Paganini’s Portrait – Classical Music and Painting as sister Art forms
by Irma de Jong
Where do we find similarities between classical music and the art of painting? We take inspiration of an oil portrait of Niccolo Paganini, based on a drawing of Ingres and immortalized by Scott E. Bartner, American portrait painter living in Maastricht, the Netherlands. Scott Bartner just recently won the Dutch Portrait Price 2019 (Nederlandse Portret Prijs). We spoke to him about his relation to Paganini and other classical music composers and his passion for painting great artists.
Why did you choose to paint Paganini’s portrait?
“In 1997 my wife, who worked for the Limburg Symphony Orchestra, came home with a small booklet describing Niccoló Paganini’s famous violin, “Il Cannone.” She told me the violinist Shlomo Mintz was going to perform in Maastricht with Paganini’s violin. Being an avid fan of his music I wanted to participate in some small way and considered the possibility of painting him for the occasion.
The problem was no photograph of him existed and I didn’t want to copy an existing oil portrait. Then I remembered Ingres had made a drawing of him and wondered if there was enough information in his brilliant portrait drawing to use as reference for an actual oil portrait. It would be a small portrait, perhaps a little larger than the drawing and I would need to improvise the modeling of his head–and of course guess at the flesh tone. Images in the Il Cannone booklet gave me an idea what the violin looked like and its color.
When the painting was finished I ordered a handmade frame sending a photo of the painting to the frame maker so he could compliment the color of the violin. I was later given permission to display the framed work in the theater during the concert. He still hangs it in my living room guarding the china cabinet.”
What is your relation to his music?
“I began to take an interest in classical music in my mid 20’s, around the same time I started my first paintings. What appealed to me most were melodic pieces like “La Campanella” or the 24th Caprice transcribed for another instrument. I’d hear the melody in Paganini’s 2nd Violin Concerto and then a virtuoso piano version by Liszt on the classical radio station and wonder how that came about. Taking the subway to work in downtown Washington, I would frequently play a Walkman Classics tape of his Violin Concertos, and Midori playing the 24 Caprices until the day Midori decided to jam up my Walkman.
I discovered Ingres had also drawn Liszt as a young man and years later I attempted a small oil portrait, but there wasn’t enough information to get a good likeness. Much of the music I liked had some connection with Ingres, although he didn’t appreciate virtuoso performances, feeling all soloists should be “in the service of the masters.” At one such concert, he began stomping his feet in protest. Ingres himself was an accomplished violinist and played with both Liszt and Paganini.”
What technique do you use in painting and why?
“I work with underpainting and color veiling (not glazing). The advantage is that color doesn’t confuse the issue while trying to nail down the drawing and form of a subject in white and gray paint. Paintings done using an underpainting approach have a more solid, timeless look about them.”
Find a demonstration of Bartner’s technique here
How does your technique in painting relate to the art of performing classical music?
“That’s an interesting question. Painters and classical musicians use many of the same terms: color, chroma, form, negative space, embellishment, texture and the like. I suppose where Paganini is concern, the virtuoso aspect of painting involves passages of quickly applied paint in a believable way. Artists like Frans Hals and John Singer Sargent come to mind. In terms of my own technique, I’m more contained. I’ve always felt the portrait would say more if the volume were turned down.”
What is your favourite music when you are painting and which pieces/composers inspire you the most?
“I need to be relaxed and focused when painting. Playing the Symphonie Fantastique or Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen would end up irritating me and I’d make mistakes. Painting is a long series of decisions and getting even the smallest thing wrong has an impact on the final outcome. Bach always seems to work, or flute concertos by Danzi or Boccherini or something melancholy like Horowitz playing “The Shepherd’s Complaint” by Mendelssohn, or Marta Almajano singing anything old and Spanish. If I’m working on something that doesn’t require a lot of focus and want the feel closer to my daughter, I’ll play one of her Spotify playlists; I’m not even sure how to classify some of the things she listens to but it put me in a trance-like state so I can work.”
Have you painted any other artists you admire?
“Shortly after painting Paganini I went through a kind of classical musician phase. I had just heard Janine Jansen’s debut CD and knew she was something special. I was represented by a gallery in Haarlem and asked my agent to contact her to see if she were interested. She agreed to pose at her place in Soest. She even played for me a passage from Barber’s Violin Concerto, my favorite piece.
I wanted to specialize in classical performers and have more of these Janine Jansen experiences so I tried to interest artists who had made a deep impression on me when I was discovering classical music. Unfortunately, my enthusiasm was not always shared. Boris Belkin whose Brahms Violin Concerto I played continuously, flat out refused on the phone with his borscht-thick Russian accent. Hélène Grimaud was also not interested or too busy or both but her agent said I could use a photo of her feeding wolves she was trying to protect.
It occurred to me just because a musician was involved in a traditional form of music didn’t necessarily mean they cared for a classical style of painting like mine. Some soloists like Anne-Sophie Mutter were staunch supporters of modern art. As much as I would love to have painted her, I wasn’t about to do it in the style of Paul Klee.”
“Several years later Shlomo Mintz agreed to pose for me and I took reference photos of him in my home in Maastricht. While Janine Jansen was portrayed as shy and a little impish, my portrait of Shlomo was to be bolder, almost sculptural. I saw him play in Brussels all 24 Caprices in one performance. A flautist for the Limburg Symphony once remarked Shlomo “plays like a Greek God.” These heroic images stuck in my mind while working on the portrait.”
“My Dream? To paint a conductor for the Concertgebouw gallery”
“Ultimately I wanted to paint a conductor for the Concertgebouw gallery and would have given my left arm to do so. Why? It had to do with leaving something behind I cared about. I had a very high estimation of classical conductors and soloists and had this fantasy my daughter was attending a concert and during the intermission points out to a friend, “Look, my father painted this of conductor so-and-so!”
When it was announced Mariss Jansons was retiring I used all of my skills to paint a head study of him based on a website photo–to show the Concertgebouw people what I could do. I never heard back from them and later assumed they threw the painting away, unsolicited mail. In retrospect I’m glad I’m not hanging there; to be frank, some of the portraits are embarrassingly bad.”
Classical music and painting sister art forms
“Classical music and painting were once sister art forms, and skilled musicians had an abiding respect for skilled painters and vice versa. Shlomo Mintz said to me he felt painting was as technically difficult as playing the violin, and I appreciated that remark immensely. But I suspect he’s in the minority. Soloists not sufficiently trained with their instrument would get booed off the stage while artists incapable of a drawing are lauded to the heavens for painting like children.
As you get older, the intensity of the things you felt strongly about fade and you ask yourself what that passion was about, like a terrible infatuation you once had. You can sit and lament about the past and all of those disappointments and broken dreams, or—with a little luck—you can find a new passion. I highly recommend the latter.”
Scott E. Bartner (1960, Washington, D.C.) grew up in the suburbs of Bethesda, Maryland. After college Scott went directly to a business school, earned his Master’s degree, and soon found himself working as a financial analyst in a large bank. In 1988, Bartner was back in the US and began his first copies of old master drawings, drawn from models at a local college and received his first lessons in oil painting from an artist and colleague of his father, Al Loang. Bartner later took drawing and painting classes at The American University and was encouraged by his teacher, Ruth Stroik, to continue his studies.
After meeting and showing his work to the noted Washington artist and teacher Frank Wright, Scott was advised to study with Danni Dawson, a prize student of Nelson Shanks. In 1991, his wife was offered a position in the Netherlands and Scott finally saw his dream of living abroad come true. He found employment with a pharmaceutical company and studied in the evenings with the Dutch artist Maarten Welbergen in Amsterdam.
From Maarten, he learned a traditional painting technique that suited his nature and way of working. In 1993 he moved to Maastricht, where he established himself as a professional portrait painter. Since then he has received numerous portrait commissions throughout Europe and the United States.
Notable portrait commissions in The Netherlands include Mr. F. Barge and Mrs. C. Dreesmann-Barge, Ms. Janine Jansen, Mrs. A. van Beuningen-Ferrier, Mrs. H.J. De Graff-Hesselink, Bishop Franz Wiertz, Mr Z.F. Baron van Dorth tot Medler, Mr R.H.M.J. Baron van Hövell tot Westerflier, and Mr J.M. Saleh, former Governor General of the Netherlands Antilles.
Scott Bartner won the “Nederlandse Portret prijs” (Dutch Portrait Price) 2019.