21 Jul
Sun / 2019

Inside the MFAH
Striking Different Notes: Two Magnificent Still Lifes from the MFAH Collections

Italian artists Bartolomeo Bettera and Cristoforo Munari excelled at painting still lifes. Their identically titled Still Life with Musical Instruments both depict a seemingly haphazard arrangement of musical instruments and attractive objects painted in a refined, realistic manner. But closer inspection reveals the distinctions.

Cristoforo Munari
Still Life with Musical Instruments (c. 1710–15) celebrates, and perhaps represents, an allegory of the five senses. Gorgeous objects and musical instruments lie strewn on a vividly hued carpet, but Munari’s use of brighter colors with more contrast results in a livelier tone than seen in the Bettera painting, alluding to a dissimilar theme.

The recorder, violin, and sheet music refer to sound; the reflected surfaces of the mirror and metalware signify sight. The ripe fruit tumbling off the platter in the foreground and the wine in the exquisite Venetian glass in the background symbolize taste. The fruit and the bouquet bursting with fresh flowers represent smell, while the texture of the patterned rug demonstrates touch.

An Italian painter of the late Baroque who worked in Florence, Reggio Emilia, and Rome, Munari specialized in still-life paintings like this one. Wealthy patrons commissioned them as a demonstration of refinement and worldliness. Possibly influenced by the merry court of the Medici, several of whom were patrons of Munari, this still life exudes elegance, luxury, and prosperity. The instruments in both paintings are placed as if hastily abandoned by a troupe of musicians, but in the Munari work, the party seems to continue in an adjacent room.

Bartolomeo Bettera
Despite eight handsomely wrought musical instruments in its composition, Bettera’s Still Life with Musical Instruments (probably 1680s) conveys an eerily silent, almost somber, tone. An example of the vanitas (vanity) genre, the painting comments on the brevity and futility of life.

Set beneath a dramatically draped Spanish curtain, the string and wind instruments look as if they might topple off the table. The guitar with the sprung string, the stack of books, and the sheet music caught in a gust of air—all suggest the ephemeral nature of human endeavor. The triton shell, prized by collectors, and the armillary sphere also indicate the pointlessness of human ambition. In a note of additional gravity, a solo apple perches on a lute, solemnly conjuring a reminder of original sin.

For all its opulence of color—rich reds, burnished browns—lavishness in details, and sumptuously shaped lutes, Bettera’s arrangement is sharp, with the lines of the instruments creating a configuration of diagonals. Throughout his career, Bettera painted works with similar compositions. The inlaid Spanish guitar and the carpet, presumably owned by the artist, appear in other works.

► Find out more about these paintings and other MFAH works of art: Search the collections.


Comments

Recent Posts

Post Archives

Tag Cloud

18th-century 1970s 19th-century 35mm 5womenartists abstract activity african-art a-history-of-photography akan american american-art ancient and angelica-kauffmann animals animation anna-atkins antiquities architecture archive art art-books artist artists art-of-the-islamic-worlds arts-of-india azaleas bayou bayou-bend bayou-bend-christmas-village bend bestowing-beauty biblical biography book british british-arrows british-art broadways-amazing-mastersons buffalo-bayou-park-cistern campus campus-redevelopment cannes carroll-sterling-masterson chair chef chinese-art christmas christmas-fun cinema cisternrain classic classic-films coffee collection color colors-of-the-oasis community concrete conservation contemporary-art contemporary-arts-museum-houston contemporary-film contesting-modernity countess cullen-sculpture-garden culture curator curators-picks dance decorative-arts degas degas-a-new-vision design digital documentary documents dont-blink-robert-frank drama drawings dutch-art electronic elizabeth-i england e-records exhibition exhibitions eye-on-houston family family-programs fashion fashion-fusion feast festival fiber-arts field film films flowers food francis-bacon free french french-art fun future futuremfah gainsborough gallery gallery-interpretation garden garden-paradise gardens george-iii glassell glassell-school-of-art google-art-project google-arts-and-culture habsburg-splendor-masterpieces-from-viennas-imperial-collections halloween happyhour happy-new-year harris-masterson-iii henry-viii hirsch-library history history-book-club holiday holiday-fun hollywood home homemfah homeso-different-so-appealing houston howe hurricane-harvey icaa ikat ima-hogg impressionism indian-art instagram interactive ipads islamic italian japanese-art john-biggers joshua-reynolds kenwood kids king kodak kusama latin latin-america latin-american latin-american-art latino-art latin-wave latinx laura-israel learning-and-interpretation love mail manet maria-fernanda-cardoso mastersons mayan-art media meditation mending-craft-and-community mexican-film mexican-modernism mexico mfa-cafe mfah mfah-book-club mfah-films mfah-in-the-community mfah-staff modern modernism movie movies movies-houstonians-love mueck mueckmfah museum museum-education music native-american-art new nhprc now-on-view now-playing organic oscar-de-la-renta oscars painting paintings paint-the-revolution paris paul-thomas-anderson peacock-in-the-desert-the-royal-arts-of-jodhpur-india peacockmfah persian persian-art photographs photography picasso portrait portraits pose prints prints-and-drawings programs queen-victoria radical rebel-jester-mystic-poet recipe rembrandt-van-rijn rienzi ron-mueck rothko sampler school sculpted-in-steel sculpture self-portrait shadow-monsters shepherds short-films slow-art-day snail snapshot spain spanish-art spring style summer technology texas textiles thanksgiving the the-al-sabah-collection theater the-glamour-and-romance-of-oscar-de-la-renta trivia tudors-to-windsors valentines-day venezuelan-art video vincent-van-gogh vincent-van-gogh-his-life-in-art virtual wagner-garden-carpet watercolor winter women-filmmakers womens-history-month works-on-paper yoga zoom