This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
{ Click on the image to expand the photo }

Three Portraits of Cellists

19 February 2016

She's listening. You can see it in her face. Her concentration focuses on her right hand poised precisely at the moment her bow first draws a vibration from the cello. The fingers of her left hand stretch in preparation for an arpeggio across all four strings. She hears the sound before we do, knowing the song her instrument will sing.

The photographer arranged the camera frame with artful skill in this portrait of a cellist. A soft light surrounds the woman whose long white dress blends into an opaque studio background. This artistic cloud-like effect may have had a more practical purpose to allow a newspaper's art director to easily crop the image or convert it into a sketched drawing. I can easily imagine the same charming pose used for a different photo and substituting a small child instead of the cello.

This large format cabinet card was produced by the Baker Art Gallery of Columbus, Ohio. The founder, Lorenzo Marvin Baker (1834-1924), was a New Yorker who moved to Ohio in 1854. After a brief service in the Union army, he opened his photography studio in 1862 and would go on to win several prestigious awards for quality photographs. After Lorenzo's death in 1924 it continued to run under his son and other family descendants until closing in 1955.

As the state capital, Columbus was the center of Ohio's political world and rivaled New York for attracting the attention of national politicians. Fittingly as the best photographer in the city, the Baker Art Gallery produced portraits of Presidents Hayes, McKinley, Taft, and Harding. Columbus is also situated in the center of the state, on the rail lines between Washington and Chicago, and between Pittsburgh and St. Louis. This made it a popular hub for the theatrical circuits with several theaters and concert venues. Though I don't know who this woman is, I recognize a professionalism in her posture and certainly in the photograph style that leads me to believe she was a musical artist, perhaps a member of a traveling musical group, either a chamber ensemble or an orchestra. The small award medallions in the left corner of the photograph include the years 1888, and 1839-1889 but the modern style of the photo reflects a later date, I think, of around 1910.

The Wikipedia entry for the Baker Art Gallery had a rare street view of the studio's first Columbus location at 106 S. High Street, taken about 1905. I suspect the upper floor had skylights for better illumination. Maybe the pedestrians on the sidewalk in front have paused to listen to the heavenly sound of a cello from a window above.

Baker Art Gallery
Columbus, OH circa 1905
Source: Wikipedia


In past centuries the violoncello, or cello as it is commonly called, was sometimes judged unsuitable for a woman to play, as the intimate manner in which it is clasped between the legs was thought immodest for female musicians. In fact the cello's end pin, which was a relatively new accessory added in 1845, improved the playing technique for both men and women, making it a more graceful instrument. But because of its large size, and because it is played while seated, a female cellist was not easy to photograph. This photo gets around both problems by having the young woman stand with her cello leaning against her.

She gazes directly at the camera, bow in a restful position, as if she has just risen to acknowledge the applause of her audience. Her white gown is of a more complicated 1890s style compared to the Columbus cellist. There is a carved upholstered chair to one side, a potted plant stand on the other, and a hazy, vaguely Mediterranean, painted backdrop behind her. I would say she is about 16 or 19 years old, surely not beyond 20.  The arrangement with cello is not unlike period photos of a married couple, where the wife stands to show off her dress and rests an affectionate hand on the shoulder of her seated husband. 

This cabinet card photo was taken by:
The Notman Photographic Co. Limited
3 Park Street and 184 Boylston Street, Boston

Like the Baker Art Gallery, this studio was also the winner of numerous photography prizes festooned on the elaborate backstamp. The owner was William Notman, born in 1826 in Paisley, Scotland, where his life seemed destined for his family's woolen cloth business. When the firm went bankrupt in 1856 he emigrated to Montreal and started a new career as a photographer. In the 1870s Notman took advantage of the public's enthusiasm for photos and the improvements in photographic processes to build his business into a photography empire with studio branches in Ottawa, New York, and Boston. Much of his success came from producing school photographs in the United States, with contracts with Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Amherst, Smith and Dartmouth colleges. Notman died in 1891 in Montreal, but his company continued under the management of his younger brother and partners.

This young musician's name is unknown, but the photographer's location in Boston places her at America's center for the music education of women in the 19th century. From very early in the 1800s, Boston's acceptance of women musicians inspired many to join a 'ladies" orchestra or band,  and I believe this cellist is one of those professional musicians.


This last cellist's portrait is more casual, probably taken by an amateur photographer, perhaps the woman's husband or brother, but still made with some care to set up the pose. The woman on this photo postcard looks off to a distance beyond the camera and her playing position is not as she would be if on a stage about to perform. Her cello is held a bit twisted, turned toward the camera. And though her bow is placed on a string, her left hand is loose, as if she was just tuning the instrument rather than playing a tune. She wears a dress style suitable for 1900-1910 but in a broad plaid fabric that I wish we could see in color. Like the Columbus cellist, she also has a wedding band on her right hand. I'd guess her age as 30ish. 

Her name is not recorded, nor is the location, though it seems safe to say that she sits in the parlor of her home at 2:30 in the afternoon. Regrettably the camera lens failed to capture the title of her music, but with the dense notation it is looks like a piece that required considerable skill to play. I'm unsure if she exhibits the same professionalism seen in the photos of the other two musicians, but I feel certain she enjoyed the same beautiful sound of the cello.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where reflection is an art form.


Karen S. said...

Such interesting details, you've certainly covered their lives well here in the three portraits of Cellists.

kathy said...

There is so much to look at in the last photo. I too was wondering what the sheet music was on the stand.

Kristin said...

Interesting to see the ages you guess. I think I would have guess older for both those last two women.

Helen Killeen Bauch McHargue said...

You brought so much to life in these photos. Some of the prohibitions for women in music
in the early 1900's are so amazing in today's context. As always, the stories you tell of the
photographers are almost as interesting as their subjects.

Jodi Lynn Strait said...

Your posts are always so detailed and even though I'm musically challenged individual I like to read about your subjects.

La Nightingail said...

We had an all-school orchestra when I was attending elementary school & I wanted to learn how to play the violin. Unfortunately all the violins were taken, so I was given a cello. We lived 5 blocks from the school & my mother didn't drive at the time so I had to haul that cello to & from school on my own. What a drag! I didn't stick with it for long & joined the all school chorus instead! My younger sister took up the violin, however. When she'd practice at home, we'd all suddenly decide we had to be somewhere else - Mom had to go to the store. I had to go see a friend. Can't remember what my brother & other sister did? Stuff their ears with tissues, maybe? Squaaaak, squeeek. It was awful. Fortunately she didn't stick with it - she, too, opting to join the school chorus. :)

Little Nell said...

I think ypu may be right about the way the photographer has aranged the ladies with their cellos, but without your expert commentary to point out the similarities, I would never have seen it.

Bob Scotney said...

I could never have interpreted these photos in the way that you have. The first one is truly beautiful and like you I would like to know more about the plaid.

Jo Featherston said...

Lovely studies of these ladies, especially the first two., and surely modesty in playing the cello would not be a problem in those flowing dresses. Is it not uncommon to wear a wedding band on the right hand? Always worn on the left hand here in Aus, as far as I know.

Barbara Rogers said...

I love listening to cello music, but have no recollection of hearing a woman who played one. These three are very nicely depicted, and you gave us a good background of the photographers.

Titania Staeheli said...

Al three ladies must have loved to play the cello and loved music, other wise they would not have stood their with their instrument of choice to be photographed for posterity.

Frances Duff said...

I love your old cellist pictures as well as the page of the Scottish photographer living in Montreal. That is the same decade that my grandfather moved to Montreal from Scotland following in his organist brother's path.


  © Blogger template Shush by 2009

Back to TOP