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Playing Images: “The Silver Moon”

Have you ever wondered what a painting would sound like if you could be inside the picture?

As part of the Gallery’s Playing Images: An Exploration of Music and Art series, the Haven String Quartet played an arrangement of “The Silver Moon” alongside the Portrait of Sarah Prince in the American paintings and sculpture galleries.

The portrait, painted by self-taught artist John Brewster, Jr. (1766–1854), shows 16-year-old Sarah Prince (1785–1867) of Newburyport, Mass., seated at her piano, a symbol of her musical accomplishment. She holds a piece of popular music entitled “The Silver Moon,” a love song by English composer James Hook (1746–1827) that was first published in the early 1790s and widely reprinted in the United States around the turn of the 19th century. Several arrangements of the music, including the lyrics, are in the collection of the Library of Congress. Different versions show that the singer could have been accompanied by violin or flute as well as piano. Because sheet music was printed from a single engraved plate, Prince’s partial copy must have been transcribed by hand, a visual suggestion that the teenage sitter’s romantic life was just beginning.

Listen to “The Silver Moon,” performed by the Haven String Quartet, look at the painting, and consider these questions: Where is your eye drawn? What do you notice? What changes? Does it influence your perception of the painting to know that the artist was deaf from birth?

John Brewster, Jr., Portrait of Sarah Prince (also known
as Silver Moon or Girl at the Pianoforte), ca. 1801. Oil on canvas. The Iola S. Haverstick Fund for American Art; John Hill Morgan, B.A. 1893, LL.B. 1896, Hon. 1929, Fund; Friends of American Arts Acquisition Fund; Leonard C. Hanna, Jr., Class of 1913, Fund; and bequest of John M. Schiff, B.A. 1925, by exchange