Reading visual art: 53 Music A

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

If music can evoke mental images, then can paintings put music in our head, even a little earworm, perhaps? It’s a challenge that many painters have risen to. In today’s and tomorrow’s articles I’ll show some examples and you can judge how successful they are. Unless you’re one of the few who has synaesthesia, in which one sense evokes sensations in another, visual art is a strange and challenging way to represent music.

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Michiel Coxie (1499–1592), Saint Cecilia (1569), oil on canvas, 136 x 104 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

In the Renaissance, music was strongly associated with the church. Even there it was often associated with sin and the devil, as shown in several of the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. One acceptable route for music festivals and more secular concerts was through Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of music and musicians. Although many paintings associate her with organs and musical instruments, few show her in concert with others. In 1569, just before the first written record of a musical festival in her honour, Michiel Coxie painted her, in Saint Cecilia, playing a harpsichord, with voice parts being read by children as a young angel sings his wings out.

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Lavinia Fontana (1552–1614), Apollo and the Muses (1598-1600), oil on panel, 67 × 94 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Another acceptable association was with the Muses. Lavinia Fontana’s unusual painting of Apollo and the Muses from 1598-1600 sets this fairly standard mythological scene at night, as an al fresco music concert complete with Pegasus and (at the top left) a flying nude. The explanation lies in it having originally been the painted panel cover of a spinet, giving it a peculiarly strong association with music. It was later removed from the instrument, the upper right added, and was put on display above a door.

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Hendrick van Balen (1573–1632), Minerva and the Nine Muses (c 1610), oil on panel, 78 x 108 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Hendrick van Balen’s Minerva and the Nine Muses (c 1610) shows the Muses seated, forming a small orchestra with their contemporary rather than classical instruments. Minerva, at the left, is being engaged by a tenth woman, whose identity isn’t clear. In the far distance, just beyond a waterfall, Pegasus is about to take off from a high cliff. Above there are two magpies, implying the imminent arrival of the Pierides.

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Gerard van Honthorst (1592–1656), Concert on a Balcony (1624), oil on canvas, 168 × 178 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

In the Dutch Golden Age, music broke out of seedy dens of iniquity into mainstream culture. Learning to play a musical instrument, and playing to others, was fashionable, as shown in Gerard van Honthorst’s merry Concert on a Balcony from 1624.

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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 many of them are actually playing their instrument in the painting, rather than just posing with it.

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Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675), The Concert (c 1663-66), oil on canvas, 72.5 x 64.7 cm, location not known (stolen from Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, MA, on 18 March 1990). Wikimedia Commons.

Music features in several of Vermeer’s paintings, in The Concert (c 1663-66) more particularly than any other. Tragically, on 18 March 1990 this and a dozen other works were stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, MA, and it remains unrecovered.

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Melchior d’Hondecoeter (1636–1695), Concert of the Birds (1670), oil on canvas, 84 x 99 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

There was even an anthropomorphic fad for paintings showing gatherings of birds ‘singing’ together, and I think Melchior d’Hondecoeter’s Concert of the Birds from 1670 is probably the best example of these entertaining paintings.

While better-off families could muster small musical ensembles, to stretch to professionals and orchestras took the far greater resources of nobility or royalty.

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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.

When you’re King Friedrich II of Prussia (Frederick the Great) and you want to play your flute to your court, why not get the composer CPE Bach to accompany you on the harpsichord, and your flute teacher, Johann Joachim Quantz, to listen at the far right? Adolph Menzel’s Concert for Flute with Frederick the Great in Sanssouci (1850-52) re-imagines this royal concert, which must have taken place about a century earlier. The artist’s attention to detail extends to the costumes and candlelight.

Édouard Manet (1832–1883), Music in the Tuileries (1862), oil on canvas, 76.2 × 118.1 cm, The National Gallery, London, and the Hugh Lane, Dublin. Courtesy of National Gallery (CC), via Wikimedia Commons.
Édouard Manet (1832–1883), Music in the Tuileries (1862), oil on canvas, 76.2 × 118.1 cm, The National Gallery, London, and the Hugh Lane, Dublin. Courtesy of National Gallery (CC), via Wikimedia Commons.

The best-known painting of an outdoor concert is also one in which the musicians aren’t visible: Édouard Manet’s Music in the Tuileries from 1862. Packed into its rhythmic layout of trees are the members of the fashionable Parisian crowd, who have come to listen to the music, socialise, and chat. Historians have identified many of Manet’s circle among the crowd: the poet Baudelaire, novelist Gautier, composer Offenbach, Fantin-Latour the painter, and the artist’s brother Eugène, a painter who married Berthe Morisot, the Impressionist.

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

On the other side of the Channel, Albert Joseph Moore assembled The Quartet, a Painter’s Tribute to Music in 1868. This is a strange painting: all seven figures are dressed for classical times, yet the instruments they’re playing didn’t 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.

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James Tissot (1836–1902), Hush! (c 1875), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester, England. Wikimedia Commons.

James Tissot’s Hush! from about 1875 shows a musical performance in a private residence, no doubt attended by the cream of society. Among the honoured guests at the right are two from the Asian continent, but the distinguished host is still awaited, their chair empty, and the violinist poised to begin her command performance once they’re ready.

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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 less formal work showing The Orchestra at the Opera (c 1870), where the bassoonist closest to the viewer is visibly playing. For once we can guess what we should be hearing here, given the ballet taking place on the stage behind. Could it be one of the more famous bassoon passages from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, perhaps?