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The 14 greatest composer portraits throughout history

Features - Classical Music | Visual Art

The 14 greatest composer portraits throughout history

by Francis Merson on September 26, 2013 (September 26, 2013) filed under Classical Music | Visual Art | Comment Now
Not only did these composers write immortal music, they inspired history’s great artists to new heights of expression.

GLINKA BY ILYA REPIN

           

This portrait by Ilya Repin from Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery has become the definitive representation of the father of Russian classical music – and perhaps rightly so. Painted by a legendary portraitist, whose subjects included Nicholas II, Tolstoy and Mussorgsky, it captures Glinka musing on the composition of the opera that would secure his renown – Ruslan and Ludmila. The domestic garb, empty tea glass and strewn papers all speak of a single moment frozen in paint, so it may be a surprise to learn the painting was completed 30 years after the composer’s death in 1857. Repin was too young to have known Glinka. Ironically, the greatest likeness of Glinka comes from a man who never met him.

ISAAC ALBÉNIZ BY CASAS

 
Growing up in the north of Spain and moving to Madrid in 1885, pianist and composer Isaac Albéniz transformed his home into a mecca for Spanish arts through regular soirées hosted in his drawing room. Attracting notable musicians, writers and artists from around the country such as violinist Pablo de Sarasate, poet Santiago Rusiñol and Catalan painter Ramon Casas, Albéniz was well-known for pleasing his guests with fine food and dazzling improvisations at the piano. In return for such genial hospitality, Casas painted his portrait of the 34-year-old Albéniz in 1894, which today stands as a lasting testament to their friendship. To repay the favour, Albéniz dedicated his most important work for orchestra, Catalonia, to Casas in 1899.

GUSTAV MAHLER BY ORLÍK 

 
A sought-after portraitist, Emil Orlík became famous for his portrayals of renowned composers such as Bruckner and Richard Strauss at the turn of the 20th century. In an account by Czech conductor Josef Stransky, it was he who was responsible for the meeting of Orlík and Mahler after a chance encounter with Orlík in a Prague café, where he suggested the artist and composer should collaborate on a project. At their first meeting, Orlík wasted no time in sketching Mahler. The composer, impressed by the artist’s efforts immediately invited him to paint his official portrait in Vienna, with the work unveiled later that year in 1902 to great critical acclaim. Despite this, Mahler remained less than enthusiastic about Orlík, describing him as an “unavoidable” and “confused fellow” in a subsequent letter to his wife.
 

WILLIAM WALTON BY MICHAEL AYRTON

 
Artist and set designer Michael Ayrton created this portrait of William Walton on the island of Capri in 1948, where Walton was recuperating from jaundice. It was no accident that Walton chose a Mediterranean island for R and R: he was in the middle of writing an opera on a Trojan theme, Troilus and Cressida. Couched against the rocky promontory, whose folds seem contiguous with those of Walton’s shirt, the composer appears melded with the landscape. Rare prescience was shown in identifying the composer with his surroundings: the next year Walton sold his London house and moved to the neighbouring island of Ischia.

 

JEAN-BAPTISTE LULLY BY FRANÇOIS PUGET

 
Traditionally the two main figures in this group of musicians have been identified as the composer Lully (with the violin) and his librettist Philippe Quinault (holding a lute). Supposedly from 1688, Réunion de musiciens shows the once handsome Lully looking up, perhaps seeking musical inspiration, perhaps to disguise a couple of chins. The portrait is dated the year after the composer’s famously grisly end. Since Quinault also died that year we may presume the reunion was not of this world. Unromantic spoilsports place the painting around 1677. Here the musicians are merely Provençal friends of the artist. Pooh pooh!

HILDEGARD VON BINGEN SELF-PORTRAIT

Not only was the 12th-century composer a visionary, healer and leader, she even found time to hone her skills as an artist and illuminator. This self-portrait is probably from an original in a copy of her first book, ten years in the writing. It depicts the composer in what can best be described as a state of ecstasy. We can date the portrait to around 1145, since Hildegard herself writes, “When I was 42 years and seven months old, a burning light of tremendous brightness coming from heaven poured into my mind. Like a flame that does not burn but enkindles, it inflamed my entire heart and my entire breast, just like the sun that warms with its rays”. Wow.

RACHMANINOV BY BORIS GRIGORIEV

In 1930, two of the leading lights of Russian art, both exiles from their homeland, met in New York. One was a composer forced into life as a concert performer to sustain his family; the other was a painter famous for depicting the poverty of the Russian peasantry, only to succumb to poverty himself after the 1917 Russian Revolution left him penniless. The resulting portrait captures the melancholy of a whole generation of dispatriated Russian emigrés. Is Rachmaninov looking down at the piano keys? Or are his eyes downcast in melancholy, as he dreams of a country that no longer exists. Neither men would return to Russia.

CHERUBINI BY JEAN-AUGUSTE-DOMINIQUE INGRES

Luigi Cherubini was born in Florence, later moving to Paris where he became famous for his operas – and his foul temper. He clashed with Berlioz, who depicted him in his memoirs as a crotchety pedant. Adolphe Adam agreed, writing: “some maintain his temper was very even – because he was always angry.” Ingres, however, who was also a gifted violinist, got on with Cherubini like a house on fire. Ingres liked his music and Cherubini liked to paint. However, the artist aroused Cherubini’s ire by depicting the 82-year-old composer with the Muse of Lyric Poetry (inset). Cherubini insisted the Muse be scrapped, giving more prominence to his own person. Pensive or crotchety? Up to you.

GIUSEPPE VERDI BY BOLDINI

This is a case of the subject making the painter. Giovanni Boldini was born in Ferrara but moved to Paris where his distinctive style caught the eye of the elderly Giuseppe Verdi. The subsequent commission, with its striking, almost rakish air, was a great hit. In 1886 the composer was the biggest celebrity of his day and Verdi gave Boldini an entré to the lucrative world of opera where his career was made. Boldini’s flattering, soft-focus yet alive portraits earned him the sobriquet “The Master of Swish”. Curiously, in 1929, aged 86, the artist suddenly married. At his wedding he declared, “It is not my fault if I am so old, it’s something which has happened to me all at once.” Two years later he was no more.

MAURICE RAVEL BY ACHILLE OUVRÉ

This undated etching by the artist and illustrator Achille Ouvré reveals Ravel not, as commonly depicted, at the piano but, unusually, in a set of fashionable pyjamas and scratching his ear. The composer had dispensed with the beard by 1910 and so the portrait probably dates from around 1905 when Ravel would have been 30 – the period of Miroirs and Rapsodie Espagnole. By this time, rival factions had formed around Ravel and the older Debussy, and the portrait, with its nouveau Bohemian style would single out Ravel as the more “modern” of the two. The public tension caused relations to cool. As Ravel said, “It’s probably better after all for us to be on frigid terms for illogical reasons.”

MOZART BY JOHANN GEORG EDLINGER

In 1790 Johann Georg Edinger painted a portrait of a musician who was unusually world-weary for a 35-year-old. The work, catalogued in Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie as simply “Man in a Green Coat”, waited until 2005 before being identified as the last portrait of Mozart, apparently painted during the composer’s final visit to Munich. Biometric techniques were used to identify the figure in the portrait as the wonder of Salzburg himself, prompting outcry at a depiction of what the German media called a “worn down and chubby man”. The cares etched into Mozart’s face would, indeed, soon wear him down completely – he was dead less than a year after the portrait was completed.

ERIC SATIE BY PICASSO

This depiction of Satie was sketched by Picasso soon after the two met in a production by The Ballet Russes under the direction of Sergei Diaghilev in Paris. Picasso, who was commissioned to design the sets and costumes for Parade, struck up a friendship with Satie, who was engaged in orchestrating the original libretto by French poet and dramatist Jean Cocteau. Unfortunately, however, the premiere in 1917 was an unmitigated failure. Booed and hissed by audiences on opening night, the orchestra members had fruit hurled at them while Satie was slapped across the face by one less-than-impressed concert-goer. Although a flop, the Parade debacle heralded in a lifelong friendship between artist and sitter.

FRANZ LISZT BY MIKLÓS BARABÁS

Strong character portrayals are a common feature in works by Hungarian artist Miklós Barabás, who achieved widespread success with portraits of various European political and artistic figures in the mid-19th century. This 1847 portrayal of Franz Liszt provides an interesting insight into the pianist’s psyche. The manly stance and national dress at the work’s forefront, with the piano in the background, presents first and foremost Liszt’s robust personality and fierce Hungarian nationalism. The portrait’s dreamy aesthetic is also reflective of the predilections of Liszt, who partook in numerous stormy love affairs and lived the Romantic ideal to the hilt.

MUSSORGSKY BY ILYA REPIN

Like many Russian noblemen of his era, Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) was a prodigious drinker. Towards the end of his tragically brief life, he had virtually abandoned composition, spending day and night in a seedy Saint Petersburg tavern, the Maly Yaroslavets. In 1881, Mussorgksy’s friends, noting that the lavishly gifted composer was on a permanent downhill slide, implored portraitist Ilya Repin to paint him.. before it was too late. As the resulting portrait of a red-nosed, bedraggled man shows, Repin refrained from making Mussorgsky into a poster boy for the vie de Bohème. The composer died a few days after the completion of this portrait, the only likeness made in Mussorgsky’s lifetime.