Ann Sticha on Music, Class, & Gender

A room is brought to life in the painting Hush! by James Tissot. It was painted on canvas with oil in 1875. The title, Hush!, allows the viewer to infer that the woman violinist is about to play. Despite the violinist’s clear presence, the guests ignore her. Through the emphasis of lighting, clothing details, and lines of posture, James Tissot demonstrates that the wealthy people take for granted and are blatantly indifferent to their culture’s music.

Fig. 1. James Tissot, "Hush!" (1875). Wikipedia.org. Web. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:James_Tissot_-_Hush!.jpg

Fig. 1. James Tissot, “Hush!” (1875). Wikipedia.org.

The painting depicts a formal gathering of wealthy people. In the center of the painting, there is a woman violinist with a half circle of people sitting around her. On the left side through the doorway, the viewer can see another room and a spiral staircase that is filled with people. In the painting, the lighting is brighter in the background than the foreground. Often, artists use lighting to pull the viewer’s attention to a certain element. Since the violinist is in the bright background, she becomes the prominent figure and focus of the painting. The lighting from the chandelier creates a spotlight that highlights the violinist being alone. Nevertheless, the viewer disregards the violinist because he or she becomes absorbed by the guests’ attire and conversations. If audible, these conversations would create a noise that would overpower the music. Therefore, the guests are purposefully tuning out the violinist.

Another lighting element is seen in the mirror in the background. The mirror reflects the image of the chandelier and lamp. These two objects are the brightest aspects of the painting. The lights emphasize that the musician is ignored. Not only is the violinist ignored, she is not reflected in the mirror. Tissot demonstrates how the music does not exist for the people at the gathering. Also, the chandelier and lamp allude to the empty chair in front of the piano. The empty chair signifies that someone is gone. This exemplifies the rudeness toward the musician because no one has decided to fill the empty space.

After the viewer notices the different elements of lighting, he or she observes the women’s dramatic outfits. The dresses are covered in ruffles, ribbons, and lace. They are bulky and physically consume most the women’s bodies. The women seem to have a competition over who can “out–dress” the other. This competition reflects how women compete in society to marry the best man possible. Women display their wealth through their clothes to show their social status. In addition, the viewer can tell the violinist belongs at the gathering. She is dressed similarly to the other women, but she is physically distant from them. The violinist has an invitation to the gathering, but it does not mean that people will talk to her. She is the sound they do not want to hear.

Despite the violinist’s not receiving recognition, the viewer notices her line of posture. She presents herself as an authoritative figure by standing up straight. Her music deserves an audience. To the right of the violinist are two foreign men. The viewer can tell they are foreign because they have dark skin and are not wearing black suits. Instead, they are wearing clothing that blends into the background. The viewer can infer the foreign men do not want to be noticed; yet, they are leaning forward to engage themselves in another’s culture. However, the other guests do not seem interested. In the foreground, the woman with the black dress is a diagonal line. This shows that she is bored with her current situation. Similarly, the people on the right side of the painting have their bodies slouched and heads down. These people may have hired the violinist because such concerts are customary and expected at this sort of gathering of the wealthy and prominent. As a result, the music is not new but boring. This emphasizes that repetition takes away from someone’s appreciation for his or her own culture.

In James Tissot’s Hush!, the guests at the formal gathering choose to not see the violinist or hear her music. The title of Hush! is meant to be the voice of the violinist. She has a purpose to be there, and the noise from the crowds of people over power her voice through the music. Also, Tissot invites the viewer to come into the picture to hear and appreciate the music. The empty chair in the right foreground allows the viewer to fill the empty space. But, there is always the question of whether the viewer will appreciate the music or simply turn away.

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