In La Pianiste, Braque challenged the expectations of a theme so often tackled by his famed contemporary, Henri Matisse. Executed in 1937, this work represents his subject at its most robust and dynamic. Braque’s detailed use of faux bois effect in the body of the piano both echoes his Cubist collage compositions while also subtly referencing his father and grandfather who made their living through such tromp l’oeil effects. His use of sand mixed with oil adds texture to his flattened planes and further increases the dazzling contrast of color in the body of the figure, the patterned background and the upright piano.
La Pianiste comes from a highly important and evocative series of large-scale canvases in which Braque focuses, rather unusually, on female sitters. These women play the piano, sing, strum a mandolin, apply paint to a canvas and sit for their portrait among highly patterned domestic interiors. Braque himself was musical, classically trained in the violin, flute, and even the accordion. “He is reported to have been a good musician, a singer with a pleasant voice, and an accomplished, enthusiastic dancer…. Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, remembered that he boasted of being able to ‘play Beethoven symphonies on the accordion” (K. Wilkin, Georges Braque, New York, 1991, p. 8). Several of his close friends, including Erik Satie and Georges Auric, were prominent composers; Claude Debussy, whose sheet music is visible in Le Duo, now at the Centre Georges Pompidou, was a great admirer of Braque and his work while Braque in turn paid homage to his favorite composer, Bach, in several paintings.
Instruments and sheet music first appeared in Braque’s works during his pivotal early Cubist years. They would recur in still lifes throughout the following decades. La Pianiste, however, while echoing the artist’s previous compositions focuses on a new subject matter – the female figure in an interior: “The great cycles of paintings from Braque’s mature years—the salons, the domestic interiors and still lifes, the studios, the billiard tables, the garden chairs—are, in a sense, simply expansions of the intimate tabletop world of the early days of Cubism…. Repeated, deliberately restricted imagery is nothing new to Braque, but the notion of working in coherent series seems to have originated with the larger interiors of 1936-37… pictures such as Woman at an Easel or The Duo, which amalgamate the salon and the studio. Just as he had conflated many aspects of a single still-life object into an eloquent Synthetic Cubist shape, so Braque conflated the place of ordinary domestic life, of leisure and—for him, apparently—of music, with the workplace, the room consecrated to a kind of labor and to the visual. The real subject of these pictures is the complexity of the settings themselves, the overwhelming patterning of bourgeois French rooms…. The canvases are packed with wallpaper, paneling, the intricacies of studio fittings, and living room furniture” (ibid., p. 79)
In La Pianiste Braque uses thickly applied passages of oil and sand without varnish to evoke the patterned walls, tasseled cushion of the chair and delicately models the piano to evoke a faux bois effect previously rendered by collage elements. The unvarnished surface of the present work gives the canvas an immediate and tactile quality found in the artist's most highly regarded works. Similar subject matter can be found in classic Impressionist painters’ works such as Paul Cézanne’s Jeune fille au piano - ouverture du 'Tannhäuser' and Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Les Filles de Catulle Mendès. Two works by Matisse – La Leçon de piano of 1916 and Pianiste et joueurs de dames of 1924 – also contain the central motif of the piano, though the interiors of these two works sharply differ from each other in their incorporation of textile, wallpaper and pattern.
While Braque is often thought of, after his dazzling fauve canvases of the early 1900s, as an artist who worked primarily in a muted palette of browns, ochres, deep greens and blacks, La Pianiste reintroduces bright, contrasting color to his compositions. The sitter is clothed in a bright mauve which is further emphasized by the matching tone of the seat cushion beneath her. The sharp outline of the figure’s left side however is shown in a stark black. This contrast device indicates shadow: “In many of the still lifes of the twenties, Braque represented certain sill-life elements in an arbitrary black-and-white division of light and shade.... In the late thirties he began to use this device in designing the human figure.... When one sees this device on the face and torso with long angular planes repeating the contours of organic shapes—one side dark, one light—the image tends to become two figures or perhaps a substance and a shadow, and a new ray of psychological meaning enters the picture…” (H. R. Hope, Georges Braque (exhibition catalogue), The Museum of Modern Art, New York & Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, 1949, pp. 127-28).
La Pianiste was exhibited the year it was created at Galerie Paul Rosenberg in Paris. Braque’s art dealer since the early 1920s, Rosenberg was one of the premier gallerists associated with the Cubist Movement. He would go on to exhibit this work twice more in his New York gallery, where Dr. Arthur M. Sackler, the noted physician and research psychiatrist acquired this work in 1958. Sackler’s collection was legendary in breadth and scope.
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