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‘Orchestrating Elegance’: making a private music room

  • “A Reading from Homer,” 1885, oil on canvas, by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. This was one of the paintings in the Marquand music room. —courtesy of The Clark Art Institute

  • “Henry G. Marquand,” 1897, oil on canvas by John Singer Sargent. —courtesy of The Clark Art Institute

  • “Amo Te, Ama Me,” 1881, oil on panel by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. This painting was in the Marquand music room. —courtesy of The Clark Art Institute

  • The elaborate Steinway piano designed in the 1880s by Alma-Tadema for the Marquand music room; it’s now owned by The Clark Art Institute. courtesy of The Clark Art Institute

  • A photo, circa 1890, of the Marquand music room. The image is attributed to George Collins Cox. —courtesy of The Clark Art Institute



Staff Writer
Thursday, June 08, 2017

What do you do if you’re filthy rich and an art connoisseur, and you have a palatial home already stocked with valuable canvasses?

If you’re Henry Marquand, you hire a leading painter and designer to create a private music room, one built around the most expensive piano ever made.

In “Orchestrating Elegance,” one of two new exhibits at The Clark Art Institute, the Williamstown museum examines how Marquand, a Gilded Age U.S. financier and art patron, commissioned British artist Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema to create a unique music room in his baronial New York City home in the 1880s.

The creation of the music room, where a number of noted musicians and composers of the era gave private performances, was a huge news story at the time, Clark officials say.

The room’s centerpiece was an ornate Steinway piano, designed by Alma-Tadema, that cost an estimated $50,000 — over $1.2 million today. In fact, the Clark purchased the piano in 1997 at auction for $1.2 million and has used the instrument as the basis for the new show.

“I fell in love with this piano when I came to the museum,” said exhibit co-curator Kathleen Morris, the Clark’s director of exhibitions and curator of decorative arts. “I really wanted to find out more about it and trace the history of how [the music room] came together.”

The new exhibit has gathered many of that room’s pieces, from original artwork and furniture to recreations of some furnishings. Doing so shines a light on Alma-Tadema, who Morris says was one of the most esteemed and successful painters of his day, though his work fell out of favor by the mid 20th century.

Yet in the last 10 years of so, Morris added, Alma-Tadema’s detailed oil paintings of scenes from ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt have become big-ticket items again: one sold for $35 million a few years ago.

The Clark show includes several examples of these romantic, luminous works, as well as preparatory drawings, books, photographs and other material related to the construction of the music room; of particular interest is how Alma-Tadema incorporated references from antiquity into the design, such as in the furniture.

Marquand, a founder and the first president of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, likely knew of Alma-Tadema’s painting and his design work — the artist crafted his two London homes — and got in touch with him, said Morris.

“It turned into a wonderful collaboration,” she said.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

“Orchestrating Elegance” is on view at The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown through Sept. 4. For visiting hours and ticket prices, visit www.clarkart.edu.