The Exhibition


The relationship between art and music is complex, mysterious and fascinating. There are fundamental differences between a performance-based medium like music, which takes place in time, and the work of art, a physical object, which exists in space. Yet there is also a kinship of style and form, and sometimes of content and meaning, between works of art and music produced at the same time. Artists have often portrayed music-making or been inspired by the sound or the idea of music. Composers often respond in sound to visual stimuli - landscapes, buildings or works of art. Musical instruments, too, whether of the street or the symphony orchestra, are often objects of great beauty.

This exhibition examines four moments in British history where the encounter of art and music took a distinctive form. The first section, Handel’s London, examines the musical and artistic culture of the metropolis around 1740, when the music of George Frideric Handel was juxtaposed with work by artists such as Francis Hayman and William Hogarth. The second, Music and Polite Society explores the parallel roles of music and art in expressing ideas of civility among the social elite of the late eighteenth century. Art and music - sketching and keyboard skills - were standard accomplishments of the genteel, while the act of communal music making offered an emblem of social harmony. Romantic Landscapes, marks a shift from social engagement to individual expression. It traces the parallel journeys of two tourists in search of the picturesque, the composer Felix Mendelssohn and the painter J.M.W. Turner, to Staffa in the Hebrides in the years around 1830. And a final section, Aspiring to the Condition of Music, celebrates the Aesthetic Movement’s self-conscious exploration of the formal similarities between painting and music between 1860 and 1900. Music seemed to offer an ideal of artistic perfection, a pure art form which could appeal to the listener’s sensibilities without reference to external narratives or objects.

A second theme running throughout the exhibition is the dialogue between elite and popular, in both music and art. Thus, for example, while the proprietors of the elegant Vauxhall Gardens in Handel’s day emphasized its gentility, popular ballads sold there enshrine an earthier, indigenous musical culture. Satirists made fun of polite amateur musicians and, later, of Victorian Aesthetes.

Each room of the exhibition contains a listening station, and we encourage you to enjoy a range of sounds from the unfamiliar serpent and hurdy gurdy to the modern piano and symphony orchestra, in close proximity to related works of art.

The Exhibition is curated by Tim Barringer, Paul Mellon Professor of the History of Art at Yale, and Eleanor Hughes, Postdoctoral Research Associate, Yale Center for British Art.