Artists and the Thumb-hole of a Guitar

Clockwise from top left, all details: Manet, The Music Lesson (1870); Courbet, Guitar Player (1844); Poussin, Bacchanal with a Guitarist (c.1627-8); Vermeer, The Guitar Player (c.1672).

I read once that Cézanne prepared his palette with as many as 18 pigments and lined them up in a series like musical scales.1 It’s an apt analogy because painters have long portrayed musicians as an allegory of their own poetic performance in the studio. When Manet and Courbet painted themselves strumming guitars (top) they were, metaphorically, painting the picture. Vermeer did likewise as a young woman (bottom left); that’s why a painting comes out of her head.

L: Vermeer, The Guitar Player (c.1672), detail rotated. R: Vermeer, The Procuress (1656), self-portrait detail.

If anyone doubts that the woman represents Vermeer, compare her smile, her teeth and her long, curly locks to Vermeer’s own in his only known self-portrait.2 Like the Mona Lisa and other great portraits, she is model and painter fused.3

All three artists – Poussin too, in the group of four  – further rely on the symbolism of stringed instruments which though, in part common knowledge, is rarely seen. Who, for instance, has not heard that the curves of a guitar suggest a woman’s body? Yet no-one to my knowledge has yet recognized that a painter’s fingers, strumming across the parallel lines of the strings, are like a draughtsman’s hand manipulating lines into the form of a nude woman – a nude in the process of being imagined - in his arms. Each artist holds his "painting" (guitar) in front of him, a pose quite common in art generally.

L: Rembrandt, Self-portrait with a Dead Bittern (1639)   R: Rosalba Carriera, Self-portrait Holding a Portrait of Her Sister (1709), detail

Some, like Rembrandt (left) hold up their “painting” on the underlying level while in her self-portrait (right) Rosalba Carriera does so naturally without any disguise at all.4 So it is with painters holding guitars. 

L:Poussin, Bacchanal with a Guitar Player, detail                 R: Courbet, The Guitar Player, detail.

As for hands, I have shown quite extensively how a distended thumb separated from the other fingers is art’s traditional code for a palette-hand because painters stretch their thumb to fit through the thumb-hole.5 Poussin’s (left) is typical; Courbet’s (right) more subtle. He has a finger pointing to and touching the sound-box; both actions - pointing at and touching - are further code for a brush-hand. His thumb, meanwhile, extends away from the fingers to suggest a palette-hand. Thus Courbet unites the symbolism of two hands in one, however normal the hand appears.

L: Manet, The Music Lesson                                                                    R: Courbet, Guitar Player

Light also conveys meaning. The right hands of the two artists above are the most brightly-lit portion of their figures (above), clearly an important feature illuminated as if horizontally from a studio window; other areas have softer, more natural light effects. Manet in modern dress and Courbet's alter ego in medieval clothing (perhaps self-portrait) rest their hands on wood, the most common support for paintings in the Middle Ages and yet more evidence that in playing music these two paint art.

Manet’s picture also includes Madame Manet, his stiff-looking wife whose figure like the guitar's body is lit frontally while Manet’s own face is shaded more naturally. Why? The two Manets are in two different realities. He is the artist in the studio; she is a painting, stiff and immobile within the larger picture. 

That's why when Cézanne lined up his colors like musical scales, he knew what he was doing, linking music to painting. It's not high-flown theory but common artistic practice, largely unrecognized. Yet what I only realized recently is that guitars have their own particular relevance. Constructed like a palette out of wood panels, they are also pierced like a palette by a large hole. The sound-hole is a giant thumb-hole. Yet all circles in art have multiple meanings. The sound-hole is also an eye-hole, a dark passageway into the artist’s spirit and imagination where sense-impressions reverberate and echo. And, what comes out of the hole when he draws his hand over the string-lines? Music! Art! Poetry!

1. Theodore Reff, “Painting and Theory in the Final Decade” in Cézanne: The Late Work (New York: Museum of Modern Art) 1977, p. 48

2. Vermeer's self-portrait in The Procuress is considered uncertain because there is no other evidence to support what only looks like a self-portrait, a figure with his head turned over his shoulder to look out of the picture. Now that facial resemblance has been shown to a woman in another painting, a woman who is the focal point of the composition, the male figure's authenticity as a self-portrait is significantly strengthened.

3. Simon Abrahams, "Leonardo's Mona Lisa" on EPPH.

4. Simon Abrahams, "Rembrandt's Self-portrait with a Dead Bittern" (1639) on EPPH.

5. See examples under Brush and Palette, especially "Courbet's Wounded Man" (1844-54) on EPPH.

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