I was pleased to receive in the mail recently a copy of Pierpaolo Polzonetti’s Italian Opera in the Age of the American Revolution, published in 2011 by Cambridge University Press. The cover of this excellent book displays a copy of our striking oil painting of The Quaker meeting: woman preaching from a tub by Egbert van Heemskerck.
Given the delicate and sometimes strained relationship that Quakers have had with music—especially in the religious movement’s earliest years—few would suspect that the cover of a book about Italian opera would be graced with an image of a Quaker meeting. Yet 18th- and 19th-century Europeans were fascinated by Pennsylvanian Quakers. Voltaire is noted for extolling their virtues in a series of letters. And when Benjamin Franklin went to Paris he was mistaken for being a Quaker and did little to correct the misunderstanding. Polzonetti’s book explores issues of American identity, including the depiction of Quakers, through the receptive lens of Italian opera.
Our painting by van Heemskerck is one of several from the late 17th century by the Dutch artist living in England. These were copied frequently, especially as engravings. It seems depictions of Quakers were popular no matter the medium, and in this case, at least, the treatment is dramatic, even worthy of opera.