Seeing Things (6): Music for Our Eyes
June 4, 2010
I always wondered what it would be like to compose a score for particular artworks in the collection of American Art. Clearly a late- nineteenth-century painting by Thomas Wilmer Dewing would sound different from a meditative Mark Rothko work painted seventy years later. American composer Morton Feldman composed a score for the Rothko Chapel, an interfaith chapel in Houston that houses fourteen Rothko paintings commissioned by the de Menil family.
Today, I heard a story about composer George Gershwin—a fairly good painter by the way—who was viewing works in the New York City apartment of Chester Dale, a prominent collector. Gershwin admired one painting in particular, and much to Dale's surprise, the composer was able to identify it as a work by Cezanne. "Are you interested in art outside of your great art?" Dale asked, to which Gershwin replied, "Yes, Chester, I'm crazy about pictures." Dale then asked him to go to the piano and "play a Cezanne" for him. Gershwin obliged and must have knocked the collector off his feet. He later recalled, "I haven't got any more idea than the man on the moon what he played, but emotionally there was Cezanne to the both of us."
Speaking of Dewing, I think he wins the award for the portrayal of music in painting. On the second floor of American Art, you'll come across an imposing gilded Steinway from Teddy Roosevelt's White House. The president's goal was to "initiate a more active musical life at the White House," and he commissioned Steinway to produce the piano. Decked out in symbols of Americana from eagles to garlands to the coats of arms of the first thirteen states, the piano was presented to Roosevelt in 1903. Dewing painted the piano's lid, merging the classical theme of the muses with America as the new standard bearer of Western culture. In the scene they pay homage to a seated figure, who represents the spirit of the country.
"I hear America singing," Walt Whitman famously wrote in 1860. Now, with Dewing's painting, America can sing and play the piano, too.
This is the sixth installment of "Seeing Things," a periodic series of personal observations about how people experience and explore museums. If you liked this you may enjoy our other posts.
- Steinway Piano, Music, George Gershwin, Thomas Wilmer Dewing, American Art,
Smithsonian American Art Museum
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