Musical Instruments Throughout the ages - Dean Drake

Since the beginning of recorded history, music has been an important and integral part of virtually every known culture. What we have as evidence of this are numerous works of art depicting musical instruments and musicians posing with them. In this gallery, we will explore musical instruments as they have been painted with oil on canvas. The main focus of this gallery is to study the origins of musical instruments and their significance in their respective cultures. 

This 16th century scene titled: A Concert, by Giovanni Cariani features a man playing a lute while apparently singing. The scene is evenly lit and low contrast, with only a slight emphasis on the faces of the subjects. The overall feeling is tranquil, as the colors are subdued, the shapes are rounded and balanced and the apparel is soft (note the furs worn by the subjects). Red is a significant thematic color in objects and apparel, drawing the viewers' eyes into items of possible importance.
This painting titled: "Cupid as Victor" is a turn of the 17th century painting by Caravaggio. It features an adolescent Cupid with black wings, trampling over notable items of human prowess and social status - notably, for relevance of this gallery, a lute and a violin. Cupid is the main subject of this scene, which is obvious because of the emphasis with highlights as well as the dominant position in the center of the frame. His features are also accentuated starkly as compared with other items in the scene. The scene is lit from the left, providing high contrast, especially on the main subject. The range of colors is minimal, ranging from almost pure white to the darkest of black, the only variation being the tan to gold hues from the musical instruments and other items.
The "Man Playing a Lute" (1624) by Hendrick ter Brugghen, shows an impassioned lutist playing a lute while possibly singing. The areas of emphasis are the subject's face and hands, which are lit from the left, providing high contrast for those lit areas, while the rest of the scene is lit softly and subdued, not only with light but color. The colors are mostly earth-toned hues with splashes of white and a hint of red on his vest. The subject is wearing softly textured apparel, which appears to be comfortable.
This portrait known as: "Boy Playing the Flute" by Judith Leyster, was painted sometime in the 1630s. The boy is playing a flute, though some believe that the boy is holding the flute backwards, but this kind of flute can be played either way. Also note the violin and another type of woodwind instrument hanging on the wall behind the boy suggest an importance of music or musical instruments in the life of this family. This importance is emphasized by contrasts. The boy, while modestly dressed, is sitting on an obviously broken chair with no other furnishings or decorations in the room. The distressed textures and bland colorings on the wall are indicative of a less than lavish home. Another purpose for the musical instruments in the background is that they provide balance in the scene, filling up negative space, but also keeping the items relevant to the story.
Another painting by the Dutch Painter Hendrick ter Brugghen is titled: Bagpipe Player (1624). One of the themes that I wanted to focus on is the evolution of familiar instruments throughout the ages. This bagpipe is similar in some ways to contemporary instruments, but there are also some great variations from centuries ago. Notice the differences between vintage and modern with other instruments in this gallery. Usually, there is emphasis placed on the human subject in a painting, but this one seems to focus more on the instrument. The man's face is in profile to the extent where he is turned away, but also the lighting focuses on the pipes as well as the man's hands playing the instrument. His bare shoulder is the brightest part of the scene, but it seems to be used more as a backdrop than a part of the subject because there is nothing remarkable about his shoulder since it is virtually featureless. Contrast is used between the soft, rounded features of the man and his clothing and the straight lines of the pipes and the stark lines on the air bag.
In this mid-17th century painting by Bartholomeo Bettera, titled "Still Live with Musical Instruments and Books" we see musical instruments as mere objects - shapes and designs to behold with the eye, rather than as items that produce music. There are two lutes laying across a virginal with a violin leaning across the rear. The scene is apparently lit with a technique called "Rembrandt Lighting" where the light is 45 degrees to the left and above the subject. This has been used mostly on human subjects, but this is suited for this still life as well. The artist deliberately ensures that the viewers are aware that the musical instruments have not been used recently and uses textures as a way to convey this message. The textures are in the fine details: dust on the lutes that show finger swipes from handling and a broken string or horsehair on the violin. It also appears that there may be dust on the keyboard of the virginal.
One of my favorite artists is Johannes Vermeer, who painted this oil on canvas titled: Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman, 'The Music Lesson'" sometime between 1662 and 1665. One might think that baroque musicians would be poor, but in fact it was quite the contrary. Musical instruments were often a symbol of the wealthy and elite. This painting shows a static viola da gamba lying on the floor while the young woman is practicing a virginal under the tutelage of the male teacher. Vermeer often used natural light, generally from a window on the left, to light his scenes. The subjects and the musical instruments are evenly lit, with very little contrast. The architecture uses many straight lines and repetitious patterns - square window panes, diagonal tiles on the floor and straight overhead beams. This use of contrast helps to highlight the human forms. The painting on the upper right and the tapestry covering the table give the scene balance by filling in the negative space. It is interesting to note that the mirror shows the woman looking toward the man endearingly. If you zoom in, you can see the artist's easel. In this way, the artist is a subtle part of the scene.
This oil on canvas titled: "Emily and George Mason" by British artist Arthur William Devis was painted sometime between 1794 and 1795. It shows two children playing with tambourines. One of them is dancing around whilst playing the instrument, and the other has abandoned the instrument in favor of a flintlock rifle, which hopefully isn't loaded. There isn't much in the way of description of this particular painting. Note that to the left of the frame is a keyed instrument, probably a piano or harpsichord. Percussion devices are likely of the earliest type of musical instruments, whether they take the form of sticks, hollowed logs or frames with skins stretched over them - which are predecessors to tambourines. This is apparently a wealthy family, as judging the architecture of the home. Besides the massive architecture, which seems foreign to Britain, the scene in the background with the Indian couple, large trees and billowing clouds seems indicative of the British Colonies in India. There are two separate scenes in this frame and they are delineated by the blue archway. The line of demarcation is the bright line of sunlight at the edge of that arch. The clothing styles of the children - sheer white with blue bows are markedly different than the full-covered white robes with red for the Indian couple. These complementary colors are likely and intentional distinction between the starkly differing cultures.
William Beale Wotton is featured in this oil on canvas portrait (1890) by Herbert Arnold Williams. As a distinguished musician and professor, he is the main subject of this painting, while he poses with his instrument (a bassoon). An instrument such as a bassoon is very delicate and complex, with many moving parts that must all work properly or else the instrument fails, thus sounding horrible. Perfecting the woodwinds in this manner was no easy feat and playing the instrument is also a challenge that is difficult to master. This is one of the few in this gallery (or perhaps the only one) showing a man with his instrument, entirely within his element (meaning that he is not merely a model sitting for a portrait). It is thus an honest and unembellished representation of Professor Wotton. He is wearing dark colors that mostly blend with his instrument, with the exception of the silver hardware. The background is also a darker hue, so his upper body almost gets lost in the background. This provides a contrast that allows his face and hands "pop" so it achieves this desired effect. For a musician, the most important features are the hands and the face. Viewers want to see the hands that create the pleasing sounds and to look into the eyes of the soul from whence the music flows.
The "Guitar and Newspaper" (1925) by Juan Gris is an oil on canvas in the cubist style that was popularized by such artists as Picasso around the turn of the century until around the mid-1920s. As an experimental musical instrument maker myself, I find inspiration in the most unlikely places. While the incomplete and distorted 5-stringed instrument seems impractical, the unusual angular design of the box could be used for a real musical instrument - either an acoustic or electric guitar. Cubism can often be confusing to those who think too hard about it, but in this instance the shape of the guitar jumps right out of the disarrayed background elements. Vivid rich red colorings are used to frame around the earth-toned instrument, while lighter blues and grey tones are more central in the frame. By this time in history, Western musical instruments (for the most part) have been defined functionally and are generally recognizable by most people in Western culture.
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