Instruments Left in Precarious Positions in Art

A few days ago, Classic FM posted a painting by one Carl Vilhelm Holsoe. It was a still life: paintings on the wall, a piano (apparently it’s actually a spinet) and, leaning oh-so-casually against the spinet–a cello. It’s worth noting that the guy apparently kept painting this theme: so far I’ve found at least three versions of it on Wiki art (the one below, in lower res, as well as this one featuring, dangerously, a cello, a chair, and a heat-producing1 old-school oven/furnace,The Music Room, featuring yet another cello leaning dangerously against yet another spinet), and then this onetotally diversified this time, with a woman’s back along with the obligatory spinet and dangerously placed cello. Look, Ma, I can paint the same thing differently!

Truly: never, ever leave your instrument in this position, even if it’s a violin or something. Just don’t do it! Interior with Cello and Spinet, Carl Vilhelm Holsoe. Image from Twitter. Lower resolution available here.

My mother, irate, shared the image, reminding her students that one never leaves an instrument so carelessly and one deserves everything one may get if one should leave an instrument in such a precarious position. She is, lest there be any doubt, a musician; she is one of the old school of classical freelancers who played more than one instrument (cello and bass, for her), and, for any musician, an instrument is a lot more than a tool, albeit a lovely one. It’s an extension of the self. I, naturally, pointed out that a lot of artists have painted variations on a theme of precariously placed stringed instruments–I seem to recall that the old Dutch masters were particularly cavalier with their instrument-placement, although that could just be a fondness, on their parts, for including string instruments at all. It (along with picking up my bass for the first time in years), got me thinking–and so, without further ado, I present you instruments left in precious positions in art. (Almost always western art, too. To quote Lady Bracknell, it really rather “looks like carelessness” on our parts.)

The Music Lesson, Gerard ter Borch, 1668

Gerard ter Borch the Younger’s The Music Lesson, 1668. Flickr (Ed Bierman). Go see it live and in much more glorious color at the Art Institute of Chicago.

See this? it is sort of okay to put an instrument on a table, and it’s great that the table’s covered with that cloth–although, let’s face it, it’s also way too easy for the dog to pull off if a wrong note is struck and it gets upset, and, for that matter, we only put instruments on tables when we’re gluing seams, or something similar. But the instrument’s also too big to fit entirely on a table, and that, my friends, is a never-ever-ever. Always support your instrument’s neck!

Carel Fabritius’s A View of Delft, With a Musical Instrument Seller’s Stall. 1652. Wikimedia Commons. Go see this one at the National Gallery in London.

Carl Fabritius has given us a very nice View of Delft here–some nice architecture, some curing lines, and an instrument seller who apparently treats his wares very poorly. The larger instrument–either a cello or a gamba–is okay, as long as it really, truly isn’t going to slide off. At least the neck is supported, and it isn’t sitting on its bridge or anything equally terrible. The lute, however? That’s a different story. It’s leaning against what appears to be a masonry wall, sans any kind of protection; the body angles against the covered table, nothing present at all to keep it from slipping. If it starts to slide, well, it’s doomed. At best, the lute will slide along the wall, scraping varnish off the body and the neck and fingerboard, potentially ruining neck (and fingerboard) beyond repair. The worst-case scenario is simple: the lute will slide, unchecked, until it falls, smashing into a thousand pieces of tragedy. Do not ever leave your lute in this position. Its ghost will haunt you if it falls, for it was meant to outlive you. (Let’s face it: our musicians are still playing instruments from several hundred years ago. We are only custodians, not really owners at all.)

Cornelis Saftleven’s The Duet, c. 1635. Wikimedia Commons. Visit in person at the Gemäldegalerie der Akademie der bildenden Künste in Vienna.

The guys in Saftleven’s The Duet appear to be jamming, which is great. The way they’re dumping their instruments is so not great. If you want to leave your violone (or your bass) upright, that’s great! There are actually tons of stands for exactly that purpose. (Some are, of course, better than others; use discretion when purchasing.) I also think these guys are probably drunk. Please don’t play a priceless, delicate wood instrument while drunk.

Jacob Ochtervelt: The Music Lesson

Jacob Ochtervelt’s The Music Lesson, 1671. Flickr. Visit the oh-so-bright and vivid painting at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Ochtervelt’s couple have two rather major problems: they’re a menace to their bows, and they don’t support their viol’s fingerboard. Remember: always support your fingerboard. Otherwise, you could find yourself cradling the broken neck of your instrument, and that is a repair bill you won’t soon forget. (It’s also going to be entirely your fault.) If the woman in The Music Lesson does not actually touch anything with the bow she is so cavalierly waving about, everything will be fine and dandy–for the bow. The tip is easily broken, and even the frog can be damaged without effort. For that matter, the hair is itself a delicate matter: it must be rosined, but not too much, and it must be rehaired, more frequently the more often one performs. It, too, can be ruined by injudicious handling. And, of course, the bow itself is a flimsy thing, a finely worked and slender piece of wood, made to ride the strings but not to bear any other form of weight (or work).

Evaristo Baschenis’s Musical Instruments, c. 17th century. Wikimedia Commons. Visit in person at Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels.

Evaristo Baschenis appears to be rather like Holsoe: he kept painting variations on a theme of endangered instruments. Never, ever lay one’s string instrument on its belly! Best case scenario involves a crushed or displaced bridge and some damaged finish. Worst-place…well, say fare-ye-well to your instrument.

Caravaggio’s Amor Vincit Omnia, 1602-03. Wikimedia Commons. See this live atGemäldegalerie, Berlin.

To be fair, Caravaggio cares a lot more about the model (who is likely also his lover) than he does about the instruments. But for goodness’ sake, never rest instruments on each other, and don’t just leave them lying around. They’re incredibly fragile, but they also have weight…and it’d be ever so easy to snap that lute’s fingerboard, or gouge out the neck of the violin. It’s totally possible to set up a rack for one’s instruments; we have three basses and a cello lining a wall in my mother’s studio. (There are also some folk instruments on the walls–a banjo, a dulcimer, a ukulele.) But one has to know what one’s doing to make a good rack, and one has to make it strong, and also make it soft, so that the wood won’t chafe. That, of course, is why we’ve lined ours. No damaged wood for us.

Orazio Gentileschi’s The Lute Player. Wikimedia Commons. Go visit it at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Orazio Gentileschi has a beautiful image here, of a musician at her lute. From her expression, and the way in which she’s handling the instrument, I’d say she’s tuning–it really hasn’t changed (at all) in the centuries we’ve been playing stringed instruments. I’d also guess that she’s a good musician, one with a good deal of care–for her lute. Not so much, I’d say, for her violin, its neck unsupported over the edge of the table, its body sidling towards the edge, and her bow, lying under the violin, even more ready to slip into oblivion. Perhaps our lady didn’t play violin at all; it may have been Gentileschi’s addition, and he was a wild one: boon companion and fellow-troublemaker with Caravaggio, and, later, Artemisia Gentileschi’s father. Her lutenists are always respectful of their instruments.

The Terrace; Artist Unknown (c. 1660)

The Terrace, c. 1660. Anonymous Dutch painter of the Delft School. Flickr. Visit it in person at the Art Institute of Chicago.

The Terrace‘s painter, the Art Institute tells us, has yet to be identified, although they posit one Ludolf de Jongh of Rotterdam as a possibility. It’s an interesting painting; one is rather pulled into it, wondering who the couple on the terrace are, and what they’re saying, and if they know that there’s another couple, hanging out the window nearby, possibly spying on them, or maybe flirting. And, of course, they have some string instruments in the foreground–one of which looks a hairsbreath away from sliding off the chair on which it never should have been placed and smashing to its death on the floor. I doubt I could even look at this painting without wincing. It’s got a lovely sense of spatiality, of distance and differentiation, but none of that makes up for the instruments that were most likely destroyed in its making.

Anthonie Palamedesz’s Vanitas Stilleven, c. 1630-1660. Wikimedia Commons. Visit in person at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

This is a terrific dark still-life. Nice skull, nice hourglass. Lots of creepy touches. I am unsure, however, if the viol on the books is supposed to be one of said creepy touches, or if it’s just upsetting to those who play stringed instruments. I mean, that’s a goner, there.

Thomas Gainsborough’s Ann Ford (later Mrs. Philip Thicknesse), 1760. Wikimedia Commons. Visit it in person at the Cincinnati Art Museum.

I don’t have a clue what’s holding up Ann Ford’s viola da gamba, and that terrifies me. Maybe there’s an invisible servant just holding it there to look pretty? I really hope it wasn’t propped up on yet another pile of books on yet another chair, because that would have been that.

Gerrit Dou’s A Woman Playing a Clavichord, c. 1665. Wikimedia Commons. Visit in person at Dulwich Picture Gallery in London.

Love the painting, don’t love that there is no support at all for that poor instrument. (The curly thing to the side? It appears to belong to the basket with the screaming monkey, or whatever that thing is.) A good stand need not detract at all from the aesthetic beauty of one’s instrument. In fact, I’d say that it can even increase that beauty, as the instrument can thus be displayed for all the world as the fine piece of functional art that it truly is. Don’t just lean it on a table to die a dreadful death against the floor.

Gabriël Metsu’s Woman at her Toilette, c. 1660. Wikimedia Commons. Visit in person at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California.

When at one’s toilette, one should have the presence of mind not to lean one’s instrument leaning against a chest. It may fall, and one’s instrument is definitely worth more than one’s makeup. Even expensive makeup.

Vermeer’s A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal, c. early 1670s. Wikimedia Commons.

Never lean your gamba (or viol, or bass, or other stringed instrument) against a…wall. Really, Vermeer doesn’t even bother to pull out the piles of books and random chairs; this poor, endangered instrument is just leaving against a wall. Looks like it might also be close to a window–and a string instrument should never be in direct light or right next to a source of hot or cold air. Like several other painters featured in this walk of shame, Vermeer has other paintings of bad instrument care, including The Music Lesson and The Concert, both with viols or gambas lying half-hidden under things on their backs–easy to trip over, and, if the back is curved…well, easy to damage even without tripping.

Jan Verkolje’s 1674 An Elegant Couple (A Musical Interlude). Wikipedia.

And here, wonder of wonders: Jan Verkolje gives us a gamba, safely set in a stand. It’s not on a pile of books or haphazardly sliding towards oblivion off a table. It isn’t about to tumble off a chair. It waits, safe and snug, until it will once again be played.

One never knows. It may still be played to this day.


1 Never leave an instrument of any kind directly by any direct source of heat (or cool air, for that matter). Always use a dampit when the humidity levels are too low, and never leave any instrument in the car.

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