Saturday, September 8, 2012

End of the Song


Here is a classic love story, painted by E. Blair Leighton, called "The End of the Song." 

A handsome harpist woos a fair young princess on the balcony of a palace. She has set aside her embroidery and listens shyly to his songs and overtures. A coil of honeysuckle, symbolizing love, happiness, and new opportunities, ascends the column at left. 

Unseen to them, a crowned figure returns from a walk in the forest. Evidently her father, he strokes his beard as he considers what to do about this turn of events. 

But that's not how E. Blair Leighton originally painted the picture in 1902.


An earlier version shows the girl's father with a more stern countenance. His hand is ready to unsheathe his sword. Will he slay the young man, or at least to chase him off by threat of violence?

When E. Blair Leighton was still a student, a piece of advice he took to heart was, “In art it is never too late to alter your work if it is wrong.” The change of the king's face and hand makes a huge difference. But is it an improvement? Which version do you prefer? (Assuming both were in full color)
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ADDENDUM Sept. 10: The poll closed with 190 votes in favor of the artist's first conception (hand on sword) versus 200 votes in favor of the revised version, seen in color with the man stroking his beard.

Several blog readers noted that the scene is unmistakably from Tristan and Iseult. As Matthew Mattin pointed out, the Wikipedia article "mentions several elements of the legend that appear in the painting, most notably an episode in which King Mark attacks Tristan while he is playing the harp for Iseult. But it is also part of the story that King Mark and Tristan, his nephew, love and revere each other, and that the love between T and I was induced by a love potion, resolving them responsibility to some extent and complicating Mark's options in response. So both the violent episode and the ambiguous context are true to the story. "

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Biography on ArtMagick
Thanks, Barry Klugerman

42 comments:

Journeyman said...

Kings need to be decisive :)

Dave

Anonymous said...

I like where the poll's going. We're looking for action.

Krystal said...

I do prefer the colored one. More subtle, I think...

By the way, may I give my interpretation of this scene ?
At the High school, I made my researches about medieval legends, especially around Tristan an yseult. One of the greatest background of almost all legends at this time is based on Tristan and yseult's drama : A great king, maried to a young women who finally falls for his nephew. Therfore, I am pretty sure the king on the right picture is not the father, but the husband. And the young one... a dangereous young lover, probably the king's nephew... I would not be surprised that this picture is rightly refering to Tristan (who was by the way, a great harp player), Isolde and the King Marc of little Britain...
And if it is so, well... the colored version is way better, because Marc was trully doubtfull without really making a strong decision before a while !

Krystal
(France)

淳于芭芥 said...

Krystal's comment makes great sense! As a "story telling" painting, somehow I feel the poses of this young couple are questionable, they seemed to convey "flirting" rather than "true love." Oui ou non?

vlad74 said...

I prefer the colour one to be honest. It leaves us thinking what is the king going to do, while on the b&w one it is pretty clear what follows.

Krystal this makes a lot of sense.

James Gurney said...

Krystal, Thanks for that interesting interpretation. My first thought was that the approaching man was her husband, which would give him more of a rationale to "kill first and ask questions later." If he was the father, he might discourage an unworthy suitor, but he wouldn't be justified in killing them.

One interpretation of this painting that I read said that in the context of Edwardian Britain, the audience would have been conscious of class distinctions, and the musician would be regarded as a poor provider, unworthy of the high class young lady.

ewaludwi said...

The small gesture of the king definitely makes a huge difference not only in the story but also in the composition....somehow to me the black and white picture is more exiting because there seems to be a lot more movement... anyway worderful painting! :)

Lale Ann Favre said...

I prefer the colored version.
The king's expression and gesture shows something very subtle and gives room for to the viewer's interpretation..
It looks like the king is a bit circumspect regarding what's happening before his eyes but I don't see jealousy or sadness in his look. I'd even say I see more of a "happy surprise" in his pose. Love this anyway, it's absolutely beautiful!

Teresa Rodriguez said...

Both kings seem "fatherly" in each composition. But I like the top one, because it lends itself to a continuation of the story. In the bottom one, I don't see much of a future for the young couple.

ZZDas said...

Definitely the black and white one. The King/father would be more about showing up some "respect" then curious about how the love scene would end...And on the colored version the King pose's more like a voyeur then a father, well, that's my opinion and I'd being grabbing my sword anyway :) ...

Daroo said...

You could interpret the color version that the King has come upon his SON, showing an interest in girls for the first time- For the king had always wondered about the boy, what with his fancy haircuts and fabulously soft shoes...

Scott said...

Also in the earlier b/w image, the honeysuckle is missing, which shades this a bit away from the romance of the full color image. (Yeah the sword about to be drawn too, does as well)

tkelly said...

Your asking which is better; a horror story or a love story?
From a sales point of view, more people want happiness on the walls.

The uncertainty of the father in the first picture allows more of the story to be filled out by the viewers imagination. The second picture, where he is reaching for a sword, leaves fewer questions.

Tom Hart said...

Aside from the question of whether we want someone to be slain or hurt (most of us don't), the hand-on-sword image has much more the feeling of impending action and is therefore, to me, a more compelling image to look at, and commands my immediate attention more. There's also the interesting mystery that James mentions: is he about to draw the sword to harm, or just to scare?

Which image better illustrates the actual "story" that the painting was intended to portray is a different question...

etc, etc said...

I think the king has to be the husband, and therefore I much prefer him ready to slay rather than mulling over a ménage à trois.

mdmattin said...

That was a tough decision, and going by the neck and neck score at the time I voted, not a slam-dunk for others as well. I went with stroking beard in the end, first because I tend to prefer open ended endings (if that makes sense) in general, and hand on sword narrowed the many possibilities down to a single, rather hackneyed conclusion. Secondly, the young woman seems virginal and ingenuous in her looks and demeanor, more likely daughter than queen. Which wouldn't necessarily deter a certain type of dad from overreacting to an unsuitable suitor, but makes me lean towards the idea that the king is faced with a dilemma.

Tim said...

I'd say the sterner situation feels more right to me but that's my personal perspective. I've had many chances to interact with overbearing leaders and few to interact with more magnanimous and contemplative ones. That said, the choice of the artist is one that allows for more range of interpretation from the viewer and I think that was deliberate. As it is now some can imagine everything will turn out fine for the singer and some such as myself can still see the interrogation to come.

arturoquimico said...

I have been a professional guitarist for over 50 years... now if the musician had been a drummer, then the man in the second picture is obviously the husband and he should menacingly run off the musician... however, since the musician was a harpist (like guitarists) the musician probably meant no harm, and the second person is probably the father who should probably run the musician off anyway (but nicely)...

Kimberly M Zamlich said...

I like the black and white version..I am an illustrator who is studying story in a single frame. I think the B&W version is more impactful and reads quickly; gets the point across with more tension. I think it is more "modern" storytelling, more powerfully emotive..but there are so many delicious ways to tell a story; you can do several thumbnails of the same scene and say so many different things, and a lot of times it is hard to chose the one that has the most emotional impact...Krystal, great, thoughtful insight!

Erik Bongers said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Erik Bongers said...

Assuming the king is her father, I would prefer to see no gesture at all as it would leave it completely up to the viewer to imagine the king's thoughts.
It would add complexity and tension to the moment we see pictured.

Also, remember the Kulechov Effect.

Laura Cameron said...

I believe Krystal is correct.

JonInFrance said...

Well, it we prefer the bottom one, the poor artist sure needed someone to rap him smartly and stop him on carrying on and spoilin' it! I expect he asked one or two of his friends what they thought. Maybe his mentor pointed it out to him!

Surely it's better to leave the viewer as much liberty as possible?

Rich said...

I'd go with the coloured one: one reason is the lyre; what a beautiful harp! Too lyric to deserve the harsh response of a sword!
Wouldn't an undecided, pondering king be more suitable to this troubadour-like scene?

Smurfswacker said...

Krystal certainly makes a strong case for Tristan and Isolde.

Apart from that I think the color picture makes a better wall hanger while the earlier version works better as an illustration. The color picture asks a question, encouraging the viewer to contemplate the picture again and again. The second answers the question and has less long-term appeal.

However I think Leighton's title fits the original version better, considering Victorian painters' penchant for wordplay in their titles. This is certainly the end of the song--and the singer!

Teresa Rodriguez said...

These comments are a riot! Amazing what different people infer from looking at the same paintings. It holds true that we see things the way we are, not the way they are.

In regard to the subject of tension, the fact that the king is wearing a sword in the first painting could suggest that the idea of dispatching the young man to play his harp in the heavens is still an option, despite the thoughtful pause. For me, more possible outcomes in the first painting gives it more tension.

Gina Florio said...

The Tristan and Isolde interpretation is a great one. And the title of the piece certainly infers troubling times ahead for the singer. But I personally prefer the stroking beard version, simply because it's a happier story. At first glance, the color scheme and lighting of the painting read as optimistic to me - a moment that could lead to happiness in the lives of the characters (even though the king/father figure is shrouded in forboding darkness). The other version is a sadder tale, a tragically perfect moment that is about to end.

plumbing said...

I will compare the paintings on the characteristic of people from old and the generation. The parents before are more strict when it comes to their daughter.

lyon de clarasvals said...

I too have always seen this painting described as Tristan and Yseult. Marc was a sneaky b. and was always plotting against his heroic nephew Tristan. Trisan is a very famous part of the Arthurian legends and Leighton's pre raphaelite era audience would be well aware of the story.

Janet Oliver said...

From a strictly compositional stand point, I like the first, black & white, one better. In the color one, the hand is at the same level as the top of the harp, which has the effect of flattening out the picture plane, and concentrating all the action in the top third of the painting. Plus, our eye (mine, anyway) just goes over to the right and off the picture plane entirely. In the second one, the hand is on the hilt of the sword, and the sword is pointed into the picture plane, adding a wee bit more depth the the painting as a whole, and my eye tends to follow the bend of the right leg down and around to the left, making more of a circuit around the scene.

Craig Banholzer said...

I think the revised version works better from the point of view of design. Sure, it's more dramatic to imagine the musician is about to lose his head, but the way the king's hand appears to be cut off at the wrist, in the earlier version, is really awkward.

Sharyn said...

I prefer the black and white version. I like the strong contrast of emotion between the king and young lovers. Whether the King is husband or father does not influence my opinion. As I view the black and white rendition with the king drawing his sword, I do not see a bad outcome, as much as see an outcome negotiated to the King's liking. ;)

Shane said...

My vote is for "Stroking the Beard".

I noticed two things about the couple that no one seems to have picked up on.

1. The harpist's arm is NOT touching the girl, even though it looks like the usual "arm on the back of the chair" it isn't, and if you look at his right hand he seems to be holding himself from leaning on to her.

2. The entire body language of the girl, from the locked arms to the knee, seem to be a barrier - except for the leaning of her head.

My interpretation of what is going on is that the harper is giving her some advice rather trying to seduce her. Also look at the angles of the head. He is coming from "above" and she doesn't look like she entirely agrees but is thinking about it.

The king in the b&w looks like the overly impulsive type - which Shakespeare made such a lot of. In the color he seems to be very surprised by what he is hearing, and that some sort of growth on both parts is really happening.

Aliaksei Chapyzhenka said...

It looks like a consecutive movie frames to me. I am not sure what is the right sequence.

Anonymous said...

I am surprised how evenly divided the vote is. But then, I guess it just shows that the difference is not very significant to the overall visual value of the painting.

I still favor the B&W, because the color version seems less natural. A hand stroking a beard is a bit of a contrived theatrical device, I think. If the man is simply thinking about the young couple, it is much more likely he would simply come up the stairs looking at them. Having his hand up there looks like a mediocre actor trying to telegraph his mood.

Putting the hand on the sword is making a very bold statement, and one might argue that the plot is a bit extreme, but it is a natural act, borne out of impending action, rather than an awkward attempt to tell the audience the inner story.

ricardo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ricardo said...

About the audience being aware that the arp player was poor, just because of class distinctions... I just saw a much bigger version of said picture, and in it we can see that the harpist had shabby clothes, his harp is sorta damaged, so definetly Leighton wanted to portray him as a poor(er) man.

Oh, and I like the colored version better. Not because of the subtlety, but because I did not see the possibility of a violent outcome before seeing the original. It was too subtle that I really did not imagine it could be possible.

Emily Crowley said...

I think it becomes clearer for me in the version with the hand that it's the King her father, rather than the King her much older husband about to shoo off some young rascal.

mdmattin said...

I keep coming back to the rug on the floor. It seems to be the skin of a wolf, suggesting the animal desire underlying the romantic situation.
The troubadour has one foot firmly on the wolf's neck, indication that he is keeping his desire in check, at least for the time being. In fact, he and the woman each have one foot on and one foot off of the wolf, suggesting a mutual ambivalence.
Matthew

Joe Kulka said...

My daughter is only six, but I'm going to start shopping for a sword today.

mdmattin said...

Not having read Tristan and Iseult before, I consulted the Wikipedia page, which includes the painting as an illustration of the legend.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tristan_and_Iseult
The article mentions several elements of the legend that appear in the painting, most notably an episode in which King Mark attacks Tristan while he is playing the harp for Iseult. But it is also part of the story that King Mark and Tristan, his nephew, love and revere each other, and that the love between T and I was induced by a love potion, resolving them responsibility to some extent and complicating Mark's options in response. So both the violent episode and the ambiguous context are true to the story.
Matthew

James Gurney said...

Thanks for all your interesting comments. The poll closed with 190 votes in favor of the artist's original conception (hand on sword) versus 200 votes in favor of the revised version, shown in color, with the man stroking his beard.