Folk-Fiddlers in the Art Works of Dutch Masters

Stuart Eydmann’s fascinating blog post about the early Scottish fiddler, Patie Birnie, reminded me of a project I’ve had on the back-burner since visiting Amsterdam in January concerning depictions of folk-fiddlers in paintings by artists from the Dutch Golden Age. The image of the fiddler was evidently a popular theme among seventeenth-century Dutch artists, with a profusion of examples by the like of Rembrandt, Dusart, Steen, Molenaer, and Vermeer, to name just five. Indeed, there is a webpage dedicated to Vermeer and the fiddle at essentialvermeer.com.

My primary interest in this ouevre is that these seventeenth-century paintings may prove useful in my study of Scottish fiddle performing practices, of which precious little is known before the eighteenth century. The fiddle, with its close association with dancing, was not a popular instrument in seventeenth-century Scotland, at least according to the prevailing narrative. The influence of the Kirk was certainly strong, but our knowledge of the likes of Birnie and MacPherson (admittedly late seventeenth-century fiddlers) suggests that the fiddle was played in spite of Protestant protestations. Only in the eighteenth century did the fiddle (and dancing) become officially acceptable in Scotland.

Accordingly, as iconographic evidence, these seventeenth-century depictions reveal a lot about how early fiddlers held the instrument and the contexts in which they performed. Despite being evidence of Dutch rather than Scottish practice, they can, with due care and caution, be interpreted to reveal the way Scottish fiddlers might have played the instrument. The popularity of Dutch Universities among Scottish students in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is well documented, and demonstrates the potential for cultural exchange.

The above example by Molenaer features not one but two fiddlers (one to the right and one in the distance) and reveals not only how the instrument was held but the contexts in which the music was performed. The relaxed posture of the fiddler on the right highlights how comparatively limited his left-hand technique must have been (in comparison to the modern hold which allows for high position work), and while the fiddler in the distance is playing for dancing, the fiddler on the right appears to be playing mostly for his own satisfaction and the pleasure of those nearby who are listening (either intently or distractedly). The combination of humble dwellings and social ease presents the happy peasant in a non-urban setting, yet still some way from the sentimental rural idyll.

This depiction of a blind fiddler by Rembrandt is roughly contemporary with the Molenaer, and shows a left-handed fiddler who performed in return for payment. The man in the background at the left-hand-side probably accompanied the fiddler, and is seen approaching a dwelling to request that the fiddler play for those inside.

This example by Jan Steen from the mid-century depicts a village dance, on perhaps what was a festival day (the man being lead away on the left-hand-side looks to be inebriated, suggesting a day of excess). The fiddler is to be found resting his back against the tree, playing for dancing along with a piper. The detail is poorer in this painting, but it is still possible to discern the same low arm or chest hold familiar from the preceding paintings.

From towards the end of the century, this depiction by Dusart features the most animated fiddler of those surveyed here. Again playing for dancing, his upright stance and bowed legs portray an engagement with the music he performs. It is possible that he and the man dancing form a double-act, with performances rewarded by the gift of food, drink, accommodation, or money. While when standing, the fiddler more closely resembles a modern performer, the instrument is still far from being held under the chin.

The final painting I want to mention is from much later (early nineteenth century) and shows a fiddler playing at what is possibly a Dutch penny wedding. Surprisingly, the fiddle is still held across the arm rather than firmly under the chin, and the accompaniment of triangle is novel to me!

Of course, I am not an art historian, and I am certain there is much more that could be decoded from these paintings. Similarly, my search for works was limited to the postcard collections of the various gallery gift shops I visited whilst in Amsterdam. None the less, I do believe that these paintings give a valuable insight into the technique of folk-fiddlers (performers of dance music) in the seventeenth century.

Only later did it strike me that I don’t know any Dutch fiddle tunes. Yet, from the evidence of these artefacts, it’s abundantly clear that the Netherlands was once home to a vibrant fiddle tradition (my apologies if it still is!). More surprisingly, a quick search on goolge revealed nothing in English about the topic (again, my apologies if there is a profusion of literature in Dutch). There’s a nice little research project in here somewhere…

Ronnie Gibson (9 August 2013)

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