“Ultra sign of the times”: Albert Moore’s Musical Pictures of the 1860s

Marte Stinis is a PhD candidate in History of Art at the University of York, England. Her doctoral research focuses on music as an aesthetic ideal for Victorian painters, especially those associated with the Aesthetic Movement. Within this framework, she is particularly interested in the correlations of the arts, the type of terminology used in contemporary reception, and theories of beauty in art. You can find her on twitter @martestinis

Nineteenth-century British art is rich and complex, often even paradoxical, whether of a social, musical, artistic, political, or philosophical origin. When the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the Aesthetic Movement in Britain explored new modes of artistic expression, the art of music, especially instrumental music as it flourished under German and Austrian composers, grew ever more influential. Together with the classical revival taking place in the 1860s, the correlation of the arts, especially between painting and music, increased in popularity. Here, I will explore the connection with music as it played a role in the art of Albert Moore (1841-1893) and his two major musical works of the 1860s, The Musicians (1867) and A Quartet: A Painter’s Tribute to the Art of Music, A.D. 1868 (1868).

Moore exhibited his small but intensely colourful work The Musicians at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1867, where it hung in close proximity to James McNeill Whistler’s Symphony in White, No. III.[i] Moore and Whistler had been close friends since 1865 and both worked with similar aesthetic theories. The Musicians was not Moore’s first musical work, as he had painted Dancing Girl Resting in 1864, but the former was more strongly part of the artist’s classical revival work which went hand in hand with a drive towards a purer aesthetic style. The Musicians depicts two women clad in Greek draperies, sprawled on a bench to the right of the composition, as they listen to a similarly dressed man playing a lyre on the left. As such, the composition is split in half: male and female on the left and right, respectively, a dichotomy emphasised by the oppositions of sound and silence, active and passive, performer and audience. This theme of the interplay between performer and audience had played a role in Moore’s work before, especially in The Shulamite of 1864-1866 and the studies in fresco Moore executed for the Queen’s Theatre, London. Indeed, performer and audience are framed against a dado in The Musicians which, running the length of the canvas, emphasises the two-dimensionality and flatness of the work, enhanced by Moore’s limited choice in colours. Critics were quick to compare Moore to Whistler, saying that The Musicians “assimilates with Mr. Whistler’s ‘Symphony’ in being a study in white, and combines with that of the tints of yellow and pink”.[ii]

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Albert Moore, The Musicians, 1867, oil on canvas, 38.7 x 28.6 cm, Yale Centre for British Art, New Haven, CT, USA.

The attention in the work is entirely focused on the acts of music-making and listening. Arguably, the picture becomes, as one critic perceived it, a meditation on the beauty of music itself.[i] Indeed, in the 1860s instrumental music, as opposed to programme music, was seen as the purest type of music, as it was free from representation, self-sufficient and, hence, semi-abstract. As such, references to music, especially instrumental music, in painting could provide an avenue for painting itself to become like the art of music by referencing those qualities of independence and self-sufficiency that music possessed. As the emphasis shifted more strongly towards colour and form – intrinsically ‘painterly’ qualities – over narrative, critics responded to Moore’s work by calling it “harmonies of faint and tender colour”, and “a sort of pictorial music, drawn as from a lyre of but few strings”.[ii] Indeed, this latter critic, the Pre-Raphaelite art critic F.G. Stephens, described Moore’s work, regardless of whether it contained musical subject matter or not, as “very like antique music, which was soft, of narrow compass, apt to be monotonous, and best fitted for the lyre and flute”.[iii] There is a strong connection not only between Moore’s classical themes and music, but also colour and music, references to which consistently surface in nineteenth-century art-critical terminology.

A glance at the works Moore created shows that he often chose titles that were unconventional for their time. Most often his titles were short, such as Azaleas, Lilies, or Pomegranates, drawing attention to decorative accessories in the painting rather than a narrative or overarching theme. The contemporary art historian Walter Armstrong complained that Moore’s titles “seem determined by the wish that no idea of illustration, no literary nexus, shall attach itself to his art”.[iv] It is therefore quite surprising that Moore’s second major musical work has a verbose and lengthy title: A Quartet, A Painter’s Tribute to the Art of Music, A.D. 1868, a title which Robyn Asleson has described as having a “manifesto-like thrust”.[v] On that note, even a title such as The Musicians seems misleading. Alfred Lys Baldry, Moore’s biographer, uses the title A Musician in 1894, under which it is now commonly known.[vi] The original title is, however, the plural, and it raises more questions than it answers. Is it a reference to multiple musicians, where the viewers participate alongside the man with the lyre? Is it a mistake on Moore’s part? Unlikely, since he was so meticulous in his practice. Are all characters in the painting a musician, viewer and performer alike? Indeed, A Quartet continues this theme of audience versus performer and, like its precedent, offers a meditation on the beauty of music and the act of music-making, and listening, themselves. Stephens interpreted the painting as

Three ladies, who are robed in the Greek manner, stand listening before the harmonists, and, by the grace of their noble forms, the varied, flowing and broken lines of their diversely-textured draperies, render to the eye of the student in loveliness the suave, long-sustained and fluttering harmonies of the lighter order in music, as the graver, more sedate and powerful poses of the men offer to the same judgement apt suggestions of the more serious elements of melody.[vii]

Paintings more closely related to the art of music, specifically intangible musical qualities such as harmony and rhythm, became more widespread in the 1860s and 1870s as the Aesthetic Movement gained ground in London. It would be encapsulated, of course, in Walter Pater’s statement about music as the condition to which all art should aspire, yet already in 1867 there are attempts towards this ideal. This is present in Moore’s subtitle of ‘A Painter’s Tribute to the Art of Music, A.D. 1868’. With such a title, he is proclaiming his art to be indebted to that of music, using the modern instrumental string quartet in a classical setting to create an atmosphere more idealised than reality. The act of listening, reverie, and meditation performed by the women in the painting is an invitation to us, the viewers, to do the same.

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Albert Moore, A Quartet: A Painter’s Tribute to the Art of Music, A.D. 1868, 1868, oil on canvas, 61 x 89 cm, private collection.

A Quartet was heavily criticised at the time for being anachronistic. The interior is semi-classical, yet decorated with Japanese azalea blossoms and several well-placed vases, striking a similar visual balance as the Japanese fans in The Musicians. The figures are clad in transparent, classicising drapery, with the violinist on the far left wearing a leopard skin. Moreover, whereas in The Musicians Moore employed a classical lyre, here the instruments are decidedly modern: three violins and a violoncello, as well as a bass-viol acting, unconventionally, as a decorative object on the picture rail. Even if it was condemned as anachronistic, some critics perceived it as an “ultra sign of the times”, as participating in the contemporary attitude towards creating paintings that served no narrative but, rather, creating an idealised, aestheticized, extra-historical and extra-geographical artistic sphere that could function as self-sufficient and self-referential.[1] If anything, however, this act of anachronism attracts more attention to the act of music-making itself, existing outside of social, geographical, or temporal circles. Indeed, this is how some critics perceived it, as a “homage of modern to ancient art”, existing in its own sphere of “unconscious physical perfection” and an “ideal world in which, pictorially, he [Moore] lived”.[2] The addition of ‘A.D. 1868’ makes it decidedly modern, yet the painting itself refuses to be characterised within a temporal framework. As such, Baldry described A Quartet as “an imaginary world” where Moore refused “to limit ideal music by any restrictions of period or place”.[3]

Ultimately, Moore experimented with references to music in his paintings because, arguably, he was striving to remove his work from the confines of having to represent a narrative. By making painting about music, there is potential for painting to be about itself, as instrumental music attains this level of self-referentiality. As such, Moore’s work refers strongly to the type of aesthetic experience required when listening to music, asking his viewers to apply the same to his paintings.

[1] “The Royal Academy”, Saturday Review 27, 710 (June 5, 1869) 743-745, 744.

[2] F.W. Cornish, “Greek Beauty and Modert Art”, Fortnightly Review 14, 81 (September 1873): 326-336, 327; and Baldry 1894, 36.

[3] Ibid., 36.

[i] Ibid., 667.

[ii] “The Exhibition of the Royal Academy: Second Notice”, The Manchester Guardian (May 21, 1867): 5; and F.G. Stephens, “Mr. Humphrey Roberts’s Collection”, The Magazine of Art (January 1896): 41-47, 47.

[iii] Ibid., 47.

[iv] Walter Armstrong, “Study. By Albert Moore, A.R.W.S.”, Portfolio 19 (January 1888): 147 [italics in original].

[v] Robyn Asleson, Albert Moore, London: Phaidon, 2000, 100.

[vi] Alfred Lys Baldry, Albert Moore: His Life and Works, London: George Bell & Sons, 1894, 34.

[vii] F.G. Stephens, “Royal Academy”, The Athenaeum no. 2169 (May 22, 1869): 706-707, 707.

[i] The Musicians is listed in the RA catalogue as nr. 235, while Whistler’s Symphony in White was nr. 233, hanging almost next to Moore’s work in the East Room. See The Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts. The Ninety-Ninth, London: William Clowes and Sons, 1867, 14.

[ii] “Royal Academy”, The Athenaeum no. 2064 (May 18, 1867): 666-667, 667.