• The Cello in Art (14) – Edwin Holgate

While writing my preceding post on Canadian artists, I read through my copy of The McMichael Canadian Art Collection (1989) and chanced upon this painting.  The Cellist (1923) is by Edwin Holgate (1892-1977).  Holgate became associated with the landscape-oriented Group of Seven after its heyday and is primarily known for his portraits.  Not perhaps one of the more extrovert examples of the cello in art in these occasional postings, but I like its strong lines and colour palette.  Holgate also brings a physical intensity and an almost 3-D realism to his study of a cellist engrossed in her playing.

• The Cello in Art (13) – Rippingille

On my recent visit to Bristol, I popped into the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.  It’s a spacious building, though not overly large, yet it manages to encompass the natural sciences and world cultures as well as a selection of art forms across the centuries.  Today it’s best known perhaps for letting Banksy loose on its exhibition spaces in 2009, and right there in the entrance hall is a stone carving of an angel with an upturned can of red paint on its head.  Upstairs, there are some fine examples of British painting and sculpture across the centuries, and, small though it is, the selection of works by Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Peter Lanyon, Howard Hodgkin, Richard Long and others works well as a taster.

I knew nothing about the Bristol School of Artists, which has a gallery more or less to itself.  Having seen the exhibition of work by The Glasgow Boys at the Royal Academy last year and the excellent play The Pitmen Painters a few years ago and last year’s superlative ITV documentary about the Ashington Group in Northumberland, I was curious to see what the much earlier group in Bristol was about.  It appears to have been a loose association of artists, amateurs as well as professionals, who liked nothing better than to go out of an evening on sketching parties to local beauty spots like the Avon Gorge.  Its heyday was in the 1810s and 1820s, and its chief luminaries were genre and landscape painters such as Edward Bird (1772-1819), Francis Danby (1793-1861) and Edward Villiers Rippingille (1789-1859).

I was particularly drawn to this small oil painting by Rippingille, mainly because it offered a new image to add to my occasional posts on ‘The Cello in Art’ (see below).  This portrait (c.1829) is of a well-to-do young man, dressed ‘to the nines’.  He was John Whitmore Isaac from Worcester (1808-84), so he was then about 21.  Isaac is holding the instrument naturally, which suggests that he may well have been a cellist himself.  His bow-hold is not on the ‘frog’ but further along the stick, which recalls the practices of the 18th century, as demonstrated in a portrait of the composer and cellist Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805).

Yet Isaac’s bow is a modern one, so no doubt he changed his bow-hold at some point to that which had become standard during his own lifetime.  A bound volume of music by Haydn is on the music stand, with what look like loose sheets protruding.  If this was a real volume in Isaac’s possession, what music did it contain?  String quartets?  Trios?  Keyboard sonatas?

There the story might have ended – a delightful and unassuming portrait of a youthful West Country gentleman and cellist – had I not perused the search engines a little further.

John Whitmore Isaac’s name subsequently came up as a one-time owner of one of the most famous Stradivari cellos, the ‘Mara’ cello of 1711.  Isaac bought it, however, at a much later date than that of his portrait above – 1860 – and the ‘Mara’ stayed in his  family for over 25 years.  Did Isaac play Haydn quartets on it too, I wonder?  The ‘Mara’ then seems to have languished away from the concert platform until it came into the possession of Anthony Pini in 1950 and then into the hands of Amedeo Baldovino in 1954.  Baldovino almost lost the instrument when the ship in which he was travelling was sunk in the River Plate in 1963.  Unsurprisingly, the cello suffered severe water damage.  It was repaired for £1000 by the firm of W. E. Hill, which had owned the instrument from time to time since buying it off the Isaac family.  The ‘Mara’ is now owned by Heinrich Schiff, who bought it in 1996.

As a further footnote, connected to my study of Lutosławski’s Cello Concerto, which Schiff first played in 1972 and recorded in 1986, it is clear that there is no link here either with the ‘Mara’.  Instead, it is likely that Schiff recorded the Lutosławski on an earlier Stradivari (‘St Senoch, Murray’, 1698), which he owned between 1981 and 1995.

• The Cello in Art (12) – Courbet

In his many self-portraits, Gustave Courbet (1819-77) gives himself the air of a wild man.  They vibrate with a visceral energy that reminds me of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610).  But I would rather trust Caravaggio than Courbet with the faithful representation of musicians and how musical instruments are held or played.

These two youthful self-portraits – above, The Cellist (1848), now in the National Museum in Stockholm, and, below, the earlier The Violoncellist (1847), now in the Portland Art Museum – are fascinating for a number of reasons.

Courbet wasn’t musical and didn’t play any instrument.  He’s also playing left-handed, which is very rare.  There’s no evidence that he was left-handed as a painter.  Was he looking in a mirror?

The way in which Courbet is ‘playing’ the cello is a joke.  For starters, he’s wearing it far too off-the-shoulder, like a louche model giving the come-on.  In fact, while his left arm gives the impression of playing, his right hand is doing nothing, just resting on the neck where it meets the body of the instrument.  His extremely long fingers, vividly painted, are in no position to stop a string for the bow to resonate.  So it’s merely a painterly pose, with no genuine attempt to portray the act of cello playing.  Commentators have remarked that the bow is a metaphor for his paint brush.  If so, then we might equally see the position of his right hand as if holding his painter’s palette.

That’s all fine and dandy, but to suggest that these paintings are a metaphor for the act of painting ignores the fact that the musical side of the equation is inadequate, not to say unreal.  Does that not have an impact on the other side of the equation, implying that his art is sloppily thought through?  That clearly is absurd.  But anyone with a knowledge of music and its performance is bound to be puzzled and dismayed by Courbet’s cavalier attitude to musical practicality or accuracy.  He might just as well have painted himself with a brush and palette, and have done with it, because the musical parallels are so deficient.  The modern equivalent is the miming on film and TV which purports to show a singer or player in the act of genuine performance when this is patently not the case.  Non-musicians often aren’t in the least bothered by such fakery, not understanding or caring how musical performance works.  Courbet shared this attitude.  Realism had its limits.

There is, however, a uniquely strange aspect to one of these self-portraits.  The earlier one, immediately above, has been vandalised.  This remains one of the most extraordinary acts in the history of pre-twentieth-century art.  For reasons which remain a mystery, Courbet cut out the blank top right quarter of the picture and substituted a new piece of canvas with an image of multiple layers of printed music on a stand.  The music is irrelevant to the main image, however, except as a prop on the side, because Courbet’s eyes are totally fixed on the viewer (or on himself, the poser/poseur, in the mirror).

If it wasn’t apparent at first glance, it quickly transpires that the musical deficiencies of this pair of paintings, and the cut-and-paste of the Portland version, are irrelevant.  Courbet has set out to disturb and disquiet, ensuring that the only reality is his own ego: that face and those hands.  Nothing else matters, as if provocatively suggesting that the viewer can get lost (or any one of numerous other rude rejoinders) if he or she doesn’t like it.  Yet we come back for more.  That’s the power of his personality.

• The Cello in Art (10) – Otto Piltz

Here’s an artist completely new to me.  Otto Piltz (1846-1910) was born in Thüringen in central Germany and lived at various times in Weimar and Munich.  Some of his work is rather sentimental in tone and subject matter, but he was evidently interested in musical topics.  He spent time during 1888-98 at his sister’s house in Sömmerda in rural Thüringen where there was a music school.  Some of his depictions of the students rehearsing in attics and quiet corners – familiar to anyone who’s been at a full-time or summer music school! – are reproduced below.  There’s also a painting of a church choir rehearsal.

Quintet is the best-known of these works, although it currently languishes in the vaults of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.  Dated between 1888 and the early 1890s, it has various titles, including Quintette der Gehilfen des Stadtpfiefers (there is a trombone hanging on the rear wall).  The poor domestic interior is typical of such group pictures and belongs to the same European genre that gave rise to the much more visceral The Potato Eaters, which Van Gogh painted a few years earlier.

In Piltz’s painting, the five young musicians are gathered in time-honoured fashion around a table on which lie their individual parts (some propped up).  They seem fairly well dressed.  The near violinist (who perhaps looks older than the others) is sitting on a slatted wooden bench and there is a bed behind the cellist.  The lamp is not lit, so they are reliant on the dim light coming from the deeply recessed window.  It’s not a standard string quintet line-up (usually 2 violins, 2 violas and cello or 2 violins, viola and 2 cellos).  The presence of the double-bass implies activities connected with civic occasions rather than concert repertoire.  It’s not possible to be certain if there are 3 violins or 2 violins and viola because of the gloom.  The players, however, look rather content.  They certainly look more lively, musically, than the cellists in the near-contemporaneous pictures by Eakins and Hammershoi that I posted 11 days ago.

• The Cello in Art (9) – Doisneau and Baquet/2

This was the first of Robert Doisneau’s photographs of Baquet that I ever saw.  I bought it in a wonderful postcard shop in Tribeca, New York, some time in the 1980s.  It still makes me smile!

Baquet was a remarkably versatile man.  Here’s a 21” clip from a French newsreel of 1946.  Paris was in deep snow and Baquet – an Olympic skier – took advantage.  There are scenes of Paris streets and a view including Montmartre’s famous Moulin de la Galette (painted by many French artists and van Gogh).  The newsreel finishes with Baquet skiing the broad steps in front of Sacré-Coeur and straight down a much narrower flight.

I’ve just come across another historic clip, but one which is viewable only on a French site (ina.fr).  Click on the thumbnail image below.  It’s a recording from what seems to be a French TV variety show and was broadcast by RTF on 12 May 1958.  It’s a 6’ sketch called Le Quatuor, which comprises four cellists (not the standard quartet line-up), with the three on the left playing straight men to Baquet’s clowning.  Doisneau’s image above reappears halfway through Baquet’s routine.  It may seem a bit dated now, but his comedic imagination is sharply honed, as is his command of the cello.  He really could play!

• The Cello in Art (8) – Doisneau and Baquet/1

After posting yesterday’s exuberant image, I recalled the work of the great French photographer Robert Doisneau (1912-94), one of whose close friends was the cellist, actor, singer, comedian – and alpinist, Maurice Baquet (1911-2005).  Together they created a body of photographic images that are unrivalled for their whimsical take on life and performance.

To mark the centenary of their births this year and next, here’s one of my favourites, Les attentions courtesies (c.1942-48).  There’s something touchingly chivalrous, if irrelevant in Baquet’s action: he gets wet for the sake of his cello, which is perfectly dry anyway (that is, if it is inside).  It could be a still from a French film.

Can anyone identify the location?

• The Cello in Art (7) – … and a J.N.D.

OK, I know that stretching exercises before breakfast are a good thing, but this is a bit extreme.  I have no idea who this is, or whether he’s even a cellist, but he’s a welcome tonic after the po-faced players of yesterday.  A jolly nude dude, no less.

• The Cello in Art (6) – Two G.O.M. …

I’ve been pondering whether to offer these pictures separately, but these two near-contemporaneous paintings seem to make a pair.  The seriousness of both images – and their lack of animation – does neither sitter any favours.  Each comes across as being set in his morose ways – glum old men of their time, perhaps (though one of them is still relatively young).


The one on the left, The Cello Player (1896), is by the American painter Thomas Eakins (1844-1916).  That on the right, Cello Player (1893), is by the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi, who was born twenty years after Eakins but died in the same year.  While the Philadelphian Eakins was known for his portraiture, Hammershøi was not.


The subject of The Cello Player is the German cellist, Rudolf Henning, who moved from Leipzig and settled in Philadelphia; he is pictured, in isolation, playing one of the five cello concertos by the almost completely forgotten German cellist and composer, Georg Goltermann (1824-98).  Henning was just a year younger than Eakins, and when the painting was bought by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1896 the two men shared the fee, $250 apiece.  Over a century later, in 2007, it was sold controversially – and secretly – for an 8-figure sum (reportedly $15-25m) in order to buy another Eakins painting, The Gross Clinic (1875).  This ‘upgrading’ (or, to use the jargon, ‘deaccessioning’) caused considerable uproar.  The Cello Player is no longer available for public view.

Eakins, who had the magnificent middle name ‘Cowperthwait’, depicted music and musicians on several occasions, and I’ve appended half a dozen at the end of this post.  Some are depictions of performers of classical music, like The Oboe Player (1903) – a portrait of Benjamin Sharp, and Music (1904).  Some are more ‘downhome’ in subject matter, like The Dancing Lesson (1878) and Home Ranch (1892).  The last two portraits – The Zither Player (1876) and Professionals at Rehearsal (1883) – are especially intimate.  The earlier one, in particular, has much the same air as Degas’s studies of his father listening to the guitarist and singer Lorenzo Pagans, which he painted in the 1890s. Hammershøi’s art and aesthetic could hardly be more different.


As I mentioned in my first ‘The Cello in Art’ entry, on Carl Holsoe’s paintings (11 August), Hammershøi belonged to a small group of Danish painters who focused on cool interiors in which the human figure, if present, often had her (she’s usually female) back to the viewer.  So the Cello Player is a most unusual topic for Hammershøi.  It is a portrait of an orchestral cellist, Henry Bramsen, who was the son of Hammershøi’s greatest champion in Denmark, Alfred Bramsen.  The painting was therefore a favour bordering on obligation rather than a burning artistic necessity, and that comes across in the generalised approach to most aspects of the picture, with only the instrument itself seeming to have much life or presence about it.

As examples of more characteristic Hammershøi topics, here’s Interior: With Piano and Woman in Black, Strandgade 30 (1901), which makes for an interesting comparison with Holsoe’s use of the domestic keyboard instrument in his paintings, and an exterior, Street in London (1906), a view northwards up Montague St with the British Museum on the left.

If you find these two cello players by Eakins and Hammershøi rather sombre, I’ll put up a much jollier, ‘rude’ one tomorrow, despite it being in black and white!


The Oboe Player (1903)

Music (1904)

The Dancing Lesson (1878)

Home Ranch (1892)

The Zither Player (1876)

Professionals at Rehearsal (1883)

• The Cello in Art (5) – Jacek Malczewski

This is probably a less familiar image than the previous one by Augustus John, and there’s less evidence of a cello!  In Portrait of a Man with Cello (1923), the Polish painter Jacek Malczewski (1854-1929) depicts the young man strumming the instrument like an upright guitar or a lowered violin.  His languorous manner, slicked-back hair and exaggeratedly broad shirt collar, combined with the landscape, suggest nothing less than a weekend in the country along with a spot of music-making, don’t-ya-know.  To my untrained eye, the man bears a striking resemblance to a previous portrait that Malczewski had made of his son Rafał (below).  (Rafał also made a career as a painter, but he is best remembered as one of Poland’s most distinguished skiers and mountain-climbers.  In 1917, he narrowly escaped death in the Polish Tatras.  This portrait dates from that year.)

Earlier in his career, Jacek Malczewski had taken up Symbolism with a vengeance, and it is in this period that his most famous paintings were created.  He was best known for his forthright portraits, but rare are those without other allegorical ‘presences’ counterpointing, peering over the shoulder of or threatening the subject.  The most common ‘onlookers’ are chimeras (in Malczewski’s case, winged females with huge-thighed limbs and a lion’s claws), fauns and muses.

There is a number of portraits with musical themes and several of these reveal their folk origins by the inclusion of the narrow fiddle known as a gęśl.  Below are three such paintings: Self-Portrait with Fiddle (c.1908), Music (1908) and Shepherd Boy and Chimera (1905).

• The Cello in Art (4) – Augustus John

It was inevitable that Augustus John’s sumptuous portrait (1920-23) of the Portuguese cellist Guilhermina Suggia would crop up early on in this thread.  It’s become iconic for several reasons: THAT dress (apparently, his third colour choice), which reminds me of the voluminous red gown that Jacqueline du Pré wore on the one occasion that I saw her play (Haydn’s Concerto in C – one of the few pieces that Suggia also recorded – at London’s Royal Festival Hall); THAT profile, facing away from the cello (the very opposite of pretty much every photograph of du Pré); and THAT posture.

Suggia (1885-1950) was one of the first internationally known female cellists.  It was only at the end of the nineteenth century, when the endpin (‘spike’ to you and me) gained popularity, that women began to take up the cello seriously.  Up until then, it had not been thought seemly for a women to grasp the cello between her knees and lean low to play it.  The spike changed all that: the posture could be more upright and – this I didn’t know – enabled a woman to play the cello placed elsewhere than between her legs.  Some played it side-saddle and some with the right leg bent low behind the instrument.  An outdoor photograph of the slightly younger English cellist Beatrice Harrison (1892-1965) – yes, she of the BBC nightingale broadcasts and recordings – shows her in this latter position, with spike in place.  It looks uncomfortable, restrictive and not a little ungainly.  I wonder what Scottie was thinking … keeping out of range if his mistress decided to go wanton on the A string?

Suggia, on the other hand, had no qualms about posing in this highly expressive manner, even at a time (1920s) when female cellists were still a rarity and most professional orchestras were male-only domains.  After being associated with Pablo Casals as his student and then partner for several years, she moved to England in 1914, quickly becoming known as ‘La Suggia’.  Country Life (26 November 1927) published for its society readership a breathless, equine and barely veiled eroticised account of her presence and playing style which is worth bearing in mind when thinking of some more recent cellists:

It was a delight to see her, before each bout, sit up alert, balance and adjust her bow as a fencer balances his foil, then settle herself with huge tortoise between her knees, like jockey sitting down to the ride: erect at first and watchful, till gradually, caught by the stream she created, she swung with it, gently, sleepily, languidly, until the mood shifted, the stream grew a torrent and the group rocked and swayed almost to wreckage.  Or again, she would be sitting forward, taking her mount by the head, curbing it, fretting it, with imperious staccato movements, mastering it completely, then letting it free to caracol easily, or once more break into full course, gathering itself in, extending itself, in a wild gallop.  She was creating sound till you could see it: the music seemed to flow like running water, up her arms, over her neck; one felt that seated behind her one could see it coursing down her shoulders and her spine, with the whirls and eddies of a mountain river.

Only the face remained apart: in it was something different: the face with its closed eyes belonged to us who were played upon rather than to who played: it was the artist in the artist’s other role, her own audience, listening to herself, experiencing first and more than all other the emotion which her art evoked.  That rapt and passive countenance, that swift ordered disciplined activity of every fibre of her body, disciplined till all was instinctive as the motions of a flying bird showed once and for all her double nature, speaker and listener at once, actor and spectator, which must be the artist’s.*

* I’m grateful to Anita Mercier’s fascinating and revealing article on Suggia for the excerpt from Country Life; see <http://www.cello.org/Newsletter/Articles/suggia.htm>.  Mercier has also written a full-length study, Guilhermina Suggia: Cellist (Ashgate, 2008).

Suggia had a strong personality, and Augustus John captured a snapshot of the passion and imperiousness of her character.  The audio link to Bruch’s Kol Nidrei (below) is to one of the few recordings she left to posterity.  It was recorded in the same year as the Country Life review, so makes for an interesting counterbalance to its linguistic extremities and to the fiery temperament implied by John’s portrait.  I think it is stunningly beautiful, measured, direct and, yes, expressive but in a restrained way that befits Bruch’s music.

%d bloggers like this: