Jan Sanders van Hemessen (1500-1563)

– Young Woman at Clavichord circa 1530 –

A Tale of Two Pictures

Jan Sanders van Hemessen (1500-1563) – Young Woman at Clavichord circa 1530. Jan Sanders van Hemessen (c. 1500-after 1563), was a prominent Mannerist painter in Antwerp who had studied in Italy.

Jan Sanders van Hemessen girl playing the clavichord Girl playing HarpsichordJan Sanders van Hemessen accurately depicts the clavichord’s carved key levers, Note the painted decoration of the lid, the dove tail joints. Something I have never seen in a surviving historical clavichord:the sides of the clavichord on the side and back extend beyond the bottom of the bottom of the case; and the bottom of the case side and back visible in the portrait have been sawed out and a decorative gold detail stripe is present. The clavichord is on top of a smaller stool or table.

The high right hand and its shape reveals a keyboard technique also depicted in the much later portrait which will be featured in a future article of 18th century. Also note the position of the thumbs and high right hand position. The child plays (to my perspective) Bb and c# in the left hand, and b’b in the right hand.

The upper range part of the range illustrates a high g and the bass is missing some accidental keys with the lower notes as F (no F#) G (no G#) A, Bb and then chromatically upwards, 39 notes. The keyboard’s compass compares with a description of nearly 90 years prior. Henri Arnaut de Zwolle described a fretted Renaissance clavichord in his treatise of 1440, when de Zwolle worked forn the court of Burgundy in Dijon. 37 notes F to b” (Among his six clavichord models, Theodore Robertson of North Carolina, USA builds a clavichord based on the description of an instrument by de Zwolle, 37 notes F to b”)

I believe Jan Sanders van Hemessen’s painted his daughter as the model in this paintings, Catarina vanHemessen Girl weighing gold optional Hemessen. And to my eye, van Hemessen daughter also served as the model in Woman weighing Gold. Gemäldegalerie Staatliche Museen, Berlin.

Catarina van Hemessen is the earliest female painter whom we know the name of. She also shares the noteworthy distinction as the first woman painter of whom we have signed self-portraits. Catarina’s father is believed to have been her teacher. Catarina van Hemessen became a master in the Guild of St Luke in Antwerp. The Guild of St Luke in Antwerp, one of and possibly the first city to establish this guild. The Guild of St Luke is the same guild that Harpsichord Builders belonged. Catarina van Hemessen as a Master, was the teacher of three students.

Catarina as adult self portrait playing clavichordIn her self portrait, 1548, Catarina depicts herself seated at an octave polygonal spinet, with a C/E bass short octave. Ironically, I found this painting when I google-searched with the terms Woman playing clavichord.

Again, note the position of the thumbs, and the lower hand position and the crossing on the index finger with the ring finger in the right hand and the crossing of the ring finger with the index finger in the left hand.

The 3-4-3 finger was used in scales before the time of J S Bach. According to Emanuel Bach’s Treatise of the True Art of Keyboard playing the essential use the thumb, and crossing the thumb under the fingers (the conventional fingering for scales used to this day) was originated by his father.

I share the opinion stated that the “modern” fingering and use of thumb resulted from the Well Tempered Clavier book one forays into the remote keys which Emanuel Bach established through the publication and dissemination of the Treatise.

Rossini made reference to his very aged harpsichord teacher when he was a young lad in Italy (1802) who used the same technique. Under the tutelage of this teacher Rossini practiced his cross-fingered scales. Rossini related his ancient teacher also possessed a unique ability, the ability to fall asleep while standing upright as Rossini practiced his scales.

Although the longevity of videos YouTube frequently becomes evanescent, this video  (see it while it lasts) demonstrates both the unusual high wrist, contorted right hand position as well as the thumb less 3-4-3 scale technique in the right hand as represented in these paintings.

One needs to go no further than the Applicatio found in the Clavierbuechlein fur Wilhelm Friedmann Bach, BWV 994, for an example of this technique, and one of the few examples of fingering by J S Bach written in his own hand.

Applicatio J S BachSome authors have written these fingering indications are specific proof of clavichord technique and an argument of somewhat exclusive clavichord use by J S Bach. Although J S Bach and the clavichord is given, if not exclusive, and one might be tempted to agree with this train of thought, the utility of cross finger technique is an important if not indispensable part of organ technique. I am of the opinion that these fingerings found in the Applicatio source from an exceptional exercise rather than a rule of thumb, pardon the pun, as to J S Bach’s technique.

In fact, I find this ability to play cross-fingered passages particularly indispensable in both hands, especially when I play the 32nd measure in the Prelude in Eb in the Well Tempered Clavier Book 1, BWV 825. The Gleason Organ Method contains 3 over 4 and 4 over 5 fingering exercises if memory serves me correctly, 50 years ago though it may be on my part. (Great book for clavichordists, too, and the exercises and compositions for keyboard alone (sans pedal).

As to the artist, Cartarina had gained an important patron in the 1540s in the person of Maria of Austria (also known as Queen Mary of Hungary, 1505–1558), who served as regent of the Low Countries on behalf of her brother The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Maria of Austria never enjoyed governance and asked for permission to resign several times, but the Queen succeeded in creating a unity between the Low Country provinces, as well as in securing for them a measure of independence from both France and the Holy Roman Empire.

In 1554, Catarina van Hemessen married Christian de Morien, (Chrétien de Morien), organist at Antwerp Cathedral, after her marriage she apparently gave up painting. Two years later, Christian de Morien and his wife Catarina joined the court of Maria of Austria (aka Mary of Hungary) and received an invitation to emigrate to Spain. Mary of Hungary died two years later, and left the couple a generous pension.

No later self portraits of this artist seated at the clavichord are known to exist. I mention this as more than one painter for the region many years later painted two scenes with the same model in the same room seated in one at a virginal in one painting and at a clavichord, which I will present in a future blog.

The Octave Virginal (4′ pitch) decoration consists of Flemish block print papers with the stylized sea horse pattern, typically found in the key-wells of Harpsichords built in Antwerp Ruckers. The instrument depicted is a rarity as most exterior decoration of virginals and harpsichords had painted a faux marble panels.

© 2018 Steven Foss