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Gershwin and color: how blue is the Rhapsody?

Everyone knows George Gershwin as a composer, songwriter, pianist and icon of American music. But few know of his connections to the world of paintings and fine art. As a practicing artist himself, Gershwin produced over 100 paintings, drawings, and photographs, most famously including his portrait of Arnold Schoenberg. “He was in love with color and his palette in paint closely resembled the color of his music. Juxtaposition of greens, blues, sanguines, chromes, and grays, fascinated him,” recalled Merle Armitage. “Of course I can paint!” Gershwin was said to have told his girlfriend Rosamond Walling, an aspiring landscape painter. “If you have talent you can do anything. I have a lot of talent,” he added.

Aside from creating art, Gershwin was also one of the foremost collectors of modern art in his day, assembling a collection comprised of about 150 paintings, drawings, sculptures, and decorative objects. With help and advice from his cousin, a painter named Henry Botkin, Gershwin spent about $50,000 acquiring masterpieces. He looked for luminosity in the canvasses he acquired. “It seems to throw out its own light. I am crazy about it,” he exclaimed of Utrillo’s painting, The Suburbs.

Picasso’s The Absinthe Drinker of 1901 was the crown jewel of his collection. This work, from Picasso’s so-called “blue” period, depicts a sorrowful drinker in the nightlife of Montmartre, all dressed in red and nursing a drink of brilliant green.

At Gershwin’s request, Botkin acquired for him Mark Chagall’s painting, The Rabbi, now in the collection of The Jewish Museum. This is the work that Gershwin saw in front of him every day when he went to sit down at the piano. Gershwin studied this painting closely, and used it as a model for his own work. His portrait of his grandfather was an updated version: the American Jew, dressed sharply in a morning coat, with his beard neatly trimmed, his hat and eyes upturned, ready for what the future may bring. Behind him is the new shtetl, the Lower East Side. And Gershwin’s own pose, in his self-portrait photograph with Irving Berlin, is very clearly modeled on Chagall’s rabbi.

George Gershwin, probably a self-portrait taken with timer. Image courtesy of the author.
George Gershwin, probably a self-portrait taken with timer. Image courtesy of the author.

Portrait of Dr. Devaraigne was one of several Modigliani paintings that he owned, and it was his favorite. Gershwin used Modigliani’s hallmark, the two-toned gray and orangey-red background, as the background to his own self-portrait.

Linie-Fleck (Line Spot) from Wassily Kandinsky’s late period, now at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, caused a sensation when Gershwin’s collection was exhibited at the Arts Club of Chicago in 1933. It was described by the art critic at the Chicago Tribune as “decidedly in the manner of the American Indian.” A critic at the Chicago Herald Examiner described it as “brown triangles on a yellow background with dots and dashes and whatnot.” This painting was one of at least three abstract works in Gershwin’s collection. Gershwin’s statement that “music is design; melody is line; harmony is color” is very close to language used in Kandinsky’s synaesthetic treatise Point and Line to Plane.

One could dismiss Gershwin’s hobbies as simply part of his attempt to be highbrow, or as Leonard Bernstein put it, “to cross the tracks,” but I think there’s more to it than that. These works and the others in Gershwin’s collection, such as Max Weber’s Invocation (1919), Charles Filiger’s Portrait of Gauguin, and Thomas Hart Benton’s Burlesque were not trophies to the composer, or mere symbols of his financial success. On the contrary, they were deeply meaningful objects to him. Edward G. Robinson described a visit to an art exhibition with George Gershwin: “We would stand quietly enough before the paintings we were watching, but inwardly…we felt we were fellow travelers into the very life of the picture, and partners in the inspiration of the artist who painted it.”

Left: Amedeo Modigliani: Doctor Devaraigne, oil on canvas, 1917. Private Collection, image in the Public Domain. Right: George Gershwin: Self-Portrait. Library of Congress, Special collections of the Music Division
Left: Amedeo Modigliani: Doctor Devaraigne, oil on canvas, 1917. Private Collection, image in the Public Domain. Right: George Gershwin: Self-Portrait. Library of Congress, Special Collections of the Music Division.

Armitage recalled watching Gershwin looking intently at a watercolor by Paul Klee. “After studying a Klee watercolor with a magnifying glass,” Armitage recalled, “[Gershwin] stopped abruptly and exclaimed that his music would not stand up under that kind of scrutiny.” Henry Botkin described Gershwin’s voracious appetite for art: “We would go into some gallery—and I’m not speaking of a little gallery but a big one. Do you think he was satisfied in seeing the show that hung on the walls? No! When he went through there they had to open the whole place and pull everything out. He just couldn’t wait. He wanted more, and more, and more.”

But what about color in Gershwin’s music? Painting and music “spring from the same elements,” he told a friend, “one emerging as sight, the other as sound.” In speaking of jazz, Gershwin said, “At first it was mere discord for the sake of discord, a simple reveling in animal vigor. But slowly the meaning of that discord, its color, its power in the depiction of the American sentiment, has been brought to life.” In light of such powerful statements, I would like to propose that we consider giving a synaesthetic reading to Gershwin’s only work with an explicit color reference, Rhapsody in Blue (1924). Can we take at face value Gershwin’s description of the work as “a kaleidoscope of America” composed in a blaze of synaesthetic creativity, combining sound and sight? “It was on the train with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty-bang that is so often so stimulating to a composer…. And there I suddenly heard—and even saw…— the complete construction of the rhapsody from beginning to end…. I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America.” Perhaps we can try to see the “musical kaleidoscope” in action in this work, whose climax, a moment of pure noise, might be understood as representing a flash of blinding light.

Image Credit: “Birthday party honoring Maurice Ravel in New York City, March 8, 1928. From left: Oskar Fried; Éva Gauthier; Ravel at piano; Manoah Leide-Tedesco; and George Gershwin” by Wide World Photos. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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