazio Gentileschi
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  • The Lute Player by Orazio Gentileschi

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  • c. 1612/1620
    Oil on canvas
    143.5 x 129 cm (56 1/2 x 50 13/16 in.)
    National Gallery of Art - Washington DC, United States.

    With its luminous color palette, striking asymmetrical composition, and graceful subject, The Lute Player is among Orazio Gentileschi’s greatest paintings. As a Baroque artist who came of age in early 17th-century Rome, Gentileschi was part of a revolution in painting that turned away from the previous century’s academic, Mannerist school. Gentileschi embraced instead a new naturalistic, introspective style that took root in the 1590s and emphasized painting from live models.

    While some scholars have tried to identify this lute player as Saint Cecilia, or a veiled portrait of Gentileschi’s daughter, Artemisia, these suggestions have been dismissed. The painting may instead depict a genre scene taken from everyday life, or represent an allegory of Music or Harmony. Regardless, this mysterious picture seems to delight in sensual pleasures rather than spiritual concerns. The seductive charms of music are echoed in the way the woman gently holds the body of the lute––an instrument traditionally associated with lust––in her hands and close to her thoughtfully inclined head. Unfortunately, the musical score that could shed light on the tenor of the moment is provocatively illegible.

    The Lute Player was probably painted sometime between 1612 and 1620, when Gentileschi was based in Rome—a hotbed of musical experimentation and performance that provided inspiration for the city’s many artists. It was there that Gentileschi first encountered the work of the young Caravaggio. While it owes a debt to the innovative musical genre pictures Caravaggio painted during the 1590s, Gentileschi’s The Lute Player was itself a touchstone for a successive generation of artists painting poetic genre scenes on the theme of music. Gentileschi’s style is a masterful fusion of the drama and naturalism of Caravaggio, but with a more serene temper. Gentileschi strove for tonal clarity, and his apparent delight in painting textiles is evidence of his study of Flemish painters like Rubens.

    The Lute Player exemplifies hallmarks of Gentileschi’s work, such as the monumental figure’s substantial neck and deep-set almond eyes. The artist’s itinerancy––moving from Italy to Paris, and finally settling in London––ensured that his style and fame were far reaching, and his paintings highly sought after, particularly by collectors in learned, courtly circles, including those of Queen Marie de Medici of France and King Charles I of England.

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