If you haven’t yet visited the Early American Guitars: The Instruments of C. F. Martin exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, hurry: it closes December 7th.
Located in the The André Mertens Galleries for Musical Instruments in Gallery 684 on the second floor, the exhibit features thirty-five rare guitars that track the early development of the instrument making in America. The guitars include those from the museum’s collection as well as from the Martin Guitar Museum in Nazareth, Pennsylvania and several private collections.
According to Jayson Kerr Dobney, Associate Curator in the Department of Musical Instruments at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the exhibit came about as a collaboration with colleagues who were writing the book Inventing the American Guitar: The Pre-Civil War Innovations of C.F. Martin and His Contemporaries (Hal Leonard).
“Several colleagues of mine, who range from collectors to dealers to museum curators to guitarists, converged to discuss what they saw as common features among early American guitars,” Dobney says. “In one of their first meetings, they suggested bringing together as many of these early guitars as they could to see what could be learned by bringing together as many guitars as possible so they could see how the work of luthiers like C.F. Martin progressed.
“Though I was not a part of that initial meeting, I knew about it. They managed to compile a collection of about 50 or 60 examples of early American guitars, which are cited in this book, including examples of Martin guitars as well as those of his contemporaries. Since they had done the research of finding out what these guitars were, I had the luxury of selecting what I felt would be the most beautiful pieces to showcase for the exhibit that would tell the story most directly.”
The exhibit takes visitors on an excursion of the very beginnings of the American guitar by first examining the early work of German immigrant Christian Frederick Martin. Martin, who was born in 1796 to a family of cabinetmakers in Markneukirchen, Saxony, first learned to build guitars from luthier Johann Georg Stauffer in Vienna. However, due to squabbles with violinmaker guilds and their efforts to quash upstart cabinetmakers from encroaching on their turf, Martin moved to the U.S. in 1833 and established a studio in downtown Manhattan on Hudson Street, where he built guitars for five years before finally settling in Nazareth, Pennsylvania.
During this time, Martin’s work shows evidence of his transition from his Viennese training to elements of Spanish-style guitar construction in the Andalusian tradition. As his work continued to develop, Martin eventually created his own design based on a fusion of these earlier ideas and his new guitar ultimately became the blueprint for the modern American guitar.
“In the book there are 60 guitars so I had to narrow it down extensively for the exhibit,” Dobney says. “For our space, 35 guitars are plenty for a visitor to peruse. I wanted to make sure we had some beautiful guitars on display from the Viennese period as well as examples from the makers that C.F. Martin learned from. I also wanted to display the Spanish guitars that Martin made after arriving in New York. Finally, we included a selection of the American model guitars, which are essentially Martin’s original design, which became the basic root for most American-made guitars that followed.
“In addition to showing the best examples of these types, I also wanted the ‘wow factor’ so I included the earliest known guitar that Martin ever made along with the earliest known guitar featuring his X-braced construction. I also added the most decorative guitars he ever made to show his artistic skills as well. Everything we have in the exhibit predates the war and the quality of his craftsmanship is just astounding. Martin was a great maker.”
Also on view is the 1939 Martin guitar that was played by Eric Clapton on MTV’s Unplugged series in 1992.
“It’s a little bit of a technical story, a perfect museum story,” Dobney says. “Martin came here making his Viennese-styled instruments and then he saw the Spanish model guitars that were popular and started copying them. And then he started experimenting with elements of the two until he came up with his own design, which we know and associate so closely with the Martin Guitar Company.
“That story, along with the sleuthing work done by the researchers on the historical development of these early American guitars, is just as compelling. It was like a puzzle in how they lined up the instruments and said, ‘Oh this guitar looks like it belongs from this year and this one must have been made after that one.’ They achieved this by looking at specific components of the guitar’s construction. This is the story of the book and the exhibit. It was a thrill for the authors to come to the museum and view the exhibit and see how their findings had driven this project.
“I love the guitar’s form, its sculptural qualities and also, what it means to American culture,” Dobney says. “They’re magnificent objects.”
What comes next at The Met after this guitar exhibit closes on December 7th?
“We plan on featuring our permanent exhibit as we have received some magnificent gifts in the last few years,” Dobney says. “I think people will be astounded by what our permanent collection has really become. In the main splash case, we will have one of our most gorgeous 17th century baroque guitars from Venice, which is just breathtaking, next to Segovia’s Hauser guitar, next to an extremely late, modern D’Aquisto guitar that Steve Miller gave us. Those three guitars are out of this world and extraordinary.”
The new collection goes up in the New Year. Stay tuned.
The Early American Guitars: The Instruments of C. F. Martin exhibition is featured on the Museum’s website at: http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2014/early-guitars
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