Musical instruments have always had their particular significance in paintings. Throughout the history of the depiction of music-making in art, the iconography of musical instruments ranged from their strict symbolism in Dutch 17th century art to their appearance as objects of leisure and pleasant pastime, played by middle-class amateur and professional performers in the nineteenth century. In this article I will examine some of the most significant examples of guitar players in the art of Vermeer, Watteau, Tropinin and Manet.
In the course of its history the guitar as a musical instrument has evolved from a small 16-th century instrument with double strings to its modern incarnation with a larger body and six or seven single strings. As a Spanish instrument, it appeared mostly in Spanish music, but it also added a flavour of Spanishness to orchestral or chamber music compositions by such foreign composers as George Bizet or Ludwig Minkus. In paintings, different artists had different means of using the guitar.
Johannes Vermeer’s Guitar Player is an example of 17th century Dutch interior scene. The woman is playing a small ancient guitar, which was a standard for solo repertoire of that time. The instrument is beautifully decorated, with the sound hole covered by a beautiful rose. Although it might appear strange, we may suggest that Vermeer didn’t have sound in mind when painting this picture, as it is impossible for the instrument to sound with its sound hole covered by a rose. Instead, the artist wanted us, the viewers, to look at the beauty of the girl with her curly hair, splendid pearl necklace and sumptuous fur garment, as she is probably trying to impress her lover, invisible to us on the left. This idea may be supported not only by her gaze, which is directed at someone standing to the left outside the picture plane, as if she is trying to impress him, but also by the books, laying on the right, suggesting that the young lady is not only beautiful, but also a virtuous woman.
Antoine Watteau’s Mezzetin is a completely different character. Unlike Vermeer’s young lady playing a guitar, this lover, which is a character of commedia dell’arte is not characterised by beauty and virtuosity. Instead, he is suspiring of the lady introduced by a sculpture behind his back, which, as in many Watteau’s paintings is a patron of love. The guitar in his hands thus becomes an instrument to accompany his anguished songs of love, sung probably under the balcony of an invisible lady to the right.
The Russian artist Vassily Andreevich Tropinin painted guitar players throughout all his artistic life. In the present picture, located at the State Tretyakov Gallery, we can see a classical Russian seven-strings guitar, played by the musician, who has just stopped his performance in order to look at us. Unlike in the previous pictures, his guitar seems quite untidy, with the strings frizzling out of the instrument’s tuning pegs.
Edouard Manet’s The Spanish Singer was the artist’s debut at the salon of 1861. The painting represents an amateur left-handed musician, whose instrument is stringed for the right-handed player, thus showing that the singer was not familiar with the art of playing. The picture was carefully planned in the studio, with all the props, the model and some attributes of still-lives on the right.
In conclusion, I’d like to say that different artists had different ways of representing guitar players. While Vermeer painted an elegant woman with a sumptuous instrument, Watteau’s Mezzetin became a depiction of a tormented lover from commedia dell’arte, who accompanied himself by playing a simple guitar. Tropinin, who painted guitar players throughout all his artistic life, depicted an untidy instrument with all the seven strings, while Manet painted an amateur musician, posing as a left-handed player with the instrument, that was stringed for the right hand.
The guitar was also Picasso’s favourite instrument, you can read about it here. Enjoy!