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by Michèle C. Cone
For Jean-Antoine Watteau, the French 18th-century painter of fêtes galantes, opera ballets and commedia dell’arte, music was the melodious accompaniment of courtship and a ready ingredient in sexual conquest. The guitar was the instrument of choice, and its guttural sensuality would seem to have had an irresistible effect on the serenaded couples. To wit, the musician surveying the nearby amorous couple in Watteau’s famous La Surprise (ca. 1718), currently on view in "Watteau, Music, and Theater" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Sept. 21-Nov. 29, 2009.

When the guitar player appears alone in the role of Pierrot, the lonely tragicomic outcast of the commedia dell’arte, as is the case with the character Mezzetin, doleful singing fills the air. But when a fête champêtre is the artist’s subject, as it is in Watteau’s The Pleasures of the Ball (1716), the minuet dancing performed in the painting and being watched by an enchanted audience conveys the rhythm and tempo of light-hearted baroque music [see Paradise Island, Oct. 27, 2009].

Not everyone is charmed by the contrived beauty and artificiality of Watteau’s art, but the flirtatious atmosphere he describes has left its imprint on the French psyche to this day, and his portrayal of a decadent society with a "let them eat cake" mentality is not irrelevant to our own time. Moreover, visual expressions of amorous feelings, depictions of musicians, of dancing and frolicking are hardly unique to Watteau and his era, but belong to genre painting everywhere.

"American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765-1915," another exhibition on view at the Metropolitan, in galleries on the same floor as "Watteau," offers here and there images of the American version of such frivolous behavior and of its musical accoutrements. So how did American artists portray the pleasures of the ball and other forms of merry-making in the 18th and 19th century? Who was the American Mezzetin, the provider of musical entertainment? And who, if anyone, painted the American version of La Surprise?  

In the "American Stories" exhibition, paintings showing white couples in amorous relations are few and far between. Where evident, the white seducer tends to be an older instructor, whether in art or music, flirting with his young female student.

Samuel F.B. Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre (1831-33), on view near the end of the show, famously sets its scene in a high-ceilinged gallery filled with tiered masterpieces, while a young woman is seated below, being coached in drawing by a male instructor. Leaning over her from behind, and pointing at the drawing she is working on, he is in a good position to glance at her décolleté and quite bare bosom, and to whisper niceties in her ear.

A similar scenario seems to be taking place in John George Brown’s The Music Lesson (1870), a close-up view of a well-dressed young man seated next to a fashionably dressed young female pupil. Their heads nearly touch as the young man, holding a flute, supervises the girl’s playing of the piccolo. The red wall and red carpet suffuse the room with warmth and hint at passionate feelings that can only be expressed in a sublimated manner, unlike Watteau’s extravagantly embracing couple in La Surprise.

Numerous symbols of shared bliss suffuse the George Brown painting. Most Freudian is the instrument in the young man’s hands, a flute. Indeed, a flute or other objects of similar shape repeatedly appear in paintings of marital bliss, suggesting -- or revealing -- an obsession with virility and conquest. It is a telescope in the double portrait of Benjamin and Eleanor Ridgely Laming from 1788 by Charles Willson Peale, and it is a sword in George Cochran Lambdin’s The Consecration from 1861. In the latter painting, featuring a farewell scene between a bride and her officer husband, the young woman is kissing the sword.

At least one painting in the show suggests that from early on, American men were more frivolous away from home than at home. The earliest work about merry-making American-style in "American Stories" does not include a musical instrument, though it does have some dancing in a pub. It sets its scene not in the U.S. but at the distant destination of Surinam, then a Dutch outpost on the northeast coast of South America.

No women are present in John Greenwood’s Captains Carousing in Surinam (1752), and it is just as well, for the behavior of the men is hardly exemplary. There is gambling, drinking and smoking out of long white pipes. While some of the men have already dropped to the ground, others sit half asleep at a large communal table. On the right-hand side, two well-dressed young gentlemen with their tricorn hats still on their heads are attempting a minuet, though the source of the music is not clear.

If music could emanate from a picture, this one would no doubt produce bawdy songs rather than baroque music. According to the diaries of the painter, carousing was the way wealthy businessmen from the Rhode Island port of Newport filled empty time while awaiting the outcome of negotiations with the Dutch involving lucrative but treacherous trade in lumber, horses, rum, sugar, molasses, coffee, indigo and slaves.

Of the American paintings portraying the role of music in merry-making, Kitchen Ball at White Sulphur Spring (1838) by the German-born painter Christian Friedrich Mayr is the most unusual. Its subject is black servants holding a dance party in the basement kitchen of a famous resort hotel that the painter himself frequently patronized. Men and women of various ages are gathered in the high-ceilinged kitchen, lit by a chandelier with four candles.

Were it not for a maid’s bonnet abandoned on the floor next to kitchen pots and pans, and a dog symbolizing a master/servant relationship, one might forget that the men and women portrayed here are slaves. Nothing in the dancing suggests African roots. In fact, while the dance being performed by the white-clad black couple has none of the exaggerated grace of the two dancers in Watteau ’s The Pleasures of the Ball, their version of a dance a deux (whereby a couple dances in sync without touching) resembles in a folksy way the dancing in the French painting. It’s a polka rather than a minuet.

Even the musicians’ instruments in the American work, a fiddle, a bass and a piccolo, are quite similar in both paintings. However, the musicians in Kitchen Ball at White Sulphur Spring are not figures from the commedia dell’arte but are black men whose habitual function -- like the cooks, the maids and grooms gathered for what is probably a wedding -- is to perform for the satisfaction and pleasure of the "upstairs" guests.

Indeed, one of the revelations of the show is the color of the skin of the musicians in American scenes of reveling and dancing. In William Sidney Mount’s Rustic Dance after a Sleigh Ride (1830), a black musician with a front seat in the parlor of a crowded bourgeois interior accompanies on his fiddle two dancing couples in quadrille formation. A holiday mood pervades the painting but the behavior is not rowdy.

In The Quilting Frolic (1813) by John Lewis Krimmel, a black man holding a fiddle follows his master and mistress into the sitting room of a home where a new quilt has just been completed. Inside, black and white children and young women are busy cleaning up. Cakes and tea are about to be served and dancing is about to begin, no doubt to celebrate the conclusion of several weeks of hard work. In American genre painting, then, the role of Mezzetin, Watteau’s guitar player, would appear to be played by the black fiddler.

The association between African Americans and music-making is suggested in two other paintings in the show, both made rather later than the ones discussed so far. One of them is William Sidney Mount’s 1847 The Power of Music, the other is Negro Life at the South (1859) by Eastman Johnson. Mount’s well-known painting depicts a black man who has stopped on his errand to listen outside a barn where a young white fiddler is performing for two white listeners. In the Johnson painting, a young white woman is seen emerging from the back door of her house, attracted by the doleful sound of banjo coming from the dilapidated slave quarters featured in the painting. A black banjo player occupies the center of that scene.

Johnson’s Negro Life at the South is arguably a far more subversive interpretation of the power of music than the Mount painting, for it depicts a white woman leaving her wealthy protected environment to mingle with the servant class. As in La Surprise, the American painting shows the seductive power of music, but in a radical departure, the seducer of the white woman is a banjo-playing black man. 

Before the end of slavery, music-making seems to be a bridge between whites and blacks. After the Civil War, black fiddlers, indeed all black figures, disappear from genre painting, at least in the pictures in "American Stories." As American society becomes urbanized, and a new leisured class emerges, painters find their subjects in family life, with an occasionally unwholesome tinge. In Making a Train (1867) by Seymour Joseph Guy, for example, a naughty girl trying to emulate her mother’s long train has pulled down her dress below the waist so it drags on the floor, baring her preadolescent chest.

Sport events, like sculling in Thomas EakinsThe Champion Single Skull (1871) and sailing in Winslow Homer’s Breezing Up (A Fair Wind) (1873-76), become favorite subjects. American men apparently enjoy the company and rivalry of other men. An unwitting caricature of amorous relations between men and women at the end of the 19th century is found in the 1881 painting by Mary Cassatt entitled A Woman and a Girl Driving. The young woman who is driving the carriage is seated back to back with her gentleman friend. "The woman’s position -- in the driver’s seat -- is one that metaphorically departs from the normal social order and may even carry a veiled challenge to that order," writes Barbara Weinberg in the exhibition catalogue. "But at the same time, it is courageously normalized here by the slice-of-life point of view from which Cassatt chose to present it."

MICHÈLE C. CONE is a New York-based critic and cultural historian.