The Music Room: And in this corner…

Music Room corner post_Emily Hurwitz

The Music Room. Photo: Emily Hurwitz

One of the great things about The Phillips Collection is that even though the space is stationary, the art is not. I started my internship at the Phillips about a month ago. On one of my first journeys through the collection, I found myself staring at The Repentant St. Peter by El Greco, which was then on display in the Music Room. The dark browns of the painting’s background perfectly complemented the rich wood paneling of the room, which made the bright yellows and blues draped around the figure himself seem especially vibrant. He is a contemplative figure, filled with emotion. What a perfect fit for a Music Room—a place that can in and of itself inspire quiet and emotional contemplation, while simultaneously bursting with the vibrancy of a musical work.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I ventured back into the Music Room a few weeks later and found not St. Peter, but Georges Rouault’s Verlaine. And imagine my further surprise when I realized that that painting was also a perfect fit for this corner of the Music Room: not because of the stark background and emotive figure, but because of the brush strokes that captured an almost musical movement, and the figure that seemed like he himself was listening intensely to someone—or something—just outside of the frame. The context of a painting really can inspire an entirely new conversation about the work, and the feeling of the room itself can change depending on what is staring back at you from these walls.

Emily Hurwitz, Marketing and Communications Intern

“School of Paris” on view in the Music Room

New installation in the Music Room. Photo: Joshua Navarro

New installation in the Music Room featuring the “School of Paris”. Photo: Joshua Navarro

Preparators Alec MacKaye and Bill Koberg install works

Preparators Alec MacKaye and Bill Koberg install Modigliani’s Elena Pvolozky in the Music Room as part of the “School of Paris” installation. Photo: Renee Maurer


The music room was recently installed with modern European works from the collection. The paintings featured are by artists who were either born in France or immigrated there to work in Paris during the first half of the twentieth century. A destination for artists of all nationalities, many spent time in the lively Parisian neighborhoods of Montmartre and Montparnasse and experienced thriving and unparalleled creativity. Loosely grouped as the “School of Paris“, these painters experimented with diverse styles and techniques, from Cubism to Expressionism, to convey traditional subjects such as portraiture, landscapes, and still life. This installation includes paintings by André Derain (b. Chatou, France, 1880–d. Garches, France 1954); Maurice Utrillo (b. Paris, 1883–d. Paris, 1955); Amedeo Modigliani (b. Livorno, Italy 1884–d. Paris, 1920); Chaim Soutine (b. Smilovitchi, Lithuania 1893–d. Paris, 1943); and Georges Rouault (b. Paris, 1871–d. Paris, 1958).

Did you ever wonder how works are installed in the music room? Very carefully. Preparators Alec MacKaye and Bill Koberg are shown above on scaffolding in the process of hanging Elena Povolozky (1917) by Modigliani.

Renée Maurer, Assistant Curator

Facing the Music

Rachel Barton Pine with her violin in the Music Room

Rachel Barton Pine with her violin in the Music Room, Paganini over her shoulder. Photo: Margaret Rajic

For her performance here in January, violinist Rachel Barton Pine set herself a formidable challenge: performing the 24 Caprices for solo Violin, Op. 1, by Nicolò Paganini, one of history’s most sensational virtuosos. For her performance of the first 12 Caprices at the Phillips (the concluding set played later that evening at the National Gallery of Art) Barton Pine shared the stage with Eugène Delacroix’s haunting portrait of Paganini, looming over her shoulder and casting a frightening eye on proceedings.

There is an enduring mystique in the man and his music that still fascinates today. Paganini’s astonishing and revolutionary developments in violin playing were in his day only equaled by his notoriety-–he cancelled concerts on a whim, frequented brothels, brushed up against the law, and despite his gaunt and ghostly appearance, was surrounded by groupies. Truly he was the musical enfant terrible of the 19th century. However, stories of his life emerge with more than a shade of byronesque fascination, and the wild-man persona was all part of an image, as Barton Pine explained: “When people saw him doing all these seemingly impossible feats they said: ‘Well to be able to play like that he must have had to sell his soul.’ Well Paganini being a great showman as well as a great artist realized that a devilish reputation might help to sell tickets, so he didn’t always protest these accusations.”

Ferdinand-Victor-Eugène Delacroix,  Paganini, 1831

Ferdinand-Victor-Eugène Delacroix, Paganini, 1831. Oil on cardboard on wood panel, 17 5/8 x 11 7/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1922.

Delacroix captures Paganini’s enigma well; shades of light are clawing their way out of predominant darkness, and those we can see–his pale haunted visage, unkempt shirt, and long spidery fingers–are peculiar and unsettling. The portrait also reveals some illuminating technical aspects of Paganini’s playing style. Barton Pine explained that the physical feats he was able to achieve, indicated in the painting by his posture and position of his left arm, were most likely a symptom of Marfan syndrome, a disorder that affects the body’s ligaments and makes the joints more flexible. This condition likely helped Paganini to reach the interval of a 13th, at the very upper limit of what is possible for violinists today. It’s easy to see why superstitious audiences of the 19th century thought Paganini was in league with the devil, “But not to worry” Barton Pine explained, “I didn’t sell my soul, I just practiced a lot.”

For all the wizardry and pyrotechnics of the Caprices, what shines through in these captivating pieces is a wonderful sense of melody and musical line. Paganini was an underestimated composer with a unique affinity with the Italian Bel canto style. Barton Pine, whose commentary between pieces shed revealing light on the intricacies of the music, continued: “By expanding the technical capabilities of the instrument he really expanded the range of colors and expression that are possible from the instrument.” Throughout the myriad difficulties of triple stops, awkward octaves, and fiendish upward staccato, this expanded expressiveness is what stood out in her immaculate performance. Her sheer joy in the music was self-evident, and in the hands of such a fine and dedicated musician the seemingly impossible technical feats dissolved away, revealing the beauties and melodies beneath.

Jeremy Ney, Music Consultant