A Painting by Any Other Name

How much does the title of an artwork affect how we respond to it? It is an interesting question, especially because until the first salon exhibits started under King Louis XIV in 1667 at the French Royal Academy, there wasn’t a tradition of artist’s giving their work a title.  Sometimes a title was given and more often than not works were left untitled. There wasn’t a need as paintings and sculptures were commissioned by patrons who requested a specific theme and no one envisioned either museums or future historians discussing each work. 

In fact most famous paintings created before the 18th century were actually named by art historians or museum curators in the 19th century for the purpose of research or cataloguing work.  Even in the 17th century when art was painted for the general art market and galleries, the modern idea of giving all works of art a title wasn’t in place yet.  We will look at three examples, all from Dutch 17th century art, a time when many “genre” paintings or scenes of everyday life were created.

The painting above, ter Borch’s Parental Admonition is a good example of a wrongly titled painting.  It was originally incorrectly interpreted as a set of parents scolding their young daughter who bows her head shamefully.  However upon closer examination it was determined to be a scene at a brothel.  Brothel scenes and allegories of sin were a popular theme in the 17th century Netherlands.  Another example of a painting given an incorrect title can be seen below in ter Borch’s contemporary, Samuel van Hoogstraten The Slippers.  

We have on the surface a quiet interior setting without figures with two slippers in the foreground.  On closer examination we have before us another allegory of lust and temptation.  The slippers are not a set, there is one man’s and one woman’s.  A broom in the foreground has been left to the side as if to suggest that the woman who was cleaning (the mistress of the house or maybe a maidservant) and the master of the house have snuck into the bedroom together.  The painting within the painting, the Father Admonishing his Daughter by Netscher was a variation of the above work by Gerard Ter Borch. The contemporary viewer would have taken note of the extinguished candle and immediately understood what was going on.
Jan Steen, The Doctor’s Visit, 1658-62, private collection

The last painting we will look at is The Doctor’s Visit by Jan Steen, an artist who did several variations on this theme.  Paintings of young women who were visited by doctors were often titled either “The Doctor’s Visit” or “The Lovesick Woman” but more accurately these are an allegory of sin or lust.  The “lovesickness” in question is usually pregnancy outside of marriage.  Many symbols in these paintings refer to love and lust and again the scene would have been instantly recognizable to the contemporary Dutch viewer.

Titles are something all viewers should carefully consider, who exactly gave a work of art its title?  When it was the artist a whole other level of information is suggested to the viewer and when it was a historian sometimes that level of information is missing or a new subject is implied.  This is an interesting subject area and one I will come back to.

Practise Methods and Approaches for Students of Musical Instruments

Many of us wanting to learn an instrument will initially want to play certain songs or pieces by our favourite bands or musicians. This is great for inspiration and will offer a goal, and in exchange for our efforts in practising on the instrument the goal will be realised. The journey from goal to achievement will depend on many factors, but the ones we are interested in here are the best methods for practise.

Over many years I have bought countless books and materials hoping to find new and different approaches to learning. While some of the techniques in these books will have contributed to my development some may have been far less successful.

After studying these materials one of the most valuable learning tools I have adopted is the implementation of repeating passages or sections of music to degrees that may seem unnecessary. So instead of practising a passage for example 10 times, it would not be unreasonable to practise it 100 times although you may feel you have already mastered the passage after 10 repeats. It is also important to note that these repeated passages should be untainted in terms of bad execution of the notes involved. A poorly performed passage should not be considered a repeated passage in this context.

The number of times you attempt a passage or piece of music is not the only important factor in learning it, the speed at which it is practised and how comfortable it is to play will also affect your success. As mentioned previously a passage played badly is not a passage worth counting so one way to improve the number of times a passage can be played without error is to bring the tempo down. I believe this is one of the most crucial aspects to learning a musical instrument, to be comfortable to play the music at every tempo below the one you are aiming for.

Here is an idea of how to tackle a new section of music: Start by playing the passage at a speed where you can play all the notes perfectly however slow this may seem. At this tempo play the passage 100 times. If you played the passage 100 times without error, try increasing the tempo by 5 beats per minute and see if you can play another 100 without error. If this increased tempo causes problems try stepping down the tempo to only 2 beats per minute faster than the original any repeat the process. With this method there is quite a high demand for discipline and dedication in order to stay on track but the outcome can be worth it.

A good test to see if the method is working is to try the passage or piece of music as soon as you start playing your instrument the next day. You may feel slightly more comfortable with the notes or you may decide it is just as hard. It is important to remember that it may take a lot of time to see any improvement so don't be put off if the method does not yield results straight away.

With many students of an instrument, after a certain period of development they will fall into a state where they no longer need to learn anything new and will just play the same lick or song over and over again, for a period of years sometimes. They will no doubt become very comfortable playing these licks and songs and I believe this principle can be applied to learning new material only that more work is needed to be put in.