Liszt at the Piano (1840) - Oil Painting by Josef Danhauser
Josef Danhauser, was an Austrian artist who was born in Vienna in 1805 and died there in 1845. He was a great devotee of Beethoven and made a death mask of the famous composer in March 1827; in 1840 he gave a plaster replica of the mask to Franz Liszt, who was another Beethoven aficionado. As a painter, Danhauser was best known for his portraits, especially those of other artists.
The painting Liszt am Flügel (Liszt at the Piano), completed in 1840, was commissioned by the piano maker Conrad Graf (1782-1851). An article entitled Danhauser's neuestes Bild giving all the compositional details of the painting was published in the Wiener Zeitung on 13 May 1840.
This work is perhaps better known among musicians than painters. I greatly admire this work because, to me, it symbolizes the aesthetic culmination of European Romanticism.
Franz Liszt is shown playing the piano for six of his friends, all of which are notable Romantic artists. In the room from left to right are two groups of three artists each: from the literary realm are the novelists George Sand (dressed as a man, reclining in an armchair and smoking a cigar), Alexandre Dumas, Sr. (sitting beside Sand) and Victor Hugo (leaning on the back of Sand’s chair); from the musical realm are the violinist Nicoló Paganini, the opera composer Gioachino Rossini, and, of course, the composer/pianist Franz Liszt. The seventh person, sitting at Liszt’s feet, is his mistress Comtesse Marie d’Agoult; she was the mother of Liszt's daughter, Cosima, who later would became Richard Wagner’s wife. The symbolic presence of the two greatest artists of the Romantic Era are also depicted, i.e., Byron and Beethoven. Lord Byron, perhaps the greatest and certainly the most famous poet of the Romantic Era, is represented by a portrait hanging on the wall -- presumably a copy of the famous drawing by George Harlow (see below). Ludwig von Beethoven, the greatest musical composer of the Romantic Era, is depicted by a luminous bust which is remarkably similar to the famous 1821 bust of Beethoven by Anton Dietrich (see below).
Other details of the painting include the following: 1) on the left is a table holding a small statuette representing Joan of Arc; 2) On the piano music stand are scores for a Fantasia by Liszt, as well as the Marcia funebre - Sulla morte d’un Eroe by Beethoven; and 3) On the floor near Marie d’Agoult are several music scores including one that is open bearing the inscription: dédié a son élève Liszt - C. Czerny, a teacher and family friend of Liszt.
The numbers three, seven and nine, -- all of which are important to Pythagorean/Hermetic philosophy -- figure prominently in the painting. There are two groups of three artists (literary and musical trinities) plus Liszt's mistress makes a total of seven people in the room. The symbolic presence of both Byron and Beethoven is also suggested. Thus a total of nine great personages from the European Romantic Movement are in some way depicted - a Grand Ennead!
Music as the Highest Art Form
In my view, this painting not only glorifies the romantic artists of Danhauser's time, but also suggests the superiority of music, compared to other art forms, in communicating at least some aspects of the Noumenal World. The principal figure in the painting is a musician engaged in the act of producing music. The overall composition of the painting draws the observer's attention not just towards the figure of Liszt (placed right of center on the canvas), but beyond him. The people in the painting look toward the right and Liszt peers directly at an extraordinary bust of Beethoven placed on the far right beyond the curtains that enclose the window.
The Beethoven bust dominates the entire painting. It is disproportionately larger than anything else in the picture and is the largest light-colored object on the canvas. The bust appears to rest on a bundle of sheet music on top of the piano; however, a closer look reveals that It is actually suspended outside the window against the background of a stormy sky. Thus Danhauser suggests a spiritual rather than a physical presence of the great master composer. Franz Liszt is the only person gazing directly toward this presence, making it appear that only he, as the producer of the music, had the ability to perceive this apparition. This mystical presence of Beethoven in an 1840 Parisian Salon was highly appropriate. In the 1830s and 1840s, the enthusiasm of French audiences for Beethoven’s symphonies was almost unbounded. Also, both Sand and Hugo published admiring accounts of their reactions to his music - particularly the Ninth Symphony.
I should further note that the inclusion of Victor Hugo in this painting may be highly significant as he purportedly, during the years 1844-1885, was the Grandmaster of the occult group known as the Prieuré de Sion!
Opinion of a Professional Art Historian
Shown below is an excerpt from an article entitled Liszt: the Romantic Artist by Katherine Ellis (as published in The Cambridge Companion to Liszt (2005), edited by Kenneth Hamilton. Note that Ms. Ellis erroneously identifies the man, known to be Victor Hugo per the Wiener Zeitung article (see above), with the French composer Hector Berlioz.
One of the most famous images of the pianist, Josef Danhauser’s Liszt am Flügel (1840), features him playing to a collection of rapt artist-listeners, in a room (supposedly his own) containing a portrait of Byron but dominated by a bust of Beethoven (in whose general direction he gazes upwards, completing the dramatic diagonal that extends right across the picture). Through a seemingly glassless window a distinctly stormy sunset is visible. But there is more. The grand piano itself appears to be half inside the room and half outside, collapsing the distance between the here-and-now and infinity; likewise, the outsize bust of Beethoven, which seems at first sight to be placed on top of the piano, actually inhabits an ambiguous space above it – a floating vision for the viewer, framed by, and existing beyond, the window opening. If Beethoven exists in this painting at all, it is in the mind’s eye. Hence, perhaps, the composer’s out-of-scale portrayal. Moreover, in the context of a twilight scene, the startling whiteness of his marble form draws attention to the pool of light in which the right-hand side of the canvas is bathed and which touches the faces of Liszt, Berlioz [sic] and Sand especially. The narrative description of Beethoven’s symphonies by Hoffmann and Berlioz, especially those of the Fifth Symphony as a progression from symbolic darkness to light, are close cousins of this picture. Danhauser’s composition invites us to ‘read’ the image as an upward progression from the predominantly dark browns, russets and reds of the left-hand side to the tans, golds and creams on the right, where the piano and its cascades of sheet music lead us to Beethoven’s world of the infinite. In this fusion of meticulous detail and visionary symbolism Danhauser encapsulated the ideal of the Romantic sublime towards which Liszt strove, and placed him at its epicentre.