Music in the Time of Vermeer: The Duarte Family-the "Antwerp Parnassus"

A Lady Seated at a Virginal, Johannes Vermeer
A Lady Seated at a Virginal
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1670-1675
Oil on canvas, 51.5 x 45.5 cm.
National Gallery, London

Historical documentation provides ample evidence that the Duarte family entertained important relations with the most influential Dutchman of culture of the time, Constantijn Huygens. Their relation was principally based on a reciprocal interest for music and painting. But more importantly for Vermeer scholarship, the names of both men are tied to that of Vermeer.

Circumstantial evidence suggests that Huygens was aware of the painting of Johannes Vermeer and it is also possible that he brokered the sale of the "young lady playing the clavecin, with accessories"—perhaps the painting to the left—to Diego Duarte, which was listed in the inventory of Duarte's art collection in 1682. To give some sort of idea of the Duarte's stature as an art collector, it is enough to know that he possessed more than two hundred paintings by masters such as Holbein, Raphael, Titian, Rubens and Van Dyck. Duarte was also an accomplished musician and composer. Thus, although unproven, it is not impossible that the elevated number of musical themes in Vermeer's works (about a third of his paintings) was to some degree owing to his relationship with these eminent men of culture.

The Duarte Family

Gaspar Duarte was born in 1584 and died in 1653. His parents were so-called "marranos," or Jews who converted under pressure to Catholicism.1 Marranos were nevertheless mistrusted and closely observed. The Duarte family left Portugal and settled in Antwerp to escape the infamous Inquisition. Musical education must have played a significant role in their private lives. Gaspar and his sister Francisca had apparently reached musical proficiency, Gaspar, at the harpsichord. He later maintained close contacts with the renowned makers of harpsichords Ruckers and Couchet. Francisca's exceptional voice led the famous Dutch poet Pieter Corneliszoon Hooft to call her the "Paris nightingale."

John Evelyn John Evelyn click here to view the diaries of Evelyn

Gaspar, together with his son Diego, conducted an enormously successful commerce in jewelry, especially diamonds, for which Antwerp is renowned to this day. Furthermore, he dealt in the sales of artwork. In 1609 he married Catharina Rodrigues (1584-1644). All their six children – Diego (or Jacob, 1612-1691), Leonora (b. 1610), Catharina (b. 1614), Gaspar jr. (1616-1685), Francisca jr. (b. 1619), and Isabella (1620-1685) – received a thorough musical education. They learned to sing, play the harpsichord, the virginals, the lute and the viola da gamba as was usual in well-to-do-circles of musical amateurs during that time. Unfortunately, three of the four sisters – Leonora, Catharina and Francisca – died in the wave of pestilence that spread through the city of Antwerp in 1678.

The family's musical circle, and the concerts they held for their guests became well-known and were frequented by eminent persons such as the famous Dutch poetess Anna Roemers Visscher, the French composer Nicholas Lanier, the professional singer Anne de la Barre together with her husband Joseph and William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle with his wife Margaret.

While traveling through the Low Countries, the famous English diarist, John Evelyn, wrote on 6 October 1641 an account of a concert held in the Duarte's luxurious palace on the Meir in Antwerp:

"In the evening I was invited to Signor Duerts [Duarte], a Portuguese by nation, an exceeding rich merchant, whose palace I found to be furnish'd like a prince's; and here his three daughters, entertain'd us with rare musick, both vocal and instrumental, which was finish'd with a handsome collation."2

William Swann, the English husband of Constantijn Huygens's best musician friend, Utricia Ogle, also wrote words of praise for the Duarte family concerts.

"For Monsieur de Warty [English corrupt spelling] and his daughters I have heard to the fulle. Indeed they make a fyne consort and harmony for luts, viols, virginals and voyces. I doubt not but you will fynde great contentement by hearing them."3

Huygens, together with his sons Constantijn (jr.) and Christiaan, always enjoyed visiting the Duarte's on their travels from The Hague en route to Paris. In these musical gatherings, Huygens accompanied singing with the lute or theorbo. Duarte shared interests in science, literature and painting with both Huygens. In his voluminous correspondence, Huygens always referred with great warmth to "la famille musicale" or "la maison musicale"4 and called their home a true "Antwerp Parnassus," for it was known that Huygens was rather disappointed in the musical culture of his fatherland.

Francisca, Leonora and Catharina were, together with their brother Diego, the most devoted to music. Francisca was frequently mentioned in the correspondence of both Constantijn and Christiaan. In a letter from the 1630s, Constantijn recounts that she sang duets with a certain Maria Tesselschade Visscher (the younger sister of the earlier mentioned poetess Anna Roemers Visscher) to the harpsichord accompaniment of Dirk Sweelinck, son of Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, the composer and organist in Amsterdam. The beauty of their vocal combination led Huygens's brother-in-law to write an epigram in their honor, titled Ad Tesselam et Duartam cantu nobiles. In addition to her lovely voice, Francisca was also a talented harpsichord player.

Beside Dutch vocal music, the Duarte family had a keen interest in the latest compositions from Italy and France intensified by Huygens's own interest in everything that was new in the musical life, especially at the Royal court in Paris. Thus, Gaspar and Huygens maintained a lively exchange about Italian "madrigaletten" or the latest French airs by Michel Lambert, one of the leading musicians in the 1660s and "Maître de la musique de la chambre du Roi." The Duartes introduced Lambert's airs to Antwerp suggesting both the exceptional musical skill and international interests of the family

In addition to singing and playing various instruments, Leonora and her brother Diego are documented as composers. Diego's inventory of artworks listed a Virginal Player by Vermeer, presumably the Lady Seated at the Virginal. Leonora wrote a set of seven abstract fantasies, called Symphonies, for a consort of five viols. The library of Christ Church College in Oxford contains a copy of the manuscripts made by a professional music scribe but with the titles above written by Leonora's father Gaspar.5 The pieces display such a remarkably talent for a musical amateur that we may suppose Leonora must had a teacher for composition, perhaps even the English composer John Bull who lived in Antwerp since c. 1615.6

Diego quite certainly received the same musical education as his sisters and brother, although it remains unclear which instruments he may have played since he did not habitually perform before guests.7 But it is known that he set various poems by William Cavendish (1650s) to music as well as the psalm paraphrases of Godeau (1673-85), which he dedicated to Huygens. Non of these works, probably for one voice with basso continuo, has survived8

When Diego Duarte died 1691 without successors, his family died out with him, and the artistic and musical "Antwerp Parnassus" vanished forever.

  1. see Rudolf Rasch, "The Antwerp Duarte Family as Musical Patrons," in Orlandus Lassus and His Time. Colloquium Proceedings Antwerpen 24.-26.08.1994, p. 416.
  2. ibid. p. 415 with note 1.
  3. ibid. p. 415 with note 2.
  4. see Edwijn Buijsen, "Music in the Age of Vermeer", in: M. C. van der Sman (ed.), Dutch Society in the Age of Vermeer, Zwolle 1996, p. 116 with note 32.
  5. see Edwijn Buijsen, "Music in the Age of Vermeer," in: M. C. van der Sman (ed.), Dutch Society in the Age of Vermeer, Zwolle 1996, p. 116 with note 32.
  6. Rasch, ibid. p. 425.
  7. Rasch, ibid. p. 421, and Buijsen, ibid. p. 116.
  8. Rasch ibid. p. 422.

.by Adelheid Rech.

Diego Duarte
Gaspar Duarte sr.
Engraving by Lucas Cavendish
by Lucas Vorsterman after a lost painting

The accompanying verse is by Constantijn Huygens (signed with "Constanter", his private pseudonym.)
Duarte residence
The Duarte residence on the Meir in
Antwerp, on a picture taken in
1898 shortly before its demolition
Photograph Antwerp, City Archives
Duarte manuscript
Page 33 of the manuscript Oxford, Christ Church College, Mus. ms. 429, with seven Sinfonias by Leonora Duarte. The heading is written by Gaspar Duarte sr., the scribe of the music is unknown.
Looking Over Vermeer's Shoulder
The complete book on the technique and studio practices of Johannes Vermeer
2nd edition
eBook / PDF
+300 color illus.
Jan., 2016


more information