A Moment in Time: Girl with a Recorder
At the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in the North Building, there is a small gallery you may know as the Laufer Gallery or the gallery with the deep purple walls. You may have wondered why this gallery might be titled the “Laufer Gallery” rather than having a specific exhibition title. This is because this gallery space is sponsored by the Laufer family to showcase historical European artworks, many of which were donated by the Laufers themselves.
Dr. S.T. Laufer, his wife Irmgard Laufer, and their children, immigrated to Halifax from Zurich, Switzerland in 1938. With them they brought a collection of historical European art, much of which was later donated to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. An associated endowment continues to fund the ongoing work at the gallery as well as the maintenance and preservation of the Laufer Family collection of art is continued today by the children and grandchildren of S.T. and Irmgard Laufer.
In Europe, the printing press had been in use for over 100 years and by the 1600s, Dutch Genre and Landscape painting began to flourish. Just as the printing press democratized society with the magnitude of its informational output, the 1500s and 1600s saw the urbanization of European cities and the development of a new class of citizens who were more educated, had more money and access to cultural offerings. By 1650, more than 70% of the population lived in cities and towns rather than the country and what we now know as the middle class was beginning to flourish. This urbanization and democratization of society began to diverge from religious iconography, giving rise to secular art such as landscape, seascape, still life, and genre painting. Patrons from this new class, mostly merchants and professionals, took an interest in works of art that reflected their everyday lives and values.
Often, when people are depicted in these portraits, they have no indicated identity. They are not royalty or religious subjects but are nameless everyday people. While seemingly realistic, these paintings are also frequently filled with disguised symbolism, with everyday objects providing symbolic and allegorical content that conveyed proverbs, puns, and moral or religious messages that would be easily understood by the viewers at the time.
A newfound interest in evoking the immediacy and the humanity of a moment rather than a remastered history dovetails with a series of cultural events in the 17th century which had an impact on the way people perceived everyday life and their place within it. The personal experience of time was beginning to undergo a dramatic change as Galileo’s principle concept of a clock was improved upon and was eventually applied to wrist watches in the late 1700s. This may seem simple, but this innovation was expressed in things like transportation systems, navigation as well as a shift in consciousness towards an awareness of the momentary quality of everyday life.
This quality is illustrated well in the painting Girl with a Recorder, c.1650. The painting depicts the sitter looking out at the viewer, her hands positioned and ready to play a song on her recorder as if we had interrupted her mid-action. A strong use of light and dark creates a dramatic contrast which gives us a hint that it may be somewhat posed. The expression on the girl’s face is not one which we might associate with formal portraiture, suffused as it is with laughter or surprise. We are further convinced of the painting’s naturalism by highlighting the distinctive features of the girl’s face, as to suggest that she was a real, living person.
The experiences of the growing middle class in 17th century Europe were documented in portraits like these, depicting personal, professional, and domestic tasks, and highlighting an interest in capturing a moment in time. Today, we are used to photographing our friends and families on our phones but consider that some of our fascination with the documentation of the here and now came from portraits like these.
Unknown (after Jan Miense Molenaer)
Girl with a Recorder, c. 1650
Oil on canvas, 69.3 x 55.1 cm
Gift of Mrs. Canon Morris, Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1932.