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Three Musical Things We Can Learn from Painters: Matisse, Picasso, Brooke, and Sully

Walking around the National Gallery of Art with my son, I ran across multiple works of art that showed musical instruments as part of daily life. Being a huge advocate for music making at home, I started a quest in each room to look for representation of music in art.

Perhaps what fascinated me the most is that music was never represented in concert or as a grand affair; instead, music was repeatedly depicted in the art as something that is common and an essential part of everyday life.

Looking at the works of Henri Matisse Pablo Picasso, Norris Brooke, and Thomas Sully, I took away the three lessons below.

Lesson 1: Music Can Happen Anywhere

I’m not going to lie; I actually starred at Matisse’s Pianist & Checker Players for a while, perhaps too long. The colors in Matisse’s works are awesome!

But, what I found most fascinating about this particular work is how the most ordinary objects, such as the carpet, knickknacks, chest of doors, and pictures are right along side a musical instrument. Also, there is a bunch of stuff piled on top of the piano, as if it’s another piece of furniture.

More importantly, Matisse shows us when music occurs at home. The kids are playing checkers, but mom is making music. I’m sure those kids tapped along and sang to some of mom’s tunes. It is not music on a stage; rather, it is music happening in a home, anybody’s home, naturally.

So, what can we learn? In your home and mine, music can happen at anytime and anywhere. To be honest, your kids are listening and possibly engaging in the music even when you don’t know they are. If music is happening when they are playing checkers, drawing, or playing with LEGOs, then they hear it.

Lesson 2: Music is Part of the Ordinary

In Brooke’s A Pastoral Visit, the banjo immediately grabbed my attention, but why? Well, it’s probably because I’m a musician and look just at the banjo, it was placed front and center. What I love about this portrait is to consider what occurred before the pastor arrived.

I can imagine the dad playing the banjo (since it is closest to him), mom preparing dinner and singing, and the kids playing (possibly getting in a little trouble). But, music is an important feature of this home.

In Picasso’s Still Life, the first thing that drew my attention was the guitar, then the sheet music, and after careful consideration it looks like there is a piano in the background. This painting represents intimate objects in a bar or nightclub. But, I find it fascinating that these are the things that stand out to Picaso in the setting. In fact, think of any old western film with John Wayne or Gene Autry. An important part of the background anytime a cowboy walks into a 1800s saloon is music.

So, what can we learn? Perhaps we take for granted the importance of musical objects that are around us. With our kids, it is important that musical instruments are front and center, like the banjo in Brooke’s painting, because if they are obvious they will be played. Music making is also an important part of life’s tapestry; that is, the things our children and we experience everyday. So, making sure that music is seen and heard can be an essential part of a rich home environment.

Lesson 3: Music is Important to Us

Think about the things you take pictures with? Are those things important to you? I assume the answer is yes, or why would you do it? Likewise, historical portraits like Sully’s Lady with Harp from 1818 show us what people valued in a particular place and time.

In this portrait, it is Miss Eliza Ridgley’s musical instrument that she holds dear.

So, why do I bring this up? The instrument we play, like the type of music we listen to or clothes we wear, is something that we consider part of our identity. Think about it, if you, your kids, or someone you know plays an instrument, they will buy shirts or trinkets that show they play the instruments.

Likewise, playing an instrument is something that connects us with others through a shared interest. For example, when I find out someone is a drummer I start asking them questions about what type of drumming, the gear they use, and other questions that only a drummer will know. Then, we are connected.

This painting shows that Ms. Ridgely (Sully’s subject) wanted people to know that this was part of her identity. Now, two hundred years later, it hangs in the Gallery of National Art where people can still see that Ms. Ridgely was a harpist.

Final Strokes

When your children’s children look at pictures of you, what will they see? While I am sure there will be many physical attributes that they’ll see in themselves, the objects and place the photo is taken will also make an impression. I know that my grandfather and my great grandfather were both musicians, but I never saw my great grandfather play music. What I have seen are photos of him making music. These timeless artifacts tell me that music has been important to my family for a long time.

So, if Matisse, Picasso, Sully, or Brooke came into your home, what is the picture they would paint? Perhaps there are musical things that would be captured as part of your family’s daily life. If there is no image of music in your home, there is never a better time to start than now. By simply adding an instrument for your family to experiment with or playing music in the background as your kids play, you can create a picture with music in your home, which will last from generation to generation.

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John Owens, Ph.D. is the author of Music at Home: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Musically Insightful Kids. Check out his upcoming books, articles, and courses at


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