Musical Painters

by Camille Saint-Saens

Ingres was famous for his violin. A single wall separated the apartment where I lived during my childhood and youth from the one where the painter Granger, one of Ingres’s pupils, with his wife and daughter, lived. Granger painted the Adoration of the Wise Men in the church of Notre Dame de Lorette. I have played with the gilt paper crown which his model wore when posing as one of the three kings. My mother and Mlle.  Granger (who later became Madame Paul Meurice) both loved painting and became great friends. They copied together Paul Delaroche’s Enfants d’Edouard at the Louvre, a picture which was the rage at that time. My mother’s paintings, in an admirable state of preservation, may be seen at the museum at Dieppe.

I was introduced to Ingres when I was five years old through the Granger family. The distance from the Rue du Jardinet, where we lived, to the Quai Voltaire was not far, and we often went like a procession—the Grangers, my great-aunt Masson, my mother and I—to call upon Ingres and his wife, a delightfully simple woman whom everyone loved.

Ingres often talked to me about Mozart, Gluck, and all the other great masters of music. When I was six years old, I composed an Adagio which I dedicated to him in all seriousness. Fortunately this masterpiece has been lost. As I already played, and rather nicely for my years, some of Mozart’s sonatas, Ingres, in return for my dedication, presented me with a small medallion with the portrait of the author of Don Juan on one side, and this inscription on the other: “To M. Saint-Saens, the charming interpreter of the divine artist.”

He carelessly omitted to add the date of this dedication, which would have increased its interest, for the idea of calling a knee-high youngster of six “M. Saint-Saens” was certainly unusual.

In addition to the calls I paid him, when I was older I often met the great painter at the house of Frederic Reiset, one of his most ardent admirers. They made much of music in that household and we often heard there Delsarte, the singer without a voice, whom Ingres admired very much. Delsarte and Henri Reber were, in fact, his musical mentors, and, in spite of his pretence of being a great connoisseur, he was in reality their echo. He affected, for example, the most profound contempt for all modern music, and would not even listen to it. In this respect he reflected Reber. Reber used to say quietly in his far-away nasal voice, “You’ve got to imitate somebody, so the best thing to do is to imitate the ancients, for they are the best.” However, he undertook to prove the contrary by writing some particularly individual music, when he thought he was imitating Haydn and Mozart. Some of his works, in their perfection of line, their regard for details, their purity and their moderation remind one of Ingres’s drawings which express so much in such a simple way. And Ingres, as well, although he tried to imitate Raphael, could only be himself. Reber would have been worthy of comparison with the painter, if he had had the power and productiveness which distinguish genius.

What about Ingres’s violin? Well, I saw this famous violin for the first time in the Montaubon Museum. Ingres never even spoke to me about it. He is said to have played it in his youth, but I could never persuade him to play even the slightest sonata with me. “I used to play,” he replied to my entreaties, “the second violin in a quartet, but that is all.”

So I think I must be dreaming when I read, from time to time, that Ingres was more appreciative of compliments about his violin-playing than those about his painting. That is merely a legend, but it is impossible to destroy a legend. As the good La Fontaine said:

“Man is like ice toward truth;

He is like fire to untruth.”


I do not know whether Ingres showed talent for the violin in his youth or not. But I can state positively that in his maturity he showed none.

Gustave Dore was also said to be famous on the violin, and his claims to consideration were far from inconsiderable. He had acquired a valuable instrument, on which he used to play Berlioz’s Concertos with a really extraordinary facility and spirit. These superficial works were enough for his musical powers. The surprising things about his execution was that he never worked at it. If he could not get a thing at once, he gave it up for good and all.

He was a frequent attendant at Rossini’s salon, and he belonged to the faction which supported melody and opposed “learned scientific music.” His temperament and mine hardly seem compatible, but friendship, like love, has its inexplicable mysteries, and gradually we became the best of friends. We lived in the same quarter and we visited each other frequently. As we almost never were of the same opinion about anything, we had interminable arguments, entirely free from rancor, which we thoroughly enjoyed.

I finally became the confidant of his secret sorrows, and his innermost griefs. He was endowed with a wonderful visual memory, but he made the mistake of never using models, for in his opinion they were useless for an artist who knew his metier. So he condemned himself to a perpetual approximation, which was enough for illustrations demanding only life and character, but fatal for large canvasses, with half or full sized figures. This was the cause of his disappointments and failures which he attributed to malevolence and a hostility, which really did exist, but which took advantage of this opportunity to make the painter pay for the exaggerated success of the designer that had been extravagantly praised by the press from the beginning. He laid himself open to criticism through his abuse of his own facility. I have seen him painting away on thirty canvasses at the same time in his immense studio. Three seriously studied pictures would have been worth more.

At heart this great overgrown jovial boy was melancholy and sensitive.  He died young from heart disease, which was aggravated by grief over the death of his mother from whom he had never been separated.

I dedicated a slight piece written for the violin to Dore. This was not lost as the one to Ingres was, but it would be entirely unknown had not Johannes Wolf, the violinist of queens and empresses, done me the favor of placing it in his repertoire and bringing his fine talent to its aid.

Hebert was the most serious of the painter-violinists. Down to the end of his life he delighted in playing the sonatas of Mozart and Beethoven, and, from all accounts, he played them remarkably. I can say this only from hearsay, for I never heard him. The few times that I ever saw him at home in my youth, I found him with his brush in hand. I saw him after that only at the Academie, where we sat near each other, and he always greeted me cordially. We talked music from time to time, and he conversed like a connoisseur.

Henri Regnault was the most musical of all the painters whom I have known. He did not need a violin—he was his own. Nature had endowed him with an exquisite tenor voice. It was alluring in its timbre and irresistible in its attractiveness, just as he was himself. He was no “near musician.” He loved music passionately, and he was unwilling to sing as an amateur. He took lessons from Romain Bussine at the Conservatoire. He sang to perfection the difficult arias of Mozart’s Don Juan. He also liked to declaim the magnificent recitative of Pilgrimage in the third act of Tannhauser.

As we were friendly and liked the same things, the sympathy which brought us together was quite natural. At the beginning of the war in 1870 I wrote Les Melodies Persanes and Regnault was their first interpreter. Sabre en main is dedicated to him. But his great success was Le Cimitiere. Who would have thought as he sang:

“To-day the roses,

To-morrow the cypress!”

that the prophecy would be realized so soon?

Some fools have written that the loss of Regnault was not to be regretted; that he had said all he had to say. In reality he had given only the prologue of the great poem which he was working out in his brain. He had already ordered canvasses for great compositions which, without a doubt, would have been among the glories of French art.

I saw him for the last time during the siege. He was just starting for drill with his rifle in his hand. One of the four watercolors which were his last work, stood uncompleted on his easel. There was a shapeless spot at the bottom. He held a handkerchief in his free hand. He moistened this from time to time with saliva and kept tapping away on the spot on the picture. To my great astonishment, almost to my fright, I saw roughed out and finished the head of a lion.

A few days afterwards came Buzenval!

When the question of publishing Henri Regnault’s letters came up, some phrases referring to me and ranking me above my rivals were found in them. The editor of the letter got into communication with me, read me the phrases, and announced that they were to be suppressed, because they might displease the other musicians.

I knew who the other musicians were, and whose puppet the editor was. It would have been possible, it seems to me, without hurting anyone, to include the exaggerated praise, which, coming from a painter, had no weight, and which would have proved nothing except the great friendship which inspired it. I have always regretted that the public did not learn of the sentiments with which the great artist, whom I loved so much, honored me.



Original text by Camille Saint-Saens, translated by Edwin Gile Rich [1919], edited and revised by D. J. McAdam - this text © 2005.  Please note: all applicable material on this website is protected by law and may not be copied without express written permission. 


Daniel McAdam Guide to Classical Music