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In this early work by Scottish-born David Wilkie an itinerant fiddler is playing for a humble country family. Wilkie focuses on the listeners’ different expressions. Only two people seem to respond to the music: the baby and the boy on the right, who is imitating the fiddler by playing the bellows. When this picture was exhibited at the Royal Academy some critics thought the bust on the shelf represented a dissenting minister, and concluded that the family were nonconformists. The power of music to stir the passions of those supposedly suspicious of pleasure was thought to add to the painting’s subtlety.

February 2016