Comedy and Tragedy

Edmund Kean was accounted the greatest actor of his generation, but not everyone shared that opinion. Violette Garrick wrote to him:

You don’t know how to play Abel Drugger.

He wrote back:

I know it.

Error on the G String

Fritz Kreisler had already gained immortality as a violin virtuoso when in 1935 he revealed that he was also a composer — for 30 years he had been performing his own compositions in concert but attributing them to Vivaldi, Couperin, Porpora, and Pugnani.

In the uproar that followed, Kreisler argued that as a young man he’d had no reputation; audiences would not have paid to hear the compositions of an unknown violinist. That was just the point, opined the Philadelphia Record: Fans had bought the pieces, and indeed other violinists had performed them, thinking them the work of established composers.

The Portland Oregonian agreed: “What if Fritz Kreisler had died without making confession that over a period of thirty years he had been composing music and signing to it the names of half-forgotten composers of former times? What if he had left no list of his works?”

Which raises an interesting question: How many such hoaxes have succeeded? How many of our great works of art are undiscovered forgeries?

Keeping Score

That’s a caricature of Arturo Toscanini by Enrico Caruso.

There are many tales of the conductor’s astonishing musical memory. A clarinetist once approached him just before a performance and said that he would be unable to play because the E-natural key on his instrument was broken.

Toscanini concentrated for a short time and said, “It’s all right. You don’t have an E natural tonight.”

Less Is More

As part of a modern dance program, Paul Taylor once stood motionless on stage for four minutes.

For its review, Dance Observer magazine ran four inches of white space.

Music Appreciation

“Debussy’s music is the dreariest kind of rubbish. Does anybody for a moment doubt that Debussy would write such chaotic, meaningless, cacophonous, ungrammatical stuff, if he could invent a melody?” — New York Post, 1907

“It is probable that much, if not most, of Stravinsky’s music will enjoy brief existence.” — New York Sun, Jan. 16, 1937

“Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, like the first pancake, is a flop.” — Nicolai Soloviev, Novoye Vremya, St. Petersburg, Nov. 13, 1875

Rigoletto is the weakest work of Verdi. It lacks melody.” — Gazette Musicale de Paris, May 22, 1853

“Sure-fire rubbish.” — New York Herald Tribune on Porgy and Bess, Oct. 11, 1935

Nice Kitty

French sculptor Louis Vidal was blind since youth, but he produced startlingly faithful renderings of animals: a bull, a wounded stag, a horse, a cow, a dog.

With domestic creatures he could do this by feeling their anatomy directly, or by referring to skeletons or to stuffed specimens. But how did he create The Roaring Lion, the masterpiece first shown at the Salon in 1868?

Legend has it that he did it the hard way: by running his hands over a live lion at the Jardin des Plantes.

“Convinced he would not succeed without having recourse to the living ‘king of beasts,'” reported The English Illustrated Magazine in 1900, “he entered the cage without the least hesitation, accompanied by the lion-tamer. The animal allowed itself to be caressed for some time, and Vidal was thus enabled to study its anatomy. As a result, he produced that most wonderful example of his art, ‘The Roaring Lion.'”

If that’s just a story … then how did he manage it?

Music Appreciation

Excerpts from concert reviews in London’s Harmonicon:

June 1823:

Opinions are much divided concerning the merits of the Pastoral symphony of Beethoven, though very few venture to deny that it is much too long.

July 1825:

[Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony] is a composition in which the author has indulged a great deal of disagreeable eccentricity. Often as we now have heard it performed, we cannot yet discover any design in it, neither can we trace any connexion in its parts. Altogether it seems to have been intended as a kind of enigma — we had almost said a hoax.

June 1827:

[Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony] depends wholly on its last movement for what applause it obtains; the rest is eccentric without being amusing, and laborious without effect.

April 1825:

We now find [the length of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony] to be precisely one hour and five minutes; a fearful period indeed, which puts the muscles and lungs of the band, and the patience of the audience to a severe trial.

“But how did you get to understand Beethoven?” wrote John Ruskin to John Brown in 1881. “He always sounds to me like the upsetting of bags of nails, with here and there an also dropped hammer.”

Good Girl

Here’s some pretty abstract expressionism — it was painted by a dog. Tillamook Cheddar is a Jack Russell terrier who works with her claws and teeth, spending hours on each canvas and biting anyone who interferes.

She knows what she’s doing — to date she’s had 16 exhibitions in the United States, Bermuda, the Netherlands, and Belgium, and earned $100,000.

Low Art

schon woodcut

We met Erhard Schön’s anamorphic woodcuts back in 2006.

This one, Was sichst du? (What Do You See?), from 1538, seems to promise an edifying religious theme — there’s Jonah on the left being spit out of his whale. But view it edge-on and you’ll see this:

schon woodcut - compressed

So, maybe not.

Cat Snap

Harry Whittier Frees did a booming business in novelty postcards in the early 20th century, posing animals in human situations, including props and sets.

“I take occasion to give my personal assurance that all pictures appearing in this book are photographed from life,” he wrote in 1915’s The Little Folks of Animal Land. “The difficulties encountered in posing kittens and puppies for pictures of this kind have been overcome only by the exercise of great patience and invariable kindness.”

Writing Weather

1816 is known as “the year without a summer” — the eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora flung huge amounts of volcanic dust into the atmosphere, dropping temperatures worldwide and giving the sky a sallow cast that’s visible in Turner’s landscapes of the period (above).

It was a great calamity for farmers, but a boon for horror literature — the “wet, ungenial summer” forced Mary Shelley and John Polidori indoors on their Swiss holiday, where they wrote both Frankenstein and The Vampyre.

Pan King

Excerpts from the reviews of James William Davison, music editor of the London Times from 1846 to 1878:

  • “Perhaps a more overrated man never existed than this same Schubert.”
  • “[Schumann is] the very opposite of good.”
  • “We should rather be inclined to class [Berlioz] a daring lunatic than as a sound, healthy musician.”
  • “Never was a writer of operas so destitute of real invention, so destitute in power or so wanting in the musician’s skill [as Verdi].”
  • “The entire works of Chopin present a motley surface of ranting hyperbole and excruciating cacophony.”
  • “[Wagner] is such queer stuff that criticism would be thrown away upon it.”
  • “He who imagines that, at any time within the last half century Franz Liszt was a musical composer must entertain either very odd notions of art or must be, qua music, an absolute ignoramus.”

But: “[William Sterndale Bennett] lives with us in his works. The music he created conquered, in some sense, the power of death.”

King Prong

Image: Flickr

A gorilla made of coat hangers. David Mach’s 2007 sculpture Silver Back won him a place in the Guinness Book of Records for “largest coat hanger installation”; it’s not clear how much competition he had.

The whole piece is 7 feet tall, 9 feet long, and 5 feet wide, and it required 2,705 hours and 7,500 hangers to make.

Special Delivery

This is the Flammarion woodcut, so named because it first appeared in Camille Flammarion’s 1888 book L’Atmosphère. No one knows who created it; it’s thought to depict a medieval pilgrim who discovers the point where earth and sky meet.

Flammarion’s book itself seemed touched by magic. As the astronomer was completing a chapter on the force of the wind, a sudden gale blew the last few pages out the window and off in a whirlwind among the trees. Then a downpour started, and Flammarion gave them up as lost.

He was astonished, then, a few days later when his printer delivered the full chapter, with no pages missing.

It seems the porter who normally brought Flammarion’s proof sheets had been returning to his office when he noticed the sodden manuscript leaves on the ground. He assumed that he himself had dropped them and so had collected them and carried them to the printer without telling anyone.

“Remember,” Flammarion writes, “it was a chapter on the strange doings of the wind.”


“I played over the music of that scoundrel Brahms. What a giftless bastard! It annoys me that this self-inflated mediocrity is hailed as a genius. Why, in comparison with him, Raff is a giant, not to speak of Rubinstein, who is after all a live and important human being, while Brahms is chaotic and absolutely empty dried-up stuff.” — Tchaikovsky’s diary, Oct. 9, 1886

A Generous Commission

Shortly before Nelson left England for the last time, he found himself sitting next to Benjamin West at an honorary dinner. The admiral complimented the painter on his Death of Wolfe and asked why he had produced no more pictures like it.

“Because, my lord,” West said, “there are no more subjects.” He said he feared that Nelson’s fearless courage might produce another such scene, and “if it should, I shall certainly avail myself of it.”

“Will you, Mr. West?” Nelson said. “Then I hope I shall die in the next battle.”

He got his wish — West found himself painting The Death of Nelson the following year.


“He has no talent at all, that boy! You, who are his friend, tell him, please, to give up painting.”

— Manet to Monet, on Renoir


giotto circle

When an emissary from Benedict XI asked Giotto for a sample of his work, the artist dipped his brush in red ink and painted a perfect circle freehand.

He got the commission.

“Calamities of Genius”

Homer was a beggar; Plautus turned a mill; Terence was a slave; Boethius died in gaol; Paul Borghese had fourteen trades, and yet starved with them all; Tasso was often distressed for five shillings; Bentivoglio was refused admittance into an hospital he had himself erected; Cervantes died of hunger; Camoens, the celebrated writer of the Lusiad, ended his days in an alms house; and Vaugelas left his body to the surgeons, to pay his debts as far as it would go. In our own country, Bacon lived a life of meanness and distress; Sir Walter Raleigh died on a scaffold. Spencer, the charming Spencer, died forsaken, and in want; and the death of Collins came through neglect, first causing mental derangement. Milton sold his copy-right of Paradise Lost for fifteen pounds, at three payments, and finished his life in obscurity; Dryden lived in poverty and distress; Otway died prematurely, and through hunger; Lee died in the streets; Steele lived a life of perfect warfare with bailiffs. Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield was sold for a trifle to save him from the gripe of the law; Fielding lies in the burying-ground of the English factory at Lisbon, without a stone to mark the spot; Savage died in prison at Bristol, where he was confined for a debt of eight pounds; Butler lived in penury, and died poor; Chatterton, the child of genius and misfortune, destroyed himself.

The Terrific Register, 1825


“There is only one difference between a madman and me. I am not mad.” — Salvador Dali

Those Germans

Anonymous German picture puzzle, 19th century.

Draw your own conclusions.

Insult, Injury

In 1626, Dutch artist Roelandt Savery composed this historic portrait of a dodo, one of the few painted from a live specimen. Unfortunately, he gave it two left feet.

Unrelated (one hopes): In Johann Tischbein’s portrait of Goethe in the Roman Campagna, the poet’s right leg bears a left foot.


Dick Termes paints murals on spheres. And he does it with a unique “six-point” perspective technique that permits a remarkable optical illusion.

As you watch this video, try to convince yourself that the front half of the sphere is transparent and that the mural is painted on the concave interior of the farther side — that is, that you’re standing in the center of the pictured room and turning in place to your left. If you succeed, the spin will seem to reverse direction and you’ll find yourself inside the painting:

Ninger Note

Counterfeiting was a lot harder in the old days.

In the 1880s, Emanuel Ninger, known as “Jim the Penman,” drew $50 and $100 bills by hand, spending weeks on each one. Fifty bucks was a lot back then, about $2,000 in today’s money, so the effort was worthwhile. This also meant that his “work” ended up in the hands of rich people, and he actually gained a perverse following who realized the forgeries’ value as works of art.

He drew this note in 1896, just before the Secret Service nabbed him. He’d left a note on a wet bar, and the bartender saw the ink run. Ninger served six months and was forced to pay restitution of $1. He never forged again.