Determined to make the most of my last few weeks in France, I found myself on a train headed towards the small town of Vernon in Northern France. After a hop across the river Seine I was in the village of Giverny, home to Claude Monet’s House and Gardens.
Perhaps the most famous of Monet’s works is his Water Lilies series. Comprising of about 250 paintings this series was painted in the last 30 years of Monet’s life. His house in Giverny is surrounded by beautiful gardens which he planted on purpose to provide inspiration for these paintings. If you love Monet then I would really recommend the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris. It’s a bit out of the way, but has about 100 paintings by the artist, including several from the Water Lilies series, and is a pretty special place.
Monet’s house in Giverny is a beautiful place, vibrant and colourful; I even managed to get a few tourist free pictures! A miracle! The house has a collection of Japanese art which Monet was inspired by, but it is the well-maintained garden which is a real showstopper.
Down a picturesque tulip-lined street is the swish, modern Musée des Impressionismes. (Go there first and you might be able to skip the queue for the gardens later!) Here there was a temporary exhibition called In Concert! (or Tintamarre!) about the portrayal of musical instruments in art from 1860 to 1910. The paintings depicted the growing presence of musical instruments in private houses as well as their place in the public arenas of concert halls, parks, cafes, and opera houses. As a musician and lover of history I found this a really interesting exhibition and I want to share a few of my favourites from the gallery.
One of these is Jacques Joseph Tissot’s Trop Tôt. I’d not heard of Tissot before but he was a well-known genre painter specialising in fashionably dressed women in everyday life. What I love about this painting is that it captures that slight awkwardness at the beginning of any party. A group of professional musicians can be seen on the left and two curious servants peek in from behind a door. Tissot pays special attention to the flounces and frills of the women’s balls dresses. Fashionably dressed but unfashionably early!
During this period music became more and more common in the homes of the middle class. Music lessons for women and children were very popular, particularly on the piano. In many of the paintings the piano is depicted within the domestic sphere – whereas brass instruments, for example, were much more common in public spaces.
A painting which I thought was lovely is Renoir’s Jeunes Filles au Piano (1892). Renoir produced a few different versions of this. This one had an unfinished feel as the background was merely suggested by splashes of blue. In other versions the bourgeois interior was shown in much greater detail. Here all the focus is on the two girls and their preoccupation with the music.
The woman in the last painting I am going to mention is also at the piano; instruments which made the player take up an “unladylike stance”, such as the cello and double bass, were only appropriate for men. The painting below is René Prinet’s La Sonate á Kreuzer (1901) and it is much more dramatic and dark than the one above. The painting was inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Kreuzer Sonata. The painting shows a passionate kiss between a violinist and a pianist who have obviously just broken off from playing. In the novella a man murders his wife after she has an affair with a violinist. The story argues that some music is powerful enough to change one’s internal state.
What was interesting in this exhibition was how the painters tried to represent playing of music, and listening to music, and not just people posing with an instrument. Sometimes the subject of the painting faced entirely away from the viewer; we can only see the back of their head as they face their music. The painters showed players and listeners engrossed in music which the viewer of the painting can’t hear. They were painting what cannot be seen.