The Angel in the House
I’ve had this picture stashed for a while, waiting all patiently to be blogged about. It’s by George Hamilton Barrable, a little known artist who doesn’t even (gasp!) have a Wikipedia entry. (But this is certainly the pick of his few works to be found on the internet. It’s certainly the least…er…sentimental.)
Its title is “A Song Without Words” (1888). (Isn’t that a great title?) Is the song without words the music? The painting? The sitter? (Or all three?) In fact, I’m not seeing the sitter’s face at all, because I keep coming back to the perfect ‘S’ bend of the figure, with both gown and limbs carefully arranged to the best effect.
Of course, playing the piano was an accomplishment that was nigh on essential for any Victorian young lady of social standing. Not only did it afford a chance to exhibit a degree of skill (hence increasing one’s chance of snagging a husband) but it was a peculiarly ‘becoming’ activity, showing one’s person off to best advantage.
Renoir, Lady at the Piano, 1875
Barrable wasn’t the only artist to be inspired by the peculiar charm of piano-playing women. And you know what’s the most peculiar thing? If you type “at the piano” into Google image search, 99% of the period portraits it returns feature women playing the piano IN WHITE. (The other 1% are in black, and the women are older, and the mood more sombre.)
Paul Cezanne, Girl at the Piano (Overture to Tannhäuser), 1868-9
Why, then, so much of the white? Many (but not all) of these sitters are young, and possibly unmarried, and although white was a likely choice of dress colour, it wasn’t the ONLY choice. Could there be more to it? Are these women, rapt in their music, almost unearthly channels for divine inspiration, almost… angelic? In 1854 poet Coventry Patmore coined the phrase “the Angel in the House” to express this Victorian ideal of women as bringers of pure, domestic bliss. (This phrase was so pernicious and long-lasting that even in 1931 Virginia Woolf felt she had to write that “killing the ‘Angel in the House’ was part of the occupation of a woman writer.”)
As these women play there’s a sense that all is right with the world, and all is calm on the domestic front. (A poem that I love, and which expresses this sentiment better than anything is DH Lawrence’s poem, ‘Piano‘. Go read it. It’s short. I’ll wait.)
Here then, perhaps, is the piano playing, white-wearing symbol of the feminine ideal: the height of purity and innocence, refinement and beauty, and culture and patient dedication. (Dedication to music was just so much more graceful and aesthetically appealing than dedication to algebra or inorganic chemistry.)
Childe Hassam, At the Piano
There’s also a definite mood of solo reverie in these pictures, isn’t there? While these women are absorbed in their playing we become observers and, more than that, almost intruders. The distance that the artist places between subject and viewer is magnified. We are the listeners who have tiptoed in to hover about the threshold. And yet, the artist seems to say, see the alluring figure, see the poise: look! These women are elegant even when no one is watching. After you have crept away, they will play on, creating beauty out of the very air, until, in the words of Lord Alfred Douglas, “mean things put on beauty like a dress”.
William Merritt Chase, Mrs Meigs At The Piano Organ, 1883
And you can bet they’re not thumping out Chopsticks.
Vincent Van Gogh, Mademoiselle Gachet at Piano, 1890