Painting the Impossible: Music

Albert Joseph Moore (1848–1893), The Quartet, a Painter's Tribute to Music (1868), oil on canvas, 61 × 89 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Sensory associations with music since the end of the nineteenth century have undoubtedly been greatly influenced by the progressive dissociation between music and live performance. Although ‘phonographs’ and the records which succeeded them had limited effect, once a substantial proportion of our populations were able to listen to concerts on the radio from about 1930, music was no longer associated with the sight of musicians playing instruments.

No matter how often you might attend live music now, I expect that most of the music that you hear is a purely auditory sensation, emitted from loudspeakers or headphones, long after it was originally performed. The only exceptions to this are likely to be professional musicians. The repertory of known music for any individual will also have grown steadily through the nineteenth century, before increasing enormously after 1930.

Peter Nicolai Arbo (1831–1892), Valkyrie (1869), oil on canvas, 243 x 194 cm, Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo. Wikimedia Commons.

This has odd effects. Personally, although I often associate specific music with images, it seldom works the other way around, in ‘hearing’ in my mind music which I associate with a specific image. Strangely, the only music which I tend to imagine in this way is Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries – far from being a favourite! – with paintings and images of valkyries, such as Arbo’s evocative second version of Valkyrie (1869).

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), Young Girls at the Piano (1892), oil on canvas, 116 x 90 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Even splendid paintings of single instrumental performance, such as Renoir’s soft-focus Young Girls at the Piano (1892), leave me without so much as a note in my auditory imagination.

Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568–1625) and Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), Hearing (1617-18), oil on panel, 64 x 109.5 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

Not only that, but few paintings about music and musicians actually show an instrument being played. Jan Brueghel the Elder’s magnificent allegory of Hearing (1617-18), with figures painted by Rubens, is also remarkable for the presence of so many unplayed instruments. There is a small performance going on in the back room at the left, but the great majority of the instruments, creatures, and noise-making devices appear silent.

Jan Miense Molenaer (1609/1610–1668), Family portrait of Jan Miense Molenaer (c 1635), oil on panel, 62.3 × 81.3 cm, Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

In the past, it was much more likely that middle- and upper-class people – those more likely to see a painting – would play at least one musical instrument. Jan Miense Molenaer’s delightful portrait of his own family in about 1635 makes that point clearly, and unusually many of them are actually playing their instrument in the painting, rather than just posing with it.

Of the huge number of paintings which are associated with music, only a small number can be associated with a specific type of music, closely enough that we could identify a piece for our auditory imagination.

Adolph Menzel (1815–1905), Concert for Flute with Frederick the Great in Sanssouci (1850-52), oil on canvas, 142 x 205 cm, Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Adolph Menzel’s Concert for Flute with Frederick the Great in Sanssouci (1850-52) is one of the best examples, in that the musicians and audience can also be identified. The solo flautist is Friedrich II of Prussia (Frederick the Great), at the harpsichord is CPE Bach, and Johann Joachim Quantz, the king’s flute teacher, is at the far right. The concert shown would have taken place about a century earlier.

Edgar Degas (1834–1917), The Orchestra at the Opera (c 1870), oil on canvas, 56.5 × 45 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

A little later in the century, Edgar Degas painted a much less formal work showing The Orchestra at the Opera (c 1870), in which the bassoonist closest to the viewer is visibly playing. But do you hear any of his notes? Do you even know which piece of music they are playing? You might be able to guess, say, given the ballet taking place on the stage behind, that it might have been one of the more famous bassoon passages from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. But does the painting really tell us that?

Georgios Jakobides (1853–1932), Παιδική Συναυλία (Children’s Concert) (1894), oil on canvas, 176 × 250 cm, Εθνική Πινακοθήκη-Μουσείο Αλεξάνδρου Σούτζου National Gallery of Greece, Athens, Greece. Wikimedia Commons.

If imagining a specific piece of music is difficult, it may be easier to invoke the less musical sound resulting from a group of enthusiastic young musicians. Georgios Jakobides’ Παιδική Συναυλία (Children’s Concert) (1894) is one of the few paintings which evokes my auditory imagination, as well as being an excellent depiction of the event. Jakobides painted at least one other version of a similar motif, which I find as effective, although the image available of that painting is not as good.

Pompeo Massani (1850–1920), The Orchestra Rehearsal (date not known), oil on canvas, 70 x 100 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Another more readily imaged sound is the disorganised cacophany which sometimes ensues in practice, or preparation for a concert. Pompeo Massani’s The Orchestra Rehearsal from around 1900 captures this well, but I don’t find this as strong an evocation as Jakobides’ children.

Kamal-ol-molk (1847–1940), فارسی: عمله طرب، نوازندگان و رقصندگان عصر ناصری (a Music Group in Naser al-din Shah Ara) (1886), further details not known. Photo by مانفی via Wikimedia Commons.

Undoubtedly the greatest challenge to anyone trying to paint music is to introduce the viewer to instruments, and music, with which we are unfamiliar or even ignorant. Kamal-ol-molk’s فارسی: عمله طرب، نوازندگان و رقصندگان عصر ناصری shows a Music Group in Naser al-din Shah Ara in Iran, in 1886. Although I recognise a dulcimer – in fact a santur – at the right, I have no idea what this group might have sounded like. It is worrying, though, that the large red-haired man at the back, on the left, appears to be brandishing a knife.

When the Aesthetic Movement came to painting, after the initial blush of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, its emphasis on depicting a range of different sensory modalities seems to have been a daunting prospect.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882), The Blue Bower (1865), oil on canvas, 84 × 70.9 cm, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s The Blue Bower (1865) is a musical conundrum: in his bid to involve the sense of hearing, Fanny Cornforth (Rossetti’s lover at the time, and model for this painting) is idly caressing the strings of an exotic and excitingly ‘oriental’ musical instrument. It is likely that neither Cornforth nor Rossetti knew that this is a Korean relative of the Japanese koto, known as a gayageum or kayagum – which also happens to be related to the Persian santur.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882), Veronica Veronese (1872), oil on canvas, 109.2 × 88.9 cm, Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, DE (Samuel and Mary R. Bancroft Memorial, 1935). Courtesy of Delaware Art Museum, via Wikimedia Commons.

Rossetti’s later Veronica Veronese (1872) returns to altogether safer ground with its inclusion of a violin. By this time, the artist had become obsessed with Alexa Wilding, who was the model for this painting, who was clearly no violinist. Instead of holding the instrument, it is hung on the wall and she plays idly with its strings and bow. Only the yellow canary at the left is emitting any song.

Albert Joseph Moore (1848–1893), The Quartet, a Painter’s Tribute to Music (1868), oil on canvas, 61 × 89 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Albert Joseph Moore at least assembled The Quartet, a Painter’s Tribute to Music (1868), and had them play as he painted them, with a silent double bass on the shelf above. But this is a decidedly strange painting too: all seven figures are dressed for classical times, yet the instruments which they are playing did not exist until the sixteenth century, and the double bass developed from the violone rather later than that.

I’d also be most interested to learn of the music which might have been played by an Augustinian string quartet: the modern string quartet didn’t really exist before Haydn in the mid-1760s.

Marie Spartali Stillman (1844–1927), Fiammetta Singing (1879), watercolor, gouache and graphite on paper, 74.6 × 100.3 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

My final example of paintings of the Aesthetic Movement depicting music is altogether more credible: Marie Spartali Stillman’s Fiammetta Singing (1879). This was based on Boccaccio’s sonnet Of Fiammetta Singing, probably using Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s verse translation. Fiammetta, in red at the left, is singing to the accompaniment of a lute. Despite its multi-modal and multi-sensory devices, I’m afraid that I can’t hear her singing.

This has been a tiny selection of the innumerable paintings which have taken music as their theme, and I fear a demonstration of how difficult it is for a painter to evoke a musical response in the viewer. This does not detract from any of these wonderful paintings, but illustrates the limitations in human sensory association. Or at least it does for someone who has lived entirely in the era since music was separated from the instruments of its creation. Maybe it was different before the twentieth century.

(This article is dedicated to the composer David Ward: I hope that you enjoy it.)