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Perspectives Cubism in Focus

Georges Braque's Still Life with Metronome (Still Life with Mandola and Metronome), late 1909

Braque’s painting marked a critical step in advancing Cubism, but the importance of the metronome has been overlooked.

Oct 5, 2020

Cubist painting of a metronome in tones of gray and brown

Art historians often describe Georges Braque’s late 1909 painting Still Life with Metronome (Still Life with Mandola and Metronome) (FIG. 1) as marking a critical step in the artist’s advancement of Cubism. Indeed, the painting radically extends the artist’s experiments with geometric fragmentation and reverse perspective, which he established in 1908 (FIG. 2) in his earliest Cubist works. Less noted in the literature, however, is the presence of the titular metronome, with its unmistakable pyramidal shape, in the upper left of the composition.

Cubist painting of a metronome in tones of gray and brown
FIG. 1. Georges Braque (French, Argenteuil 1882–1963 Paris). Still Life with Metronome (Still Life with Mandola and Metronome), Paris, late 1909. Oil on canvas, 31 7/8 x 21 5/16 in. (81 x 54.1 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Promised Gift from the Leonard A. Lauder Cubist Collection © 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Cubist painting of trees framing houses nestled in a valley, in tones of brown and green
FIG. 2. Georges Braque (French, Argenteuil 1882–1963 Paris). Trees at L'Estaque, summer 1908. Oil on canvas, 31 5/8 x 23 11/16 in. (80.3 x 60.2 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Promised Gift from the Leonard A. Lauder Cubist Collection. © 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Today, the painting’s title specifically identifies the metronome, a musical device used to set tempo as an aid for musical practice, yet it only acquired this designation about thirty years after the work was made. Braque’s first dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, called the composition Still Life with Mandolin, although the instrument represented in the canvas is the mandolin’s larger cousin, the mandola. In 1938 art historian Christian Zervos titled the painting Mandolin and Metronome in his book Histoire de l’art contemporain, taking into account the peculiar shape beside the sheaves of sheet music. Since that time, however, acknowledgments of the mechanical device have been largely absent from discussions of the painting.1

Braque was a classically trained flutist who also learned to play the concertina and was, by his own account, surrounded by musical instruments in his studio. As art historian Lewis Kachur has noted, dozens of these instruments populate the artist’s Cubist still-life paintings, including clarinets, harps, guitars, mandolas, mandolins, tenoras, and violins. Braque began painting them in 1908, at the start of a period of intense collaboration with Pablo Picasso. During this time, he also introduced the metronome as a subject, in a canvas now in the collection of the National Gallery of Denmark (FIG. 3). The painting in the Leonard A. Lauder Cubist Collection constitutes one of five still lifes dedicated to a musical theme that Braque made between late 1909 and early 1910.

Cubist painting with metronome at right, open sheet of music, and unknown object at left, painted in browns, tans, and greens
FIG. 3. Georges Braque (French, Argenteuil 1882–1963 Paris). The Metronome, 1908. Oil on canvas, 41 x 33 cm. Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen (KMSr8). © SMK Foto/Jakob Skou-Hansen  

For Braque, however, the metronome was not a mere accessory of musical practice. Rather, it seems that he mobilized its unique shape as a formal tool for advancing the pictorial innovations of Cubism. The metronome (and musical instruments in general) would have been recognizable to early twentieth-century audiences, and Braque’s decision to represent them in his work would have made the Cubist grid more legible. In Still Life with Metronome and his earlier canvas, Braque painted the device with its winding key, rendered in a thick, curved “X,” implicating a sense of pictorial depth in its haptic call for the viewer to turn the screw. This blurring of the “real” and depicted is a precursor to the trompe l’oeil nail, a more familiar Cubist device that Braque introduced to his canvases in late 1909, a year after his first painting of a metronome.2 In addition to this play with representation, the device’s faceted, trapezoidal shape offered the artist an opportunity to convey depth and perspective by positioning the angular device off-center. The metronome as a subject, in particular, allowed Braque not only to extend the depth of the canvas into three dimensions but also to indicate another dimension: time. Indeed, the presence of the metronome “marks time” in Braque’s paintings, a nod to the Cubists’ rendering of multiple perspectives at once in an effort to present various moments in time simultaneously.

With its removable faceplate, interior weighted pendulum, and winding key that sets the device in motion, the metronome embodies opposing states of void and projection, movement and rest. The 1908 painting shows the metronome closed—its planar surfaces still and undisrupted—while the later work in The Met collection presents these states concurrently. Though the device appears closed, radiate diagonals proceed from its housing as if to indicate a moving pendulum, pushing this “still” life into action.

A group of metronomes photographed against a gray background
Fig. 4. Group of metronomes. Top row, right: Metronome, ca. 1890. John Church Company, Ohio. Wood and metal, 9 3/16 x 4 5/16 x 4 5/16 in. (23.4 x 11 x 11 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Gordon M. Metz, 2005 (2005.419.1)

In both works, Braque depicted what may be a Maelzel metronome (FIG. 4), named after its inventor, Johann Maelzel, who gave the device its classic triangular shape and wooden casing in the early nineteenth century. Such a device would have been common in European homes at a time when music-making was a popular leisure activity. Extant photographs from Braque’s atelier have not revealed the presence of such a metronome, though it is likely that he owned one himself, given his musical proclivities and Maelzel’s manufacturing presence in France at the time. One well-known 1911 photograph of Braque in his studio, in which the seated artist plays a concertina before a wall hung with various musical instruments, may reveal a different type of metronome, however (fig. 5). Scholars have identified the visible instruments in the photograph, as well as the artworks stacked at the artist’s feet, but have overlooked a tiny object fastened to the wall amid the violin and stringed instruments. What appears at first glance to be a small pocket watch may be, in fact, a portable metronome. This handheld gadget with a simple pendulum emerged in the U.S. and Europe by the 1860s, and was considered an improvement over the basic pocket watch, another ticking apparatus that kept time but not tempo. In 1908, two inventors in the U.S. and Switzerland filed separate patents for devices that conflated these mechanisms: a metronome with two hands, beat markings on a faceplate, and a dial, all contained within the casing of a pocket watch (FIG. 6).3

(Left) Photograph of Georges Braque seated at right, leaning forward in a chair and holding a concertina, in front of a wall in his studio where various instruments, masks and objects hang (Right) Page from a patent application showing a schematic drawing of a metronome in the shape of a pocket watch
FIG. 5 (left). Georges Braque in his studio, 1911. Photographer unknown.
FIG. 6 (right). Detail of U.S. metronome patent #923,094 by C. A. White & E. R. Hunter. Filed on October 20, 1908.

1. The only exception is Lewis Kachur, “‘Beethoven Symphonies on the Accordion: Georges Braque’s Musical Instruments,” in Cubism: The Leonard A. Lauder Collection, edited by Emily Braun and Rebecca Rabinow (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2013), pp. 76–87.

2. Braque first used the motif of a trompe l’oeil nail in two canvases: Violin and Palette (autumn 1909), now at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, and Pitcher and Violin (1909–10), now at the Kunstmuseum Basel.

3. For more information on the history of the metronome, see Alexander Evan Bonus, “The Metronomic Performance Practice: A History of Rhythm, Metronomes, and the Mechanization of Musicality,” PhD diss., Case Western Reserve University, 2010.

About the contributors

Associate Curator, Department of Modern and Contemporary Art