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The Art of the Harpsichord: Music and Painting

Christine Laloue, chief curator of harpsichords and fine arts, and Jean-Philippe Echard, curator of bowed string instruments, Musée de la musique, Cité de la musique-Philharmonie de Paris. The harpsichord, standing at the center of baroque European culture, served not only as a musical instrument but also as a receptacle of painting. Collections in townhouses and mansions from Venice to London and Antwerp to Paris included, alongside traditional easel paintings, harpsichords bearing works by masters as renowned as Jan Brueghel, Annibale Carracci, Noël Coypel, Christophe Huet, or Sebastiano Ricci. The paintings on harpsichords’ soundboards featured flowers, birds, and insects, connecting these works to Flemish still-life paintings and the celebration of creation. Others presented allegorical, mythological, or vanitas scenes on their lids.

In traditional paintings, the harpsichord functioned as a sign of the culture of the gentleman and life at the court, as well as a symbol of artistic inspiration. The harpsichord was indeed a total work of art and an emblem of harmony, but it was swept away by the historical breaks at the turn of the 19th century, leaving only sweet but anecdotal memories in our imagination.

In this lecture held on April 6, 2018, at the National Gallery of Art, Christine Laloue and Jean-Philippe Echard propose, using the example of the harpsichord, an interpretation of the strong links between painting and music in the aesthetics of 16th- through 18th-century Europe.