A Sonata of Beethoven

Alfred Edward Emslie1901

City of London Corporation

City of London Corporation

A Sonata of Beethovenwas painted using light colours and muted tones. This, combined with the title’s suggestion of music, creates a sense of serenity but perhaps also a sense of mystery,further emphasised by the spatial relationship between the two figures. There was a rising trend in late nineteenth-century Europe to paint unseeable subjects. The subject of music was particularly prevalent, with artists such as Fernand Khnopff in Belgium employing the trope with hisListening to Schumann(1883). It is possible to interpret the painting as a simple domestic scene, where the viewer of the painting is encouraged to consider sound through a visual medium. But it is equally possible to view it as a more mysterious, symbolic scene. The gentleman in the background is not dressed in the same period costume as the woman. Could this be the spirit of Beethoven himself, conjured by her playing? Is she playing the notes he is writing? Or is the image a metaphor for the distance within a personal relationship, with the two figures separated for some other reason, whether by death, or by a breakdown in the relationship? The painting’s frame was specially designed for the work, and its pattern is a copy of the mirror’s frame in the composition. This may also indicate a more mysterious interpretation - none of the mirrors have reflections in. We may be encouraged to see that this room is an imaginary space of self-reflection. Creativity through music creates a separate imaginary space, a refuge from the real world, for the player and the listener, just as art does for artist and viewer. Emslie was a portrait painter belonging to a family of artists: his father was a famous engraver whilst his wife, Rosalie, was a talented painter of miniatures. Rosalie donated this painting to the Guildhall School of Music after her husband’s death in acknowledgement of his adoration of music. The work was later transferred to the Guildhall Art Gallery.

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