Just before launching into his music, this prepossessing flute-player fixes the viewer’s eye with a mischievous smile. His smirk suggested that his music-making will be more than a merry tune. Nor is this surprising, since in seventeenth-century Dutch art, the playing of wind instruments was associated with passion and debauchery – associations that certainly appear applicable to this flute-player with his flushed face. We find an explicit example of this symbolism in a print made in 1530 after Lucas van Leyden, in which the image of an otherwise very serious-looking flute-player is accompanied by the caption ‘Now lusty flutist, quench my desire. / Play to the lute, that I may feel it’:1 The erotic connotations of flute-playing are also found in the work of the Utrecht Caravaggists.2 Artists such as Abraham Bloemaert (cat. nos. 6 and 7), Gerrit van Honthorst (cat. nos. 27 and 28), Hendrick ter Brugghen (cat. no. 11), Dirck van Baburen (1594/95-1624) and Jan van Bijlert (cat. nos. 4 and 5) painted several merry musicians, including flute-players – always as half-length figures and against a neutral background. The work that is discussed here, painted by Peter Wtewael – who also hailed from and worked in Utrecht – belongs to this tradition.
Peter Wtewael was the eldest son of Joachim Wtewael (1566-1638) – a prominent Utrecht artist who worked in a Mannerist style. Peter was undoubtedly taught by his father, but he never devoted himself fully to painting. Even so, in 1628 Joachim painted a portrait of his son that expressly depicts him as a self-assured artist: elegantly dressed and with his palette and brushes in his hand.3 It initially appeared that Peter, like his younger brother Johan (1598-1652) – by whom not a single work has been preserved – would follow in his father’s footsteps. However, the German artist and art theorist Joachim von Sandrart (1608-1688) wrote in his Teutsche Academie that although the young Wtewael had the potential to become a great artist, he opted instead for a career in the substantially more lucrative flax trade – a market in which the family was already active.4 After his father’s death in 1638, Peter Wtewael no longer enrolled in the artists’ guild. Besides his work as a merchant, he was also active in local politics: he succeeded his father as a member of Utrecht city council, and held the positions of both schepen (magistrate) and mandated councillor. As far as is known, he never married, and lived his whole life in Utrecht. When he died at 63 years of age on 29 January 1660, he left a large art collection, consisting primarily of work by himself and his father. Clearly, then, he never entirely lost his love of art.5
When Peter Wtewael painted Laughing Man with Flute, he was about twenty-seven years of age. The rapid style of painting and the signature suggest that he had been studying painting for some time since then. The 1620s and early 1630s were probably his main period of activity as an artist; he built up a modest oeuvre in this period. Only five signed and dated works by him are known today, including Laughing Man with Flute,6 while others have been attributed to him on stylistic grounds. The work discussed here was produced in 1623, making it the artist’s earliest-known dated painting. The man’s large, striking hands and somewhat caricatural laugh are typical of Wtewael’s work – his father’s Mannerist style of painting undoubtedly influenced him in this respect.
Despite the modest size of Wtewael’s oeuvre, he tackled a wide-ranging repertoire of themes. These included numerous religious motifs, as well as mythological subjects and a handful of genre scenes. Among the works attributed to him are two pastoral scenes – another popular topos among the Utrecht artists. One of them features a shepherd merrily playing his bagpipes. His counterpart is a bare-breasted shepherdess, who meets the viewer’s eye with a friendly smile.7 Scenes like this became fashionable in the 1620s; this is directly linked to the pastoral poetry that was so popular at the time, which accorded roles to the poetic and the salacious shepherd alike.8 This scene clearly depicts the ‘rogue’ type of shepherd. In part, Wtewael draws on the work of his successful father, who also depicted vivacious shepherds and shepherdesses of this kind. Thus, two circular paintings by Joachim are known, depicting a roguish shepherdess and a smiling bagpipe player (fig. 1). With its air of frivolity, Laughing Man with Flute shares an unmistakeable kinship with these shepherds, both of which are dated to around 1623.9 The laughing flute-player, however, is not a characteristic shepherd type. Sporting a wide-brimmed hat with long feathers and a tasteful white collar, he indeed projects a more urban appearance. This may be related to the painting’s early date: the iconography of shepherds playing flutes or other musical instruments was new at that time, and was not yet so clearly defined.10 By the time the imagery of the shepherd type had become better known and more clearly defined, Peter Wtewael had already put away his paintbrushes for good.