Storied Strings The Guitar in American Art


Storied Strings: The Guitar in American Art explores the guitar’s symbolism in American art from the late eighteenth century to the present. The exhibition shows that guitars figure prominently in the visual stories Americans tell about themselves—their histories, identities, and aspirations. Flanked by guitars and supporting cultural objects, as well as audio and film, the paintings, works on paper, and sculptures in Storied Strings are divided into thematic groupings. Linking these themes is the premise that the guitar, as a visual motif, has long enabled artists and their subjects to address public and private histories that might otherwise go untold or under-told. Guitars are everywhere! But why pay attention to them? Simply put, an examination of guitar symbolism in American art contributes to a deeper understanding of the nation’s intersecting identities. Affordable, portable, and at home in all kinds of artistic and musical genres, the guitar can be likened to a microphone that gets passed around—across boundaries of race, gender, class, geography, and others—giving everyone an opportunity to speak and be heard.

Leisure, Culture, and Comfort: Nineteenth-Century America

The guitar flourished in nineteenth-century America alongside an emergent middle class with an increasing disposable income for leisurely domestic pursuits. It figured prominently in cultural rituals, social events, and interior design—notably, in the parlor and den—in the United States well into the twentieth century. Guitar playing, like reading, writing, and observing art, has historically offered a means of intellectual discovery and educational advancement. Beginning with the first known American drawing of a guitar—Thomas B. Middleton’s Friends and Amateurs in Musick of 1827—the instrument often symbolized sophistication, comfort, and easy camaraderie in the nineteenth century. Fueling this perception, Gibson and other guitar manufacturers promoted their instruments’ “taste” and “decorum”; unsurprisingly, image-conscious Americans began posing with guitars in studio portraits. Aware of this mindset, photographers and painters often had guitars on hand as props for their sitters.

Amateurs and Professionals

Coinciding with a growing market for self-instruction books and pamphlets in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, playing the guitar became a popular hobby in the United States, especially for women. Since at least the mid-nineteenth century, artists, illustrators, guitar companies, and advertisers attributed gendered ideals of gentility and cultivation to women posing with guitars. However, such gender coding is not fixed. Images of guitar-wielding women throughout this exhibition reveal the instrument to be a flexible symbol that can denote conflicting sensibilities, intelligence, self-assertion, and sexuality. Within this pictorial tradition are two recurring types of portraiture: in the first, the guitar is a prop or a hobby instrument; in the second, the guitar is used to express and empower oneself.

Nevertheless, in this section, women are generally portrayed in introspective poses as amateurs playing in domestic settings for their own pleasure or an audience of families and friends. Several men shown here are more clearly professionals, whether working as guitar teachers, as seen in William Alexander Griffith’s The Music Lesson, or performers, as in Thomas Eakins’s Professionals at Rehearsal.


Hispanicization refers to the way the guitar has historically been used to romanticize its popular use among Spanishspeaking cultures and people. While sometimes celebrating a rich cultural heritage, Hispanicization also contributed to a simplistic and often disparaging exoticism. Understandably, audiences have long assumed aspects of Spanish culture to be inherent to the guitar—the first music written for the sixcourse guitar was published in Madrid in 1780, and Spanish performers such as Fernando Sor and Dionysio Aguado made important contributions to the instrument’s history in the early nineteenth-century.

Sometimes denoting the association with Spain itself, Hispanicization has also influenced perceptions of instruments and guitarists connected with Spanish-speaking countries in the Americas. The process has had much to do with the creation of stereotypes of Spanish and Latino people in art and literature, as seen in the images in this section. Such cultural constructions have led Hispanic guitar players to be shown as overly sexualized and marked pejoratively as “nonwhite” within American racist taxonomies.


Following its annexation by the United States in 1898, Hawaii was featured in large-scale theatrical productions, including the popular stage musical Bird of Paradise (1912), and such cultural spectacles as the Hawaiian Pavilion at the 1915 Panama–Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. Widespread recognition of a distinct musical style grew from these cultural phenomena—by the 1920s, Talking Machine World, a monthly magazine covering the early phonograph industry, recognized Hawaiian music as a genre.

Guitar historian Walter Carter explains, “To [continental] Americans of the pre–World War II years, Hawaii was an exotic land of tropical breezes and lush, romantic music.” With their depictions of trees and island imagery, the guitars and other materials on display here match popular, if generalized, conceptions of Hawaii that had already entered the visual mainstream by way of at least three decades worth of illustrated sheet-music covers. As a sign of Hawaii’s grip on the mainland imagination, by 1957, Elvis Presley had performed “Love Me Tender” in Honolulu. Along with other actors and musicians, Elvis was frequently shown in Hawaii in movies throughout the 1960s.

Blues and Folk

Works in this gallery show the emerging popularity of blues and folk music in the twentieth century. A genre originating in Black culture in the American South, the blues speaks to the sorrows and triumphs of everyday life in an authentic language of selfexpression, sexuality, violence, and dissent. Through the blues, myriad artists have addressed the complexity of Blackness and intersections with such issues as slavery and integration. The genre shaped the course of American music, providing the foundation for such styles as jazz, gospel, rock, and hip-hop. This section shows that the blues, and African American music in general, is American music; any attempt to separate them is fictive at best. In fact, approximately one-third of the artworks in the entire exhibition are by Black artists or depict African American subjects.

If the blues began as an expression of southern Black experiences, its widespread popularity and influence since the mid-twentieth century coincided with the folk music revival, which arose during the Great Depression in the 1930s and continued at least into the 1960s. In that period, songs of Appalachia and other rural areas across the United States were written or revived as expressions of empathy for a population that was frequently denied access to the American promise of economic stability and upward mobility. Both blues and folk music were enthusiastically embraced by musicians, music historians, and audiences seeking to find plain truth and poetry in the voices of the people.

A Change Is Coming

As they played their guitars and sang songs of protest, musicians such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, then later Joan Baez and Bob Dylan—all associated with the folk music revival that began in the 1930s—figured prominently in critiquing the culture and politics of twentieth-century America. Like their music, Depression-era photographs by Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, and others showed empathy for the downtrodden as part of a New Deal program meant by Franklin D. Roosevelt to garner public support for governmental assistance for people in crisis. The critical stance of the folk music revival would be carried on in music like Bruce Springsteen’s epic Born in the U.S.A., represented here by Annie Leibovitz’s iconic portrait.

Iconic Women of Early Country Music

From the 1930s through the 1960s, musical artists such as Lulu Belle, Maybelle Carter, Loretta Lynn, Patsy Montana, Kitty Wells, and countless other women told stories of life, work, romantic relationships, and the land. Early country music, like that performed by the Carter Family, had roots in the southern Appalachian folk tradition, descended from the music played by Scottish and Irish settlers for several centuries. The genre expanded throughout the twentieth century, incorporating influences ranging from western ballads to the African banjo— always with the understanding that this music was for and about rural America.

There has long been an imbalance between the exposure and appreciation of women in country music and their male counterparts. Setting the stage for generations to follow, the female icons of early country made strides in leveling the gendered playing field. Yet a 2019 study published in Billboard showed a growing inequity, at least in terms of radio spins. The number of songs played on country radio by men increased from 76 percent in 2002 to 90 percent in 2018.

Cowboy Guitars

Beginning in the early 1930s, the guitar appeared in radio broadcasts, records, and films as an identifying attribute of singing cowboys Gene Autry, Tex Ritter, Roy Rogers, and many more—as well as for singing cowgirls. These musicians’ popularity gave rise to the production and promotion of instruments bearing stenciled cowboy and western imagery, such as the guitars featured here. A study for an enormous painting by Thomas Hart Benton, on view at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, also shows the role of the guitar in cementing self-styled cowboys like Ritter in the mythology of early country-western music. The cowboy symbolism extends to women like Patsy Montana, who adopted the persona of a cowgirl, and can be seen today in the western gear worn by many country musicians, including Orville Peck, a queer artist who challenges the idea that cowboy attire should be solely associated with heteronormative masculinity.

Making a Living

Commerce has always been a central force in the story of the guitar, from its production and distribution by companies such as Martin and Gibson, to professional guitar instruction, commercial sponsorships, and paid performances. This section begins with sympathetic views of blind street musicians playing for spare change. In them, the artists have reinforced an awareness of social disparity and struggle, while also celebrating the centrality of music to human experience regardless of one’s economic situation. A nearby photograph underscores the role of radio and commercial sponsorships in advancing the careers of musicians. It shows Chet Atkins, a highly respected musician nicknamed “Mr. Guitar,” playing the Grand Ole Opry with the equally successful Carter Family, in front of a giant advertisement for life insurance. Completing the story are photographs depicting the trappings of success enjoyed by Dolly Parton, Webb Pierce, and Elvis Presley. Together, these artworks are reminders that the lines between commercial success, creativity, and talent are often blurred.

The Visual Culture of Early Rock and Roll

The advent of the Fender Telecaster (1950–51), Gibson Les Paul (1952), and Fender Stratocaster (1954) was concurrent with and tied to the rise of rock and roll. By the early to mid1950s, the solid-body electric had replaced hollow and semihollow electric guitars of swing and jazz in sales and notoriety. Because sound was no longer dependent on the instrument’s shape or size, guitar designers were able to experiment with color, shape, and material. Early rock guitars often repurposed design elements and color schemes from cars and surfing culture, leading to such space-age designs as the Gibson Explorer and the Gretsch Silver Jet.

While exemplifying the dynamic iconography of early rock and roll, guitars in this section also remind us of the great guitarists who played them—Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and Ronnie Wood, who are regarded by many as “rock gods.” These men all owed a debt to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a woman guitarist who transformed Black church music—already meant to stir one’s body into emotive movement—into a style that inspired Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and other early rock and rollers.


The bodily embrace required to play the guitar distinguishes it from most other stringed instruments. Works in this gallery show people touching, hugging, and posing with the guitar, often merging their bodies with those of their instruments. The guitar as an emotionally fulfilling human surrogate is evident in Marion Perkins’s terracotta sculpture showing a figure snuggling a guitar as if holding a newborn baby. With their senses of strength and assertiveness, the women shown in Gregory Orloff’s Guitar Player and Sue Hudelson’s Julie offset the historical stereotypes of the instrument as a symbol of passive domesticity, while also contrasting its more contemporary connection to macho rock culture. While the guitar may be seen as a completion of the player’s expressive self, in Lonnie Holley’s The Music Lives After the Instrument Is Destroyed, it’s destruction can suggest that the human spirit survives the death of the physical body.

Aestheticizing the Motif

This exhibition shows the ways in which guitar symbolism can illuminate matters of race, ethnicity, class, gender, disability, and other vital themes. Throughout art history, however, artists have also depicted musical instruments to demonstrate their own formal and technical proficiency and to capture the instruments’ inherently expressive forms. This trend was especially apparent in early and mid-twentieth-century modernism, with some of the most abstract works—those attending to problems of composition, form, and process, as opposed to narrative— using the guitar as a pictorial motif. Today, many artists continue to show guitars as objects worthy of a purely aesthetic appreciation. On occasion, artists such as Spencer Moseley and musicians like Kaki King combine the form of the guitar with patterned visualizations of its sonic affect.

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