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 academic, Mannerist school of the 16th century. 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 Orazio 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 holds the body of the lute––an instrument traditionally associated with lust––gently in her hands and close to her thoughtfully inclined head.
The Lute Player was probably painted sometime between 1612 and 1620, when Gentileschi was based in Rome––a hotbed of musical experimentation and performance providing inspiration for the city’s numerous 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 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.
Credit: Exhibition overview from museum website.