‘Impromptu’ Sinding is one of several drawings by Pamela Colman Smith that were inspired by classical music. Colman Smith initially sketched out their designs with automatic drawing while listening to the music before working up these free sketches into finished drawings. Executed in June 1907, it depicts three female figures in flowing robes and wearing S-shaped headdresses sitting on a cliff in a rocky landscape. A tower is visible on another cliff in the distance. The drawing is inscribed by Smith on the verso: ‘The Rulers of the World “And they sit in far off silent places, and thoughts grow up like towers out of the earth”’. It was inspired by the Norwegian composer Christian Sinding’s Impromptu for piano, op. 31/4 1896. The drawing is executed in watercolour and ink on paper, in muted tones but with small touches of a distinctive bright pink and orange pigments to highlight aspects of the figures. Also in Tate’s collection are Grieg ‘Spring Song’ 1907 (Tate T15362) and Mozart ‘Symphony “Prague”’ 1907 (Tate T15364).
The drawings were exhibited in Smith’s second exhibition at the 291 Gallery in New York and appear on a list that Smith sent to Alfred Stieglitz, who ran the gallery. Smith also wrote to Stieglitz about her working practice. In late 1907 she wrote that she had four sketchbooks of music drawing done at concerts with ink and a brush that were getting ‘bolder and more definite than those of a year ago’. In a subsequent letter she stated, ‘I find the more I do the more I see!’ and described completing ninety-four drawings in a week ‘almost all of these usable ones’, alluding to the process of converting these automatic responses into more finished works. She wrote to Stieglitz that her works were not attempts to illustrate music, ‘but just what I see when I hear music. Thoughts loosened and set free by the spell of sound … When I take a brush in hand and the music begins it is like unlocking the door into a beautiful country.’ (Letters to Alfred Stieglitz, 8 November 1907 and 21 February 1908 and manuscript ‘Music Pictures’, Stieglitz papers, Yale University, quoted in Pyne 2007, p.52.)
The poet William Butler Yeats (1865–1939) introduced Smith to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an influential late nineteenth-century occult group which sparked her interest in the mystical and spiritualism. She made costumes and stage sets for several of the cult’s rituals. She also became interested in Rosicrucianism and theories of ‘Correspondence’ and synaesthesia in which the senses are interrelated through art. Smith was one of many artists influenced by spiritualist theories in the early twentieth century. She was, however, unusual in her direct visual interpretations of specific musical compositions in her paintings, and a working process that began with automatic drawing and ended with an exhibition into which performance was integrated. Smith had worked as an illustrator of children’s books and music sheets, as well as making theatrical sets for Ellen Terry and Henry Irving’s Lyceum Theatre Company in London. Her early work in the theatre was a crucial influence on her ‘Music Pictures’.
Smith performed poetry in the gallery during her exhibitions. She was seen by critics as a mystical figure illuminating a psychic reality and channelling the spirit world into her art. Writing in the journal Camera Work, Benjamin de Casseres approached the drawings as utterances from the spirit world:
These wonderful little drawings are not merely art, they are poems, ideas, life-values and cosmic values that have long gestated within the subconscious world of their creator – a wizard’s world of intoxicating evocations – here and now accouched on their vibrating coloured beds, to mystify and awe the mind of some few beholders; to project their souls from off this little Springboard of Time into the stupendous unbegotten thing we name the Infinite.
(Benjamin de Casseres, ‘Pamela Colman Smith’, Camera Work, no.27, July 1909, p.18.)
Casseres also compared Smith’s visionary works with those of artists such as William Blake (1757–1827) and Aubrey Beardsley (1872–1898), although stylistically they are more in the tradition of English illustrators such as Walter Crane (1845–1915) or symbolists such as Odilon Redon (1840–1916).
M. Irwin MacDonald, ‘The Fairy Faith and Pictured Music of Pamela Colman Smith’, The Craftsman, vol.23, no.1, October 1912.
Melinda Boyd Smith, To All Believers: The Art of Pamela Colman Smith, exhibition catalogue, Delaware Art Museum 1975.
Kathleen Pyne, O’Keefe and the Women of the Stieglitz Circle, Berkeley and London 2007.
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