Monday, March 1, 2010

Chopin’s photograph?

Well now we’ve established when his birthday is (or not!), how about what he looked like. Have you noticed how in almost every picture of Chopin he looks completely different? His face and character were without question too subtle and mobile for painters to capture, and I can imagine, with the constant changes of expression on his face, he would have looked very different to every artist that tried to paint him. Certainly that is the impression created by all the myriad of different likenesses of him. The paintings that feel more accurate (whether they are or not) are always the ones that concentrate not on his appearance but his personality. Luckily there are one or two irrefutable pieces of evidence to show what Chopin actually looked like, namely two photographs and a death mask. Yes you heard me correctly, two photographs.

There is a famous photograph of Chopin, taken in Paris at the home of Chopin’s publisher Maurice Schlesinger by the photographer Louis-Auguste Bisson in 1849, just a few months before Chopin's death. In it Chopin’s deteriorating health and the signs of lack of sleep are clearly evident, though the often quoted description of his face being swollen as a result of his disease (TB) is actually a mistaken observation. What people are seeing (and mistaking for a swollen face in poor reproductions of the photograph) is the angular shape of his jaw line, which matches perfectly his death mask (a life size copy of which I have in my possession). Chopin did complain of a swollen face at times during his final illness and someone (Arthur Hedley) made the connection with Chopin's description and what he interpreted as swollen features in the 1849 photograph and the description seems to have stuck. The most striking feature of this famous picture is of course Chopin’s expression in his eyes. To some observers his expression might simply convey the anguish of someone suffering in extreme ill-health. I see it differently, and it might explain why I find this picture so inspiring. What I feel we are really seeing is Chopin without any front. He was too ill to hide his feelings in any way (even though Chopin was well known for being a very private person) and what we are indeed seeing is the composer of the Polonaise-Fantaisie, the Barcarolle, the B minor Sonata, etc.. Chopin’s gaze is penetrating, deeply intelligent, scientific as much as artistic (even Liszt noticed this aspect) and filled with an amazing combination of extreme wisdom and extreme distance. Without doubt it’s one of the most extraordinary pictures ever taken.


Frédéric Chopin (1810 - 1849): one of only two photographs of the composer, this one taken by L.A. Bisson at the Paris home of Chopin's publisher Schlesinger in 1849. Also in the photograph is a score of Chopin's music, carefully placed in view on a piano positioned next to the composer


Now to the second photograph of Chopin. I first became aware of this picture in 1990 when I saw it reproduced in John O'Shea’s excellent 'Music and Medicine: Medical Profiles of Great Composers' (London, Dent, 1990). According to Dr O'Shea his source was the Fryderyk Chopin Society in Warsaw. Back in 1990, having thought I’d seen every known reproduction of the composer’s likeness I was staggered when I saw this picture. Sadly the photograph is extremely deteriorated (I believe the original was destroyed in WWII) and the photographer is unknown. Although it’s very hard at first to see anything in the photograph, if you keep looking you begin to see more detail. It was my belief that the picture had been printed the wrong way round in John O'Shea's book (I had no proof, only that Chopin’s hair parting, assuming it is Chopin, was on the opposite side of his head compared with the famous 1849 photograph of Chopin). But close scrutiny of this 2nd photograph did indeed show that this person had the exact physical likeness of Chopin from the other photograph, from the death mask, and even from one or two of the portraits done of the composer. Although it’s hard to make out the expression in the face because of the picture’s deterioration, what does come across is the extreme tension of the subject, like a coiled up spring, something that makes sense if you think that at the time this photograph was taken (1846 or 1847 according to who you believe) Chopin was still composing, possibly still working on some of his greatest music. Chopin always found composing a huge struggle; initially when he was ensconced at Nohant for the summer, George Sand’s country retreat near Châteauroux south west of Paris where Chopin did most of his writing, George Sand was able to entice him away from the piano when he was stuck and unable to proceed. After an outing in the countryside he usually came back with his equilibrium restored and was able to resume his composing with renewed enthusiasm. But as the years went by even George Sand was worried about interrupting Chopin in his room, as his hypercritical nature laboriously reexamined every bar of his music with an increased passion and commitment as his music became more and more intense. To quote George Sand:

1st August, 1841: George Sand to P. Gaubert
“Maurice [her son] and I are spending eight hours a day together, drawing and painting... Meanwhile Chopin gets on with his own things and gets cross with the piano. When the keyboard does not carry out his orders he aims such a powerful blow at it with his fist that the poor instrument groans!... He thinks that he is slacking if his back is not breaking under a load of work”

It’s a pity that the earlier photograph of Chopin is so deteriorated, as it would be amazing to see more clearly the expression of this “incomparable genius” [Eugène Delacroix] at such a crucial time of his life, perhaps while still working on some of his last masterpieces, or perhaps the photograph was taken a little later, around the time of his acrimonious split with George Sand that left him so devastated.


Frédéric Chopin (1810 - 1849): one of only two photographs of the composer. This one is rarely reproduced due to its deteriorated state. The photograph was taken in 1846 or 1847.


Frédéric Chopin (1810 - 1849): 1846 or 1847 photograph (reversed image).



Frédéric Chopin (1810 - 1849): 1847 pencil drawing my Franz Winterhalter, described by Chopin himself as "a very good likeness".


Personally I have never understood why this 2nd photograph of Chopin has not been taken more seriously. True it's terribly damaged, but for anyone devoted to Chopin's music any photograph of him, no matter how deteriorated, has huge value. Over the last two decades I have regularly reproduced it in concert programmes, CD sleeves, etc. and recently began including it in the photo montages that accompany many of my own Chopin videos on YouTube. I was still mystified as to why the picture was so completely ignored on the internet. Detailed internet searches always failed to turn up anything other than the 1849 photograph and Wikipedia contributors proudly claimed there was only one known photograph of Chopin. Had I been hoodwinked all these years by John O’Shea’s inclusion of the picture in his 1990 'Music and Medicine'? Was the picture not even of Chopin? Quite recently a screen shot of the photograph taken from one of my YouTube videos appeared on Wikipedia and before long everyone was talking about the ‘2nd photograph’ of Chopin. So we must thank Dr O’Shea for helping to make the picture more accessible back in 1990, and I feel very proud that my efforts helped to get the photograph better known on the internet and into people's awareness.

As for Chopin’s death mask, it’s truly remarkable (as well as the death mask, another of my most cherished possessions is a life size cast of Chopin's left hand). Chopin’s friends stated that after his death the muscles in his face relaxed and his face resumed a more youthful quality minus all the strain of his last illness. This is certainly evident in the death mask, taken by Auguste Clésinger on the morning of 17 October 1849. Clésinger also created the funeral monument over Chopin’s tomb (of which Chopin’s close friend the painter Delacroix was so disparaging). It’s amazing when viewing this death mask to realise we are looking at Chopin’s exact profile, that so many people must have gazed at at his concerts. I'll never forget the first time I saw the mask: having no idea what Chopin really looked like, I was stunned. I was surprised at the level of expression in the face, considering it was a death mask, and I was equally stunned by the fact that he looked exactly as I had expected him to look, just like his music in fact, even though that's an irrational thing to say (interestingly a century later Kay Swift said the same thing of George Gershwin's appearance). At the same time it’s impossible not to forget the words of Solange Clésinger, George Sand’s daughter and Auguste Clésinger's wife, who was present at Chopin’s death bed. She later wrote of the absolute horror after he passed away, as she looked into his eyes (that so movingly stare back at us in that soul searching way in the 1849 photograph) and saw “that the soul had died too”.


Frédéric Chopin (1810 - 1849): death mask front view (from Jack Gibbons' own collection)



Frédéric Chopin (1810 - 1849): death mask side view (from Jack Gibbons' own collection)

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6 comments:

magpie said...

jack - thanks very much for posting this information, I adore his music, and lately considering attempting a bust,and looking for more images other than the older photograph.
Sandy

Richard said...

Jack: fascinating. I remember seeing the O'Shea book in 1990 and regretted never buying it as it seemed be unavailable quite quickly. Some 10 years later I saw the photo in a German book in Mainz, Germany, and again missed a chance though it was a tiny reproduction in a very expensive publication. I think it looks more like Chopin - if not him, how many people looked like that? Best wishes.

Dênis Leonardo Racki said...

please, make more strong comments like this about chopin. I loved so much!!

Alexander said...

Was very interested to see the "second" photo of Chopin, which I'd never even heard of or seen.

Thank you.

Austin's dad said...

This second photograph is such an exciting discovery! The two photographs and the death mask prove to me how "off" the many artists' renderings have been...they were often done to give a flattering image of the subject...the same with many Mozart illustrations. I wish that some experienced digital photographer would get a hold of this picture and do an advanced digital imaging of the two images and death mask and come up with an accurate recreation of Chopin's face. With the tecnology available today, this surly must be possible. It's so exciting to see Chopin's face while he was not so sick.

Nicholas West said...

This is wonderful blog. The thing that struck me instantly upon first seeing the famous 1849 picture of Chopin, and it is an impression that has stuck with me for 40 years, is that it looks like he is sitting in Ralph Kramden's apartment in "The Honeymooners". The door and window are in exactly the same places as the TV show!