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An Allegory of Music

Werner Jacobsz. van den Valckert


This painting is thought to represent an allegory of music. Four figures are singing from a book and sheets of music. The female figure probably represents Euterpe, the Muse of music from ancient Greek mythology, because she is wearing her traditional attribute, flowers, in her hair. On the left, a white boy turns in the direction of the viewer with his mouth open indicating his singing. On the far right appears an older white man with a beard and glasses. Van den Valckert was known as a portraitist and his skill in describing a human figure is obvious in the description of the wrinkled skin and long beard. The way the boy and the old man frame the composition likely points to an underlying moral message of living a harmonious life from childhood to old age consistent with the theme of music. Our attention is captured especially by the Black man as he is the only figure in the painting shown frontally as opposed to in profile and he looks directly back at the viewer. Music is a common subject in Dutch painting of the 17th century. Allegorical representations of music are, however, rather rare, especially multi-figure compositions as is the case here. Very unusual is the inclusion of a Black man in an allegory of music. This may well reflect the practice at the time of forcing Africans and other people of color or non-Western Europeans to serve as musicians, especially in military orchestras. There exists a long tradition of a connection between Africans and people of African descent and music in Europe. This still is a very under-researched aspect of the experience of Africans in Europe in the early modern period and a rich field for further research.