This young woman looks at us from the corner of her eye and smiles with closed lips. Holding the plectrum between the thumb and index finger of her right hand, and with the little finger of her left hand gracefully in the air, she plays her small cittern, a simple stringed instrument that was especially popular among women.1 A bit of the bench on which she sits and casts her shadow is visible at lower right. The background is a uniform grey-brown, which is darker at left, running to a lighter shade at right. This progression contrasts effectively with the figure: the illuminated side stands out against the darker background and her shaded back against the lighter background, where Steen’s elegant signature catches the eye at the height of her upper arm at far right. Otherwise nothing distracts our attention from the woman’s face and her agile fingers. Unusually for Steen, there is almost no extra detail, and this makes such direct contact between the woman and the viewer all the more intriguing.2
The young woman’s gaze is very similar to that of another halflength figure, the Girl Eating Oysters (see inv. no. 818). Their smiling faces both seem to be based on the same model, a woman with a high forehead, slightly protruding lower lip and rounded chin. In the past, the woman with the cittern was thought to be Steen’s wife, Grietje van Goyen,3 but her features seem more generalised and appear frequently in the artist’s oeuvre.4 Over her pink-brown dress, the woman wears a black fur cape tied with ribbons, which reveals nothing of her neck. The remains of red lake on the pinkbrown colour seem to indicate that the dress originally had a somewhat redder hue. The sleeves of her white undergarment extend from her dress, leaving her lower arms partly uncovered. Loose ribbons hang from her left sleeve. She wears a black scarf, tied beneath her chin, over a white cap from which wisps of ginger hair escape. Steen suggested the colour of her eyes by means of a single stroke of blue in her left eye.
Woman Playing the Cittern is rather thinly painted, despite the occasional use of particularly forceful brushstrokes. In many places the paint was applied wet-in-wet. This expressive manner of painting seems far removed from the ‘fine painting’ technique seen in Girl Eating Oysters. The broad brushwork is especially clear in the clothing, whereas a very precise manner of painting characterises the face, hands and cittern. Steen suggested the gleaming wood of the instrument with subtle highlights along the edges. The tuning head, which ends in a delicately carved female head decorated with a red ribbon, is a particularly lovely detail. The combination of both loose and precise painting styles suggests that this work originated in the early 1660s, after Steen’s Leiden period of ‘fine painting’ and just after his move to Haarlem.5 Another work that probably dates from this period is Steen’s Drinking Couple (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum), which also combines loose to finely precise brushwork.6 The two paintings are strikingly similar in the way the voluminous female figure is placed in the picture plane. In the Rijksmuseum picture, however, the young woman drinking from a flute glass is not alone, but in the somewhat importunate company of a man holding a jug.7 The erotic overtones of this small panel are heightened by the bed in the background.
The message is less explicit in the picture of the young cittern player than in the case of the drinking girl.8 Even so, depictions of attractive young female musicians are often full of symbolism referring to love.9 The Utrecht artists Hendrick ter Brugghen and Gerrit van Honthorst were the first to paint half-length, musicmaking figures who radiate high-spirited fun (inv. no. 1107), a type of composition borrowed from the repertoire of Caravaggio and his Italian followers. For example, Woman Playing the Cittern by Caesar van Everdingen of c.1637–1640 (Rouen, Musée des Beaux-Arts) clearly has erotic connotations.10 It depicts an attractive young woman with bared breasts, playing her instrument behind a balustrade. In Gabriel Metsu’s Woman Tuning her Cittern, Approached by a Man of c.1659–1662, the man leans over the young woman’s chair to offer her a glass of wine.11 The violin lying on the table suggests that they are about to play a duet. In other compositions, it is the viewer himself who is invited to join in the woman’s music-making by the suggestive inclusion of an empty chair or an abandoned instrument. Making music usually refers to love, the concord of playing musical instruments together, and sometimes the comfort to be derived from the dulcet tones of music.12
It is not immediately apparent how Steen’s Woman Playing the Cittern should be interpreted. Is she inviting the viewer to make music with her? The young woman has no more than her coy smile to entice us. Her high-necked clothing looks chaste, and her black head-covering is of the type Steen generally reserved for his old crones, such as the singing grandmother in ‘As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young’ (inv. no. 742).13 Is the joke, in fact, the contrast between the musician’s clothing and her rather flirtatious glance? Or does her attire actually have erotic implications? This might be suggested by a well-known print by Wenzel Hollar of 1643, in which a young female personification of Winter wears a similar head-covering and is wrapped in fur.14 Thus protected from the cold, her skin remains soft and pleasing to the touch, as revealed by the inscription: ‘The cold, not cruelty makes her weare / In Winter, furrs and Wild beasts haire / For a smoother skinn at night / Embraceth her with more delight.’ Does this also apply to the cittern player? This picture demonstrates that it is not always easy to determine precisely how Steen intended us to interpret his paintings.15