The Art Students League of New York: Highlights from the Permanent Collection and Selections from the Hillstrom Museum of Art Collection

September 10 through November 4, 2007



 

Esther Williams, Art and Music

by David Fienen and Donald Myers

 

EARLY LIFE

Esther Williams (1907-1969) was from a Boston family that included numerous painters, among them her mother, Esther Baldwin Williams (1867-1964), with whom she has at times been confused, her mother's cousin Adelaide Cole Chase (1868-1944), and Chase's father, Joseph Foxcroft Cole (1837-1892), who taught art to his daughter and niece. Cole was a prominent proponent in America of the Barbizon landscape school of painting, having studied in France with Charles-Émile Jacque (1813-1894), and he was a co-founder of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. It was thus perhaps preordained that Esther Williams would become an artist herself.

Art was a fundamental part of Williams' home life during her youth. Her mother was an accomplished artist who, although she did not actively pursue a career, was nevertheless very interested in the art world. Not long before Williams' birth, her mother became friends with the renowned Boston painter Maurice Prendergast (1859-1924). Baldwin Williams and Prendergast shared a studio for a time, and the Williams family owned a number of works by Prendergast, who depicted Baldwin Williams in a portrait. Correspondence between Esther Williams and her mother years later shows that the two of them shared a deep and lasting interest in art; many of their letters have been preserved in the Archives of American Art of the Smithsonian Institution.

Music was also an important part of the Williams family life. Baldwin Williams had studied piano as a girl, and her uncle J. Foxcroft Cole married the Belgian classical pianist Irma De Pelgrom. Baldwin Williams and her husband Oliver were charter subscribers to the Boston Symphony, and many of the letters between Esther Williams the younger and her mother discuss music with nearly equal zeal to art. Esther Williams, like her mother, became an avid amateur pianist, and her love of music, especially her own instrument, had an impact on her art as her career progressed.

 

TRAINING IN ART AND EARLY CAREER

Williams enrolled at the Museum of Fine Arts School, Boston, in September 1925. There she studied with Philip L. Hale (1865-1931), who had been a student of American Impressionist Julian Alden Weir (1852-1919) at the Art Students League in New York (Weir's 1893 etching The Statue of Liberty is included in this exhibit). In 1927, after having already begun showing her work in national exhibitions, Williams accompanied her older brother Tom, recently graduated from Harvard University's architecture school, on a "grand tour" of Europe that lasted a year and a half. They and two friends traveled around the continent in a rented car, and they were joined for a time by their parents in London and Paris. While abroad, Williams the younger studied, in 1928, with André Lhote (1885-1962), a painter who was very influential as a lecturer, author, and teacher and who had founded his own art school in Montparnasse, Paris in 1922. Williams' experience was thus similar to her mother's some fifty years earlier, when Baldwin Williams followed her cousin Adelaide and her uncle J. Foxcroft Cole to Paris for art studies.

Following her return from Europe, Williams moved to New York by 1934 and entered the next stage of her career. She began to gain widespread recognition, and it was evidently around this time that she enrolled at the Art Students League of New York, whose liberal policies encouraged even brief and casual study there. In 1935, Williams was awarded the Lambert Purchase Prize from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts -- where she exhibited regularly from 1927 into the 1950s -- for her Circus Horses, a painting of animals backstage in a circus tent. Also in 1935, she was awarded the Worcester (Massachusetts) Art Museum's Second Purchase Prize in their Biennial Exhibition, for her Between the Acts, Downie's Circus. And in 1938, another circus image, Waiting for the Cue, was awarded the Norman Harris Bronze Medal and was purchased by the Art Institute of Chicago during its Annual Exhibition of American Painting. Other museums also acquired Williams' paintings, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which bought her Handel Concerto, one of her many works with music or musicians as their subject.

Among other honors the artist received was the $1000 award given in 1944 by The American Academy of Arts and Letters in recognition of Williams' "warm sensitive vision of life expressed through the medium of painting." These awards had the purpose of recognizing artists producing distinguished work in fields that offered little in the way of financial reward, to paraphrase the announcement that appeared in the New York Times on April 27, 1944.

Earlier, in 1936, Williams had been the subject of a solo exhibition at the Worcester Art Museum. Perry Cott, Curator at Worcester and later Chief Curator at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., described Williams' work:

Esther Williams' pictures are refreshingly imaginative at a time when so many of our painters are absorbingly literal. Many of them betray frankly romantic overtones that create an air of engaging fantasy. Those who seek a message of a new order or theme fraught with "social-consciousness" will not find them here for these paintings are compounded of the elements that delight the senses and beguile the mind.

Among the seventy-five paintings, drawings and prints in the retrospective were works of subjects and genre typical of the artist. Included were several portraits and another circus image, and a painting of flowers, another type for which Williams became especially known. And there were numerous works with a musical subject, including Still Life with Drum, Do Re Mi Fa, Two Piano Concert, Wagner Concerto and Handel Concerto, the last one likely the painting that was purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The exhibit thus included the main kinds of works in which Williams specialized: circus images and portraits, and, above all, paintings dealing with flowers and with music.

 

STYLE AND APPROACH

Williams' style is typically rather loose and somewhat impressionistic, perhaps influenced by her Boston teacher Philip Hale, who worked in that manner. Williams did not, however, think her style had much to do with her teachers, as indicated by correspondence exchanged in 1939 with Laura Penny, a graduate student writing her thesis on twentieth-century American female painters.

Penny contacted artists based on their participation in the art exhibition at San Francisco's 1939 Golden Gate Exposition. A list of questions she posed included one about the artist's interests other than painting, in response to which Williams noted her appreciation for music and literature. Penny also inquired about Williams' teachers and about other artists she admired. Regarding her instructors, Williams cited her study under both Philip Hale and André Lhote, but noted that their influence on her had not been extensive, and that she did not paint the way she had been taught. Regarding the "great masters of painting" that she found most stimulating, Williams stated, "One's Gods change as one's problems change. The great masters are a continual and ever fresh source of inspiration." She listed several painters she admired, including Piero della Francesca (c.1415-1492), Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), Francisco de Goya (1746-1828), Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699-1779), Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), and Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919). It is notable that none of these were contemporary, the most recent, Renoir, having died two decades earlier.

Renior seems to have been a favorite of Williams. She recounted to her mother, in a letter of January 1947, having seen a "lovely" exhibition of Renoir's work in New York, describing the artist as follows: "What a painter -- and how he did it is pure magic. No darks are dark intense -- but sing with great richness. No edginess but clarity." Williams' appreciation of Renoir's ability to have clarity without resorting to strong edges can be read in her own paintings, and it resembles the artistic philosophy her mother espoused in a diary entry from March 9, 1894: "All works of art should be in the nature of a sketch, something suggestive but not finished. A finished thing is a lie. An impossibility." The loose handling of paint found in Williams' work thus can be related to her mother and perhaps to artists like Renoir. And while her teacher Philip Hale's impressionist style might also have had an impact, the Cubist approach of her other principal instructor, André Lhote, little influenced Williams' work.

 

CRITICISM OF ART AND MUSIC

The letters from Williams to her mother contain frequent reports on exhibitions and artists, and she was quite probing and critical. She admired the subtle simplification in a work by Édouard Vuillard (1868-1940), and commented favorably on Édouard Manet (1832-1883) and Henri Matisse (1869-1954). She faulted animal drawings by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) that she saw at the Museum of Modern Art as "sloppy and dull" and "undistinguished," recalling to her mother their favorable impression of the drawings when they had seen them reproduced in a magazine, and concluding that the images must have gained by being reduced. Williams generally tended to prefer earlier artists to modern, or to be more accurate, to modernist artists. She decried the work of sculptor Henry Moore (1898-1986), grudgingly admitting him to be a good craftsman but finding his repetitious form -- which she likened to "a dull sausage" -- to be vulgar, and noting that she was "tired of artists who invent a new form to shout about," concluding, "I won't waste energy going on about Moore! But for me, the King had no clothes on!"

Williams' letters to her mother demonstrate a similarly perceptive and engaged attitude towards music, and there are perhaps even more frequent comments on composers, concerts and performers than there are about art. In an undated letter from around the mid 1930s, she termed Mozart (1756-1791) "grand," and a decade and a half later, she continued to demonstrate particular devotion to the composer. In a letter of January 1949, in one of many reports on concerts attended, Williams discussed a Mozart trio for piano, viola and clarinet. She faulted the pianist of the trio for being overbalanced, and then cited a Mozart quartet as the nicest piece in the program, noting that although this might have been because there was no overblown piano, Mozart's music was "enchanting." Later in the same letter, Williams reported on a concert by the well-known British pianist Myra Hess (1890-1965). Following two pages of detailed criticism, Williams concluded that, while Hess was a "true musician," her concert "badly needed Mozart." Williams also provided an account of a performance of one of Mozart's vocal works, in a letter from December 1948 telling of a concert by famed African-American singer Marian Anderson (1897-1993). Here, Williams commented not only on the quality of Anderson's voice, which she found very beautiful and full of emotion in a piece by Franz Liszt (1811-1886) but disappointing in its lack of easy flow in a Mozart selection, but she also noted the singer's "handsome" and "lovely" appearance.

In other letters, the artist described to her mother how playing the piano was like a tonic to her. In December 1948, Williams wrote that she had been "playing piano like mad," and explained that the playing went hand in hand with being able to paint well: "I've felt very pleasantly, creatively relaxed and my painting mind is opening up and my piano playing sounded quite well to me! Nothing good comes from the tense mind and body." She noted further that "Piano is a guide for me -- if I can pour it out -- I'm O.K.!"

 

KRAUSHAAR GALLERIES AND MOZARTIANA

In the 1930s, Williams' art was represented by the Grace Horne Gallery in Boston. After increasing financial difficulties in that relationship, she switched in 1940 to Kraushaar Galleries in New York, working with that gallery for over a decade and developing a close relationship with Antoinette Kraushaar, gallery director and niece of the gallery's founder. Williams had well-regarded exhibits with Kraushaar in 1941, 1944, and 1947, and it was at the first of these that she showed the Hillstrom Collection painting Mozartiana. This painting is in some ways characteristic of much of what Williams aimed for in her art, since it combines her interest in flowers and the piano with her devotion to music, in particular that of Mozart. The flowers in Mozartiana are purple, red and pink anemones, which, according to the artist's niece Julia Robinson, were a favorite of both Williams and her mother. And Mozart, as has been demonstrated, was a favorite composer of the artist, as was the piano her favored instrument.

Mozartiana can be understood as the artist's memorial to the brief life of Mozart. Anemones are associated symbolically with transience, and relate to the mythological story of Adonis, upon whose death the Goddess Venus, who loved him, caused the flowers to grow up from his spilled blood. The rich hues of anemones are associated with the color of blood, and Ovid, in his Metamorphoses, commented on the short-lived nature of the anemone bloom, which explains why the flower's name is derived from the Greek word for "wind" -- since the wind is as transient as the flower. In Christian symbolism, the anemone is frequently shown at the scene of Christ's Crucifixion. Thus, Williams' placement of a vase of anemones on a piano on which can be seen Mozart's music -- in the pale green covers of the publisher C. F. Peters, instantly recognizable to any piano student -- is a commemoration by the artist of the composer. Her title for the painting underscores this, since she added to Mozart's name the suffix iana, which is used to indicate commemoration. And the personal quality of the painting is further emphasized in the fact that the piano depicted appears to have been Williams' own piano (as she stated in her letter to Laura Penny, "I paint what interests me in the life around me."). An upright piano visible in a painting Williams made of her studio appears to be identical with the instrument shown in Mozartiana, and Williams' step-son Peter McKinney and her niece Julia Robinson confirm that one of the pianos she owned was such an upright.

Mozartiana was cited for praise in a February 2, 1941 New York Times review of Williams' Kraushaar exhibition that year. The review also mentioned and illustrated a pair of paintings jointly titled Two-Piano Concert. These provide an interesting aside and an indication of some of the thought that went into the artist's works. They were discussed in correspondence between Williams and an admirer named Peregrine White. White asked in letter of March 1941 if she could obtain photographs of the two paintings, regretting that she did not have the funds to purchase the actual works. She mentioned that she was an enthusiastic amateur pianist who was particularly interested in two-piano music, and noted that the performers depicted in Williams' paintings reminded her of Bartlett and Robertson, referring to the well-known popular British two-piano duo of that time, Ethel Bartlett (1896-1978) and her husband Rae Robertson (1893-1956). Bartlett and Robertson toured extensively in Europe and America starting in the late 1920s, and are sometimes credited with beginning the popularity of two-piano performances. The figures in Williams' paintings do, in fact, resemble the distinctive appearance of the duo, who arranged and published two-piano works, and for whom several prominent composers, such as Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), wrote pieces. Williams was herself an avid duo-piano participant, as attested in a letter of December 1948, in which she described playing her two pianos with Parker Bailey (1902-1982), a composer and transcriber of duo-piano works who had studied at Yale University. Two subsequent letters from Peregrine White to Williams seem to indicate Williams' agreement with the identity of the figures as Barlett and Robertson and shed further light as well (unfortunately, the artist's part of the correspondence is lost or unlocated). White described the pianists in the paintings as "constantly concluding but never quite concluding the Mozart sonata," which may indicate that Williams had specified that it was a Mozart work being performed in her depictions. White also noted that the images "do indeed carry an echo of music with them," which likely indicates that Williams had expressed her intent that her images of the duo should have something inherently musical about them -- that they would not be just depictions of musicians, but that the paintings would in some way themselves be a form of music.

Such an idea also seems to be indicated in the 1941 New York Times review:

The artist's lively brushwork reflects, both in subjects and surface, very real musical interest which carries over into a certain intrinsic quality in the work, a kind of exuberant lyricism. This applies even more to some of the still-lifes than to some of the musical subjects proper-the earlier "Mozartiana" with its rich anemones, the "Still-life with Drum" and the deep-toned "Fruit and Vegetables."

The Times reviewer found in Williams' work -- and not just in the subject matter but also in the very way she painted -- a kind of music. Such an idea deserves further attention, and another of Williams' letters sheds additional light. In January 1949, she described to her mother a concert by the renowned classical guitarist Andrés Segovia (1893-1987). A few days following this performance, Williams was at work on a painting inspired by Segovia, which she showed to her close friend and fellow music enthusiast Giovanna Lawford, a sculptor. Williams noted in her letter that Lawford "thinks I have the feel of him playing," indicating that the painting captured something of Segovia's musical performance, and was not merely a depiction of the man. In her music-related works, Williams was evidently attempting not just the depiction of a musical subject, and not just a true impression of a musician in performance. Instead, she wished to convey in the language available to her as a visual artist -- the handling of her brush, her composition, her style -- something distinctly musical: the "exuberant lyricism" of the New York Times reviewer.

 

METHODS IN ART

A consideration of Esther Williams' painting Mozartiana presents a marvelous opportunity to reflect on references and depictions in one artistic form of items from another, and to go a step further by reflecting on some of the similarities and differences in art media, in this case the visual arts -- especially painting -- and music.

A painting such as Mozartiana is a concrete object created by an artist to reflect an idea that originated in the artist's mind, done by applying paint to a flat surface to produce an image that the viewer can contemplate. This image may be representational, depicting recognizable objects, or it may be abstract, using color, shading, texture, and so forth to create the final image without reference to any particular object. When depicting objects, the artist has the freedom to represent them with "photographic" realism and detail, or to use some possibly minimal detail that merely suggests the objects. The artist may also depict objects in either conventional or in unorthodox juxtapositions in the total content of the painting, for the latter breaking them up into parts and combining them in unusual ways, or perhaps combining objects that don't belong together in "real life." The artist may have a specific impetus for creating a particular painting, such as a story to tell, an event to portray, an object or person to represent and interpret, or an emotion to suggest and elicit in the viewer. When finished with a painting, the artist is essentially finished with the creative process. The viewer beholds the painting and draws conclusions as to the intent of the artist -- who is typically not present -- and has an emotional reaction from such viewing. The painting as an object is essentially static (although its effect can certainly be affected by the context in which it is viewed-including the frame in which it is displayed, the lighting in which it is seen, and the viewer's own background, current emotional state, and previous experience).

 

MOZARTIANA AND MUSIC

Williams' Mozartiana is a still life of flowers in a vase, with one bloom lying on the keys of a piano, which, with a book, or score, of music by Mozart, is represented behind the vase. The overt musical aspect is suggested by portraying a small portion of the piano keyboard and a mostly obscured score that has just enough of the Mozart name visible to inform of the artist's intent. Several details are altered from reality, such as the significant widening of the key cheek, which is the board next to the upper register of the piano keys, to accommodate the vase of flowers (a placement that strikes terror in the heart of a pianist!), or the location of the music book far to one side of the piano instead of in the center. As configured, this painting of a still life is pointing to another artistic medium, that of music, and to Williams' favorite composer, Mozart.

Just as the painter uses brushes and other tools to apply paint to canvas in order to create the image that began as an idea in her imagination, working out the details in the process, so does a musician use a pen or pencil, or today perhaps a computer music notation program, to write out a score that suggests the musical composition that began in his imagination.

 

METHODS IN MUSIC

A composer, similar to a painter, uses specific component elements, in this case pitch, rhythm, timbre, melody, and harmony, to communicate an artistic idea. The composer may also have a "story" to tell, a text to communicate, or, again, an emotion to suggest and to elicit in the hearer. While text in the form of words can be included in the body of a painting, as in the partly obscured "Mozart" name in Williams' painting, it is relatively rare and usually quite limited. A musical composition, on the other hand, may include a lengthy text, with the music serving as a vehicle to carry and interpret that text, and possibly also make it more memorable. When a particular melody is regularly associated with a particular text, as with hymns or popular songs, another composition incorporating that melody has the power to call to mind the associated text. Of course, many musical compositions have no associated text, no "story" to tell, but are directly communicated from the soul of the composer to the soul of the listener. Such is the situation of a piano sonata by Mozart.

 

PAINTING FROM MUSIC

In her painting, Mozartiana, Esther Williams has used partial images of a musical instrument and a musical score behind a beautiful arrangement of flowers, all painted in her lyrical style, to suggest to the viewer the beauty of a Mozart composition, which can logically be assumed to be a piano sonata. Williams has used color, shape, juxtaposition, contrast -- in other words, the whole vocabulary of her artistic medium -- to create a painting that is beautiful to behold, and that also serves as a memorial to Mozart. When viewing the painting, there is no actual music present, but only a suggestion of its existence. And clearly the painter meant to indicate through her painterly medium that such a musical composition would, like the painting itself, also be a beautiful creation to enjoy. One can examine the painting, analyze its structure, colors, images, and the techniques used in its creation. Or one can step back and look at the totality of its composition. In either case, the painting, this particular artistic creation, is the object hanging on the wall for the viewer to see.

A musical composition, such as a Mozart piano sonata, is not at all so tangible. Mozart wrote a score that tells a performer what notes (pitches) should sound at what time (rhythm), in what order (melody), in what combinations (harmony), played by what instrument (timbre), and at what intensity (volume), but these details are not the sonata that Mozart imagined and created. The standardized notation of a score allows the examination of Mozart's ideas and how he structured the composition, but that alone does not enable the sonata to be experienced: only when a performer or a recording of a performance is being heard -- thus recreating the piece -- can the listener experience the work. That experience unfolds over time as the listener hears patterns of notes and rhythms, compares the sound being heard at each instant with the previously heard sounds, and predicts what the next sounds will be. Only then does the melody unfold, the harmonies progress, the rhythms excite, the phrases take shape, the whole form become clear, and the artistic vision of the composer and its emotional impact become evident. The composition exists in the mind of the listener just for that fleeting interval of time when it is being recreated in performance. It is totally intangible, and the written score is not the composition -- it is only an outline or roadmap that allows a performer to recreate it.

Although visual and musical artists both start with an idea, and they both use physical materials -- such as paint, canvas, paper, ink -- to create something that shares their artistic vision with others, there are basic, particular differences. In the case of Esther Williams, her creation is the physical object of the painting Mozartiana, a work that causes the viewer to reflect on the beauty of nature and the beauty of human creations like a Mozart sonata. In the case of Mozart, he wrote down a score from the musical ideas in his head that he or another pianist could use to recreate the sonata in performance, so that the listener could hear it and thus apprehend in his or her own mind the musical ideas that originated in Mozart's.

 

MUSIC FROM PAINTING

An additional example, in reverse, of one artistic medium reflecting on another, is the suite of solo piano pieces titled Pictures at an Exhibition, by Russian composer Modest Musorgsky (1839-1881). These fifteen pieces were written in response to an exhibition of drawings and paintings by artist Viktor Hartmann (1834-1873), a close friend of Musorgsky. Hartmann, like Mozart, died when he was less than 40 years old, and a mutual friend of the artist and the composer organized an exhibition of Hartmann's drawings and paintings the year after his death. This exhibit inspired Musorgsky to compose his musical depictions of ten of the paintings and drawings, with intermezzos, called "Promenades," that appear as interludes several times and represent the composer wandering through the exhibition. Each movement captures in a musical language something Musorgsky saw as the essence of a particular artwork. The contrasts and juxtapositions of the fifteen movements, established and organized by the composer, result in an overall structure that has artistic shape and interest for the listener.

Just as Esther Williams' painting can only hint at the sound of Mozart's musical compositions, so also Musorgsky's piano pieces can only hint at the visual effect of Hartmann's drawings and paintings in the 1874 exhibition (many of which, unfortunately, have been lost or destroyed). And just as Esther Williams combined a vase of anemones, a portion of a musical score, and a corner of a piano into a painting that serves as a tribute to her favorite composer, so, too, did Musorgsky assemble his musical responses to ten specific artworks to create an aesthetically satisfying piano suite as a tribute to his recently deceased artist friend. In both cases, the artists were moved to respond to artwork from an art medium different from their own, but in the process to create an artistic expression in her or his own medium, a new artwork that could serve as an appropriate memorial to an admired artist of an alternative artistic form.

 

About the authors

David Fienen is Edgar F. and Ethel Johnson Professor of Fine Arts, Organist and Cantor of Christ Chapel, and Chairperson of the Department of Music, Donald Myers is Director, Hillstrom Museum of Art

 

Further Reading:

Esther Baldwin Williams and Esther Williams Papers, 1892-1984, Archives of American Art/Smithsonian Institution, reels 917-918, 921, and 3975.

Levitin, Daniel J., This Is Your Brain on Music; The Science of a Human Obsession,

New York, Dutton, 2006.

Gernot, Gruber, Mozart and Posterity, Boston, Northeastern University Press, 1994.

Paintings, Drawings, Lithographs by Esther Williams, Worcester (Massachusetts) Art Museum, 1936.

Williams, Nadia, Charles Abbot Baldwin and His Family, 1838-1927, privately published, Pigeon Cove, Massachusetts, 1984.


Resource Library editor's note:

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on September 28, 2007 with permission of the Hillstrom Museum of Art, which was granted to TFAO on September 27, 2007.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Donald Myers for his help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

RL readers may also enjoy:

FOCUS IN/ON - Esther Williams, Art and Music from Gustavus Adolphus College

rev. 9/28/07


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