Dangerous Curves -- The Art of the Guitar

Attributed to
Belchior Dias

Portugal, 1590

Attributed to
Jakob Ertel
Italy, 1690

Lyre Guitar
Clementi and Company
England, 1810

Antoine Aubry
France, 1779

Louis Panormo
England, 1823

Harp Guitar
Joseph Laurent Mast
France, 1827

Christian Frederick Martin
USA, 1833-1840

Guitars Baroque and Romantic, 1590-1880

ne of the earliest surviving guitars, a petite instrument attributed to Portuguese luthier Belchoir Dias dated about 1590, captures many of the aspects of the early guitar-a slender body, five pairs of strings, and frets made of gut that are tied around the neck. The decoration on the Dias is relatively sparse, but the back of this rare object is constructed of eight strips of dark tropical wood separated by thin strips of ivory, creating an attractive geometric pattern. Richer decorative schemes in ivory and mother-of-pearl cover the surfaces of many of the other early instruments, including one made by Italian guitar makers Giovanni and Michael Sellas in 1652, with back and sides made entirely of ivory inlaid with an intricate foliate pattern of ebony.

   Throughout the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the guitar changed little but gained in popularity throughout Europe. France, Germany, Italy and Spain boasted accomplished guitar makers, as evidenced by the instruments in this gallery. Highlights from the 17th century include on of the finest-and still playable-guitars made by the Voboam family of Paris, instrument makers to King Louis XIV, as well as one of only tow known guitars made by celebrated violin maker Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737). Beginning in the late 18th century, the guitar experienced a number of significant changes, all contributing to the development of the "modern" instrument. Examples such as the 1830's parlor guitar made by German-American immigrant Christian Frederick Martin (1796-1873) illustrate the adoption of six individual strings rather than five pairs, longer fingerboards allowing an expanded tonal range, metal tuning machines and frets, and a wider and larger body with a more curvaceous figure. Although instruments from this period tend to have modest decoration, this gorgeous Martin guitar freatures a fingerboard and neck made entirely of ivory and "thumb-print" inlays of pearl and abalone around the top, creating a jewelry-like effect. Such instruments would have appealed to young female players who comprised an important element of guitar ownership in antebellum America.

   Dangerous Curves also explores the world's continuing fascination with ancient Rome and Greece through a group of lyre guitars and other hybrid types. The French were the most prolific makers of lyre guitars, and a circa 1810 example by François Gratel (born 1793), loaned by Steve Howe of the rock band Yes, captures the classic form with its slender, graceful arms and gilded brass yoke. The heyday of the lyre guitar lasted a mere ten years-1805 to 1815-but exemplifies an ongoing willingness to experiment with the guitar's shape. In the mid 19th century, Spanish luthiers began making developments and refinements that resulted in what we now consider "the modern guitar shape." Antonio de Torres (1817-1892) was the man responsible for standardizing the form and size of the classical instrument, and the circa 1858 Torres example in the exhibition looks much like the guitars of today. This instrument illustrates his influential design concepts that resulted in powerful-sounding instruments, changing classical guitar construction forever.