The violin has held a central position in European culture for almost five centuries. Throughout that period, violin makers have taken great pride in the visual appearance of their instruments, which in turn has inspired generations of visual artists. As a result, the violin has enjoyed a second career as the subject of paintings. The representation of the violin in paintings now offers a fascinating insight into the instrument’s history. The physical development of the instrument can be traced through these images, as can the gradually evolving cultural status of music and the social standing of the musicians who perform it.
The development of the modern violin began in Northern Italy around the middle of the 16th century. It was a product of the Renaissance, which by that time had already spawned a flourishing visual arts culture, which in turn documented the early evolution of the instrument.
This image was painted in the 1490s by an associate of Leonardo da Vinci, possibly Francesco Napoletano. It is one of three panels for an altarpiece for the church of S. Francesco in Milan, which are now in the collection of the National Gallery in London. The angel plays a vielle, a precursor of the modern violin. The vielle may have developed from Byzantine lira or the Arab rebab. It differs from the modern violin in having five rather than four strings, a more rectangular body and a leaf shaped pegbox with the pegs facing forward. Illuminated manuscripts of the period also often feature vielles, although usually in the hands of troubadours rather than angels.
Forty years later, in 1529-30, Gaudenzio Ferrari painted this image, Madonna degli Aranci (Madonna of the Orange Trees), for the Church of St. Cristoforo in Vercelli, Italy. The cherub at the bottom of the image plays an instrument that is much more recognisable as a violin. Both the shape of the body, with its clearly defined bouts, and the playing position, link this example to the modern instrument. However, it has only three strings, suggesting that the modern four-string configuration was not yet firmly established.
By the end of the 16th century, the Cremonese school of violin makers had transformed the instrument. By their efforts, the structure and design of the violin was standardised, and the quality and sophistication of the instrument rose significantly. This also had a bearing on the violin’s cultural status, and by the mid 17th century it had become closely associated with the aristocratic classes. As well as playing a central role in the music-making of the nobility, the violin also became a decorative object in mansions and stately homes. This image, painted in the late 16th or early 17th century by Jan van der Vaardt, originally hung at Devonshire House in Piccadilly but is now in the collection of Chatsworth House. It is a Trompe l'oeil, designed to fool the eye into believing that a real violin is present. So the background is painted to imitate as closely as possible the wooden panel against which the painting originally hung. The bow is an interesting feature of this image. Although the shape of the violin had been standardised by this point, bow design remained variable. But most followed this design, shorter than the modern bow, with no distinct head and a very pointed tip. The modern bow design was pioneered by Francois Tourte in the 1780s.
The violin makes many appearances in 18th century portraiture. This painting, by François-Hubert Drouais, dates from 1756 and shows the marquis de Sourches and his family posing in a pastoral setting. Although the violin was considered the height of sophistication by this point, the instruments it appears with here suggest it also retained some more rustic undertones. There was a fashion at the time for aristocratic families to visit the country and dress and behave like commoners. The instrument played by the seated boy is a musette and was developed specifically for this pastime. It is a kind of miniature bagpipe, but quieter and more civilised than the folk instruments it is modelled on. The appearance of the violin in this setting suggests that it was also called into service on these occasions.
From the Renaissance onwards, it was standard practice to represent characters in contemporary dress, even in paintings depicting biblical or classical subjects. Similarly, the musical instruments that appeared tended to be those of the painter’s time. But this painting, Song of the Angels (1881) by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, takes a consciously archaic approach to the instruments depicted. The three angels are shown playing a lute, a portative organ and a violin. The violin is modern in configuration, but the bow is of Baroque style. Clearly, the painter was not aware of the changes that had been made to the violin since the early 18th century, especially in the shape of the fingerboard. Also, the bow is shown to be under much higher tension than would have been the case for this early design. The painting dates from just before the earliest explorations of period performance practice by musicians and shows the significant gaps in understanding (at least of non-specialists), of the violin’s early history.
In the early 20th century, the violin made appearances in the works of many of the most radical avant garde artists. Picasso regularly painted violins, or at least produced paintings in which the title states that a violin in present, even if it is only suggested in the image through a pair of f-holes or four converging lines alluding to the strings across the fingerboard. This painting, Violon bouteilles de Marc et cartes (1919) is by Louis Marcoussis, another Cubist based in Paris. Marcoussis was particularly interested in representing musical instruments in a Cubist manner. Guitars and zithers also appear regularly in his work, but neither as often as the violin.
Painters continued to be drawn to the violin throughout the 20th century and beyond. The resemblance of the instrument’s body to the female form was exploited by many painters seeking to convey Freudian themes through apparently inanimate objects. This recent painting, Violin (2006) by Portuguese artist Rui Carruço, continues the theme. It demonstrates that, right up to the present day, the violin continues to have a powerful presence in the visual arts, where it is rarely treated as an inanimate object, but rather as a living entity, presented, as here, as if it were the subject of a still life.