A Celebration of the Piano: Selections From the Archives of American Art

Spring 2001
Online exhibition prepared in connection with the Smithsonian’s Piano 300 exhibition.

The musical and visual arts have always gone hand in hand, particularly in the way that each medium inspires the other. Chopin wrote nocturnes; Whistler painted them. Kandinsky created symphonies with color, and Debussy used notes to create two sets of tone pictures for the piano, appropriately titled Images. Both music and the visual arts have a dual nature: there are technical and theoretical aspects to both, but at the same time, they can be evocative and emotional.

It is no wonder then that visual artists take inspiration from music, or that they might try their hands at the musical arts—particularly the piano, which provides challenge and delight to both the novice and the professional.

As the 300th anniversary of its invention is celebrated, the piano still remains one of the most popular instruments today. This exhibition was prepared to compliment the Smithsonian Institution’ exhibition Piano 300: Celebrating Three Centuries of People and Pianos, at the International Gallery of the S. Dillon Ripley Center

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A Celebration of the Piano: Selections From the Archives of American Art

Louis M. Eilshemius

Louis M. Eilshemius, 1913 Oct. 4

Creator: Jim Saah

A 1935 article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that artist and composer Eilshemius was discovered by Marcel Duchamp at the Independents' Salon of America in New York. Valentine Dudensing was a champion of his work, and several prominent critics praised his work in the 1930s. However, Eilshemius never felt that he received the recognition he deserved as a composer.

"Jack Yeats was right," he wrote to Elihu Root, "The mediocre are jealous of the superior. That is partly the case that my life has been a continuous struggle against irrecognition."

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A Celebration of the Piano: Selections From the Archives of American Art

Louis M. (Louis Michel) Eilshemius to Hyman Kaitz

Louis M. (Louis Michel) Eilshemius to Hyman Kaitz, ca. 1933

Creator: Louis M. (Louis Michel) Eilshemius

Letter from Louis M. Eilshemius to Hyman Kaitz, undated. Hyman Kaitz papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

In this letter Eilshemius laments to Hyman Kaitz, "As a composer I rank with the German galaxy, but not one publisher would bring out any of my 50 compositions."

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A Celebration of the Piano: Selections From the Archives of American Art

Louis M. Eilshemius

Louis M. Eilshemius, ca. 1940

An artist, poet, composer, self-proclaimed Mahatma and "Mightiest Mind and Wonder of the Worlds. Supreme Parnassian and Grand Transcendant Eagle of Art," Louis Eilshemius [sometimes spelled Elshemius] is one of the most unconventional persons represented in the collections of the Archives of American Art. Eilshemius."

Writing in his pamphlet Some New Discoveries! in SCIENCE and ART, Eilshemius claims that: "My compositions are utterly original in their new tempi, their incomparable exquisite and dramatic conceptions to move the soul-ecstasy any one sensitive to music's finder sounds and harmonies. This will suffice. Order my compositions! from me."

He includes a poem, Darkness in the Room, on the back cover. "From forth my fingers rare tunes come fast/ No mortal's melody recalls/ but all your feelings fill/ With heaven's dream and bring sweet joy to last."

According to William Schack's 1939 biography, And he sat among the ashes, the first set of pieces that Eilshemius composed for the piano was Six Musical Moods. Eilshemius felt that these pieces were some of his "best in print," noting that he had to publish them himself when some of the larger music publishing houses passed because they were "too classical for the market." Six Musical Moods could be purchased directly from the composer for $1.50.

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A Celebration of the Piano: Selections From the Archives of American Art

Henry Botkin outside Promenades exhibit

Henry Botkin outside Promenades exhibit, 1963

Creator: Budd (Firm : New York N.Y.)

As the first cousin of George and Ira Gershwin, Henry Botkin had an insight and access into the musical world that few people did. Botkin reciprocated by giving them art lessons and advice on art collecting.

To celebrate the 65th anniversary of Gershwin's birth, the New York Philharmonic presented "Promenades." Concerts of Gershwin's music were performed, and his paintings were on display. Here Henry Botkin is pictured at the entrance of the exhibit.

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A Celebration of the Piano: Selections From the Archives of American Art

George Gershwin

George Gershwin, ca. 1924

Creator: Nickolas Muray

Another artist with ties to musical and literary figures is Charles Green Shaw. This photograph of George Gershwin, selected from Shaw's papers, was taken by Nikolas Murray for a 1925 article in Vanity Fair magazine.

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A Celebration of the Piano: Selections From the Archives of American Art

Concert d'Oeuvres de Jeunes Compositeurs Americains

Concert d'Oeuvres de Jeunes Compositeurs Americains, 1929 June 17

Creator: Salle Chopin

Program from Concert d’Œuvres de Jeunes Compositeurs Américains, 1929, featuring the premiers of two new works and American composer Aaron Copland at the piano.

Prentiss Taylor papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

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A Celebration of the Piano: Selections From the Archives of American Art

Aaron Copeland, Paris, France postcard to Prentiss Taylor, Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

Aaron Copeland, Paris, France postcard to Prentiss Taylor, Saratoga Springs, N.Y., 1930 June 13

Creator: Aaron Copland

In his professional and personal life, Prentiss Taylor encountered many eminent figures in the literary, visual and performing arts. Of special note was the American composer was Aaron Copland.

In 1929, Copland participated in a concert of works by young American composers. Two works received their premiers at this recital, including Vitebsk (Etude sur un thème juif) for violin, cello and piano, which featured Copeland at the piano, and Deux pièces written for string quartet.

This postcard, written several days before the recital, describes the trip and Copland’s activities in Paris (including a visit to see the great pianist Nadia Boulanger with whom Copland studied): "...been to the the Russian Ballet, tea at Boulangers, sat at the Dome etc. This is Paris."

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A Celebration of the Piano: Selections From the Archives of American Art

Courtlandt Palmer, New York, N.Y. letter to Mary Fanton Roberts

Courtlandt Palmer, New York, N.Y. letter to Mary Fanton Roberts, 1949 July 27

Creator: Courtlandt Palmer

The writer and critic Mary Fanton Roberts had a great interest in all aspects of the arts. Her correspondence put her in contact with individuals from the literary world as well as from the visual and performing arts. Notable correspondents include the American artists George Bellows, Childe Hassam and Alfred Stieglitz, the dancer Isadora Duncan and the authors Theodore Dreiser and Havelock Ellis.

This letter, selected from Robert's literary and musical correspondence files, from the composer and pianist Courtlandt Palmer, describes his feelings after recording Beethoven's piano sonata, op. 111.

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A Celebration of the Piano: Selections From the Archives of American Art

Paul Cadmus, Nantucket, Mass. postcard to Webster Aitken

Paul Cadmus, Nantucket, Mass. postcard to Webster Aitken, 1949 Aug. 19

Creator: Paul Cadmus

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A Celebration of the Piano: Selections From the Archives of American Art

Paul Cadmus, Weston, Conn. letter to Webster Aitken

Paul Cadmus, Weston, Conn. letter to Webster Aitken, 1951 Jan. 10

Creator: Paul Cadmus

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A Celebration of the Piano: Selections From the Archives of American Art

Joseph Schillinger graph notation of the rondo of Beethoven's Pathetique

Joseph Schillinger graph notation of the rondo of Beethoven's Pathetique, between 1915 and 1943

Creator: Joseph Schillinger

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A Celebration of the Piano: Selections From the Archives of American Art

George Gershwin and Henry Botkin

George Gershwin and Henry Botkin, ca. 1934

Henry Botkin and George Gershwin also spent time together at Folly Island. Botkin painted and sketched while George was at the piano composing his opera Porgy & Bess.

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A Celebration of the Piano: Selections From the Archives of American Art

George Gershwin painting portrait of Arnold Schoenberg

George Gershwin painting portrait of Arnold Schoenberg, ca. 1934

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A Celebration of the Piano: Selections From the Archives of American Art

Bruce Mitchell painting the Oscar Peterson trio

Bruce Mitchell painting the Oscar Peterson trio, ca. 1950

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A Celebration of the Piano: Selections From the Archives of American Art

Louis Michel Eilshemius' business card

Louis Michel Eilshemius' business card, between 1919 and 1941

Creator: Louis M. (Louis Michel) Eilshemius

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A Celebration of the Piano: Selections From the Archives of American Art

Some new discoveries in science and art

Some new discoveries in science and art, 1932

Creator: Louis M. (Louis Michel) Eilshemius

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A Celebration of the Piano: Selections From the Archives of American Art

Six musical moods

Six musical moods, 1897

Creator: Eastman Lewis

This particular copy of Six Musical Moods was inscribed to Aline Fruhauf née Vollmer on her wedding day in 1934. Aline Fruhauf was an illustrator who created caricatures of luminaries such as Sergei Rachmaninoff, Bela Bartok and Maurice Ravel for Musical America. She was also a pianist.

Six Musical Moods, piano score by Louis M. Eilshemius, from the Aline Fruhauf papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

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A Celebration of the Piano: Selections From the Archives of American Art

Paul Cadmus, Florence, Italy postcard to Webster Aitken, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Paul Cadmus, Florence, Italy postcard to Webster Aitken, Pittsburgh, Pa., 1951 Dec. 02

Creator: Paul Cadmus

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A Celebration of the Piano: Selections From the Archives of American Art

Joseph Schillinger with a rhythmicon

Joseph Schillinger with a rhythmicon, 193-?

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A Celebration of the Piano: Selections From the Archives of American Art

Bruce Mitchell and Horace Silver at the the  Jazz and Art  opening at the Jazz Gallery

Bruce Mitchell and Horace Silver at the the Jazz and Art opening at the Jazz Gallery, 1960 Mar. 8

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A Celebration of the Piano: Selections From the Archives of American Art

Erroll Garner

Erroll Garner, ca. 1950

Known not only as an artist but as an avid jazz fan, Gertrude Abercrombie counted several prominent jazz musicians—most notably Dizzie Gillespie and Sonny Rollins—among her personal friends.

In addition to correspondence and postcards from musicians, her papers include many promotional photographs singed by jazz artists and personal snapshots as well.

This photograph features the great jazz pianist Eroll Garner.

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