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Creator:
Philippe Mercier, 1689 or 1691–1760, Franco-German, active in Britain (from 1716)
Title:

The Sense of Hearing

Former Title(s):

The Sense of Sound [1985, Cormack, YCBA Concise Catalogue]

Date:
1744 to 1747
Medium:
Oil on canvas
Dimensions:
52 x 60 1/2 inches (132.1 x 153.7 cm)
Inscription(s)/Marks/Lettering:

Signed, lower right: "Ph. Mercier fecit."

Credit Line:
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Copyright Status:
Public Domain
Accession Number:
B1974.3.19
Classification:
Paintings
Collection:
Paintings and Sculpture
Subject Terms:
arcades | cello | child | columns (architectural elements) | conversation piece | costume | earrings | elderly | flute | flutist | genre subject | girl | harpsichord | harpsichordist | hearing | interior | Italianate | listening | music | musical instruments | operas | Rococco style | scores | senses | sonatas | spectacles | violin | violinist | women
Associated People:
Geminiani, Francesco Saverio (1687–1762), composer and music theorist
Handel, George Frideric (1685–1759), composer
Access:
On view in the galleries
Link:
https://collections.britishart.yale.edu/catalog/tms:4987
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Philippe Mercier was born in Prussia to French parents and trained as a painter in Berlin under the French artist Antoine Pesne. In 1716 he moved to London and quickly established himself as favorite among the German émigrés who had followed the Elector of Hanover to Britain when he was crowned George I in 1714. Mercier was among the first in Britain to popularize the latest French rococo style, then called simply the “modern” style. The Sense of Hearing belongs to a set of paintings representing all five senses, and Mercier made his living from selling reproductive prints after popular paintings such as these. In this scene, a group of amateur musicians play the latest music of George Frideric Handel and Francesco Geminiani, both Continental composers who made their careers in London.

Gallery label for installation of YCBA collection, 2016



The scores on the harpsichord are marked "Hendel Operas" and "Geminiani's Sonates." In the 1740s, both Georg Friedrich Händel and the Italian violinist and composer Francesco Geminiani were living in London. As a foreign artist striving for success in the British art world, Mercier may well have chosen these musical names to make the point that if other foreigners in Britain could take the lead in music, why should not well-connected foreign painters, such as he, take the lead in art? The group of ladies are presumably performing a Geminiani trio sonata, with the harpsichordist playing from a figured bass, the cellist doubling the bass line, and the flutist and violinist playing the two upper parts.

Gallery label for installation of YCBA collection, 2005
This work is from a series representing the five senses; the other subjects-also in the collection of the Yale Center for British Art-are sight, smell, taste, and touch. In each painting a group of four or five people, generally young, attractive, and flirtatious, act out a scene involving the given sense: music-making for hearing; looking into a mirror and through a telescope and magnifying glass for sight; sniffling flowers and a melon for smell; eating and drinking at a banquet for taste; embracing and being scratched by a cat for touch. Mercier took more or less all of these ideas from long-established iconographic traditions, the chief models being paintings and engravings by seventeenth-century artists working in the Low Countries. As a painter whose sensibilities were rooted in the French Rococo, and especially in the work of Watteau, he imparted to three of his senses-smell, taste, and touch-the look of fêtes galantes, with young men and women clearly pairing off and amorous possibilities in the air. His casting in the scenes for hearing and sight is less predictable. Although both feature young women, the males in the sight subject are an old man and a boy, and in The Sense of Hearing the characters are all female. But even when removed from the image, the male presence remains-in the person of the assumed viewer, with whom the beautiful harpsichordist makes titillating eye contact. Mercier's interest in all the senses was largely in sensual pleasure and, with the present work, in music as the food of love.
If not musically, then certainly as far as beauty and grace are concerned, the elderly lady playing the cello and the girls playing the flute and violin are the harpsichordist's mere accompaniment. Mercier paints the immature looks of the girls, presumably her younger sisters, in passages of looser, duller brushwork that make them seem all the more unformed; by contrast the harpsichordist's features are both fine in themselves and finely painted, set off by touches of sparkle in the eyes and the earring. The elderly lady is also loosely painted. It is difficult to guess what relation she may be to the others, but certainly she appears in the role of the chaperone, severely dressed and placed close to the viewer in a slightly barrier-like way. Even the instruments seem distributed according to how fetching they are: whereas the harpsichordist is free to look alluringly out at us, the flautist puffs her cheeks, the violinist cranes her neck, and the elderly lady holds her cello, inevitably with a hint of the indecorous, between her knees.
The scores on the harpsichord are marked "Hendel Operas" and "Geminiani's Sonates." Both the German-born George Frideric Handel and the Italian violinist and composer Francesco Geminiani were living in London at this time, and Mercier-as a foreigner striving for success in the British art world-may well have chosen these names to make a point: if foreigners could take the lead in music in Britain, why should not foreign painters, such as he, take the lead in art? More particularly, it seems at least possible that the rather unusual combination of instruments comes from Geminiani's instructional Rules for Playing in a True Taste on the Violin, German Flute, Violoncello and Harpsichord… Exemplify'd in a Variety of Compositions on the Subjects of English, Scotch and Irish Tunes, which was issued in parts from about 1739 to about 1745.
Mercier painted his series of the senses in the 1740s while living in York. The paintings are difficult to date exactly and may have been done over a protracted period, which might explain the differences in technique between the hearing and sight subjects on the one hand, and the smell, taste, and touch subjects on the other. The date given above seems reasonable for the present work since a reproductive mezzotint by John Faber was published, under the ungainly title of Musical Family Concert of Ladies, in 1744. According to the diarist George Vertue, the artist brought the whole series with him to London in 1747 and sold them for £100.1.

Malcolm Warner

Julia Marciari-Alexander, This other Eden, paintings from the Yale Center for British Art , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 1998, pp. 48-49, no. 12, ND1314.3 Y36 1998 (YCBA)

Art and Music in Britain: Four Encounters, 1730-1900 (Yale Center for British Art, 2006-10-05 - 2006-12-31) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

This Other Eden : British Paintings from the Paul Mellon Collection at Yale (Art Gallery of South Australia, 1998-09-16 - 1998-11-15) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

This Other Eden : British Paintings from the Paul Mellon Collection at Yale (Queensland Art Gallery, 1998-07-15 - 1998-09-06) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

This Other Eden : British Paintings from the Paul Mellon Collection at Yale (Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1998-05-01 - 1998-07-05) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Georgian Canada - Conflict and Culture (Royal Ontario Museum, 1984-05-01 - 1984-11-01) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

1747, Richardson's Sale, Foundling Hospital dinner, Mercier, The Star, vertue III, 1933-34, p. 135, N12 W35 A1 + OVERSIZE (YCBA) [YCBA]

Timothy J. Barringer, Art & music in Britain : four encounters, 1730-1900, , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, 2006, pp. 4-5, V 1699 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Timothy J. Barringer, Art & music in Britain, four encounters, 1730-1900 (exhibition and label text) , New Haven, 2006, [p. 15], V 1699:1 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Christie's Sale Catalogue: Important English Pictures. Friday, 21 June 1974, Christie's, 1974, p. 48, no. 126, pl. 126, Sales Catalogues (YCBA) [YCBA]

Malcolm Cormack, A Concise Catalogue of Paintings in the Yale Center for British Art, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 1985, pp. 158-159, N590.2 A83 (YCBA) [YCBA]

John T. Hayes, English Painting and the Rococo, Apollo, vol. 90, n0. 90, August 1969, pp. 120, 122, fig. 10, N1 A54 + (YCBA) [YCBA]

John Ingamells, A Catalogue of the Paintings, Drawings, and Etchings of Philip Mercier, Volume of the Walpole Society, vol. 46, Walpole Society, 1976-8, pp. 5, 62, no. 264, pl. 5d, N12 W35 +A1 OVERSIZE (YCBA) [YCBA]

Julia Marciari-Alexander, This other Eden, paintings from the Yale Center for British Art , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 1998, pp. 48-49, no. 12, ND1314.3 Y36 1998 (YCBA) [YCBA]

National Gallery of Art, Painting in Georgian England from the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1970, p. 11, ND488 P25 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Painting in England 1700-1850, collection of Mr. & Mrs. Paul Mellon. , Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA, 1963, p. 207 (v.1), no. 204, pl. 130, ND466 V57 v.1-2 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Paul Mellon's Legacy, a passion for British art. [large print labels] , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 2007, v. 3, N5220 M552 +P381 2007, Mellon Shelf (YCBA) [YCBA]

Robert Raines, Philip Mercier, 1689-1760, an exhibition of paintings and engravings. , Paul Mellon Foundation for British Art, London, 1969, p. 47, no. 48, NJ18 M5427 R35 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Sotheby's sale catalogue : British Paintings 1500-1850 : 13 July 1988, Sotheby's, London, July 13, 1988, pp. 128-29, Lot 84, Auction Catalogues (YCBA)

Susan E. Thompson, Traversfloten im Kolonialen und post-revolutionaren Philadelphia, laut Pennsylvanis Gazette zwischen 1744 und 1783 , Tibia, Jahr, 29, Heft 2, April, 2004, p. 96, ML5 T553 (Music) [ORBIS]

Jennifer Ullman, Philippe Mercier and The five senses, Yale Center for British Art. , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, 1990, V 0099 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Donald Blake Webster, Georgian Canada, conflict and culture, 1745-1820 , Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada, 1984, p. 174, no. 185, N6546 O6 W42 (YCBA) [YCBA]


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