Jerry Seinfeld / Theodoor Rombouts

If you’re looking at this right now and understand what this means, then congratulations! You know how to read English. We read blogs, books, menus, but we read a lot more than text. We read facial expressions, we “read the room” when we get the vibe that no one wants to hear our stupid jokes, and we read art. “Reading” a painting, like an old scene painting, comes from iconography, aka “image-writing,” or the practice of using images to communicate specific ideas. Seventeenth-century Dutch paintings are filled with objects that imply religious morals and economic status.  These are the kinds of paintings that we closely associate with “still life,” like paintings of floral arrangements or images of skulls and melting candles, which are easy to look at but difficult to read.

When you’re walking through a collection as large as the Philadelphia Museum of Art, there comes a point when you breeze through a gallery without pausing on an individual piece. I think sometimes people assume that I take a careful look at every single piece and I have to admit that is not true. I’m mentioning this now because the piece that I am focusing on this week was one that I would always pass by. Take a look at it, can you blame me?

Theodoor Rombouts, “The Lute Player,” c. 1620, oil on canvas, Philadelphia Museum of Art (photo by author)

You should blame me! Look at this dude: the expression, the feather hat, the hands! This painting is called The Lute Player and it was made around 1620 by an artist named Theodoor Rombouts (1597-1637). Rombouts was a Dutch painter known for his Caravaggesque style. “Caravaggesque” refers to painting in the style of Caravaggio, who painted expressively with chiaroscuro, or use of light and dark. The Caravaggesque style in Lute Player comes out in the model’s face; the light on his face causes stark shadows around his eye and defines his cheekbones, which accents his stern expression. The musician has this focused look because he is tuning his lute, which is a notoriously difficult instrument to tune. Surrounding the lute on the table is a music book, a stein, and a pipe.

In these old Dutch paintings, it is important to read the objects like we read text because they are imbued with meaning. When looking at history paintings or these paintings from the Netherlands in the seventeenth century, each object in the work stands for something else and together form one message. If you didn’t study art history then you might miss their meaning, so I’d love to spell it out for you! A lute is a symbol of harmony, a pipe a symbol of male sexuality, and beer a symbol of merrymaking or inebriation. Thus a painting of an instrument being tuned surrounded by objects of happiness and romance creates an image of a musician devoted to love and harmony.

I would understand if Jerry Seinfeld wasn’t the first thing that came to mind after looking at Lute Player, but I could not get the combination of these two things out of my head after watching “Jerry Before Seinfeld” then having a close look at that painting. Seinfeld’s new special on Netflix is his love letter to stand-up comedy. He performed at The Comic Strip in New York, which is where he first started his career in the 1970s. The special is pure nostalgia. He retells his first joke he ever wrote, which details the plight of left-handed people and how “left” has negative associations. “You go to a party, nobody’s there. Where did everybody go? They left.” A solid first joke for a person who will become one of the most recognized names in comedy. But according to Seinfeld, he didn’t care about becoming famous or successful, he just loved comedy.

In the Renaissance the lute was the instrument of kings and queens but also heard by common people in pubs or in the streets, so it was played by the elites and also common citizens. This speaks to this specific performance by Jerry Seinfeld; he is back in the Comic Strip, sort of “uncool” Manhattan, where him and other no-name comics would go and perform. Comedy is a kind of “low” art where fart jokes fly, but it can also lead to international recognition and sold-out shows in world-class performance halls. Seinfeld’s stand-up at the Comic Strip is conflating these two worlds where an esteemed comic is getting back to his roots, showing that he is still the guy who did odd jobs and lived in a 15-ft studio apartment at heart.

Not only does Seinfeld use this special to show his story and his love for comedy with words, he uses iconographic clues to let us into his life as well. There was a point in the show where an audience member raised his hand, Seinfeld kindly said “yes sir,” and the gentleman asked about the bookends that were at the back of the stage. On the stage at the Comic Strip Seinfeld had placed a small shelf with books on top of a piano held up with Superman bookends. The man asked if they were always there and Seinfeld replied, “No I put them there. Those are mine. That’s a Superman. You know I love Superman…” and goes on to describe the figurine of baby Kal-El on Krypton getting on a rocket and landing in Kansas and his new parents finding who is now baby Superman, which are the figurines on the second bookend. The books in between, Seinfeld admits, “are a prop. They’re fake books…this is show business. I don’t actually live here.” But this small piece of imagery, like a pipe or a stein sitting on a table, communicates an entire childhood.

Screenshot of “Jerry Before Seinfeld,” Netflix

Seinfeld grew up comfortably and with no drama, he admits. He ate sugary cereals, chased the ice cream truck, was dragged around by his parents on errands, and lived out basically any other middle-class suburban experience one can think of. The only difference is that he used the banality of an easy adolescence to form his sense of humor, where later in life he’ll be able to make me laugh with five minutes about how socks escape the dryer during laundry. Thus the details of Seinfeld’s childhood that he describes in bits throughout the special are perfectly encapsulated in something as hokey and silly as novelty bookends. He was just a kid who never wanted to become an adult.

Seinfeld’s childhood dream was to be in comedy. He didn’t care about money or fame, he just wanted to make people laugh. And all of that came down to how much time he was given: “Minutes. Comedians think in minutes. How many minutes do they want? How many minutes do you have? How many minutes did you do? Anytime I wrote something that worked, I saved it in this accordion folder. Every single thing. And this is it, from 1975 until this morning.” The camera pans out during this quote to hundred of pieces of paper filling a street. If these representing how many minutes of material Seinfeld has, he could talk for days.

Screenshot of “Jerry Before Seinfeld,” Netflix

Art cherishes time; many objects inside of museums are protected and researched because they survived centuries. Let’s say you’re reading this post at your desk (pretend you have a desk): what’s on the table around you? Maybe a lamp or pens or a picture frame. Each has a function and meaning that will outlive you and even change. If someone painted your portrait at that table right now I wonder what we could “read” about you.

Lute players were often joked about for taking a very long time to tune their instrument. From the stern expression of The Lute Player’s portrait we might say that he is carefully tuning because he waiting for the perfect sound. For Seinfeld and his accordion folder surrounding him, we aren’t just being shown how much time in comedic material he has, but how he has carefully honed his craft. Seinfeld isn’t writing these jokes because he is “Seinfeld,” he’s writing them because he loves it. He’s searching for a laugh, which for him, is the perfect sound.