Blanton volunteer Ray McLeod shares his research into one of the most popular works hanging in our galleries, David Alfaro Siqueiros’ portrait of musician George Gershwin, a painting on long-term loan from the Harry Ransom Center.

George Gershwin

David Alfaro Siqueiros, Portrait of George Gershwin in a Concert Hall, 1936, oil on canvas, 66 7/8 x 90 5/8 in., Long-term loan from the Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin.

American composer George Gershwin went to Mexico in 1935 and met Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros. As Siqueiros and Gershwin got to know each other better, they realized how much they had in common.  For one thing, they both experienced a sensory phenomenon called synesthesia—when one type of sensation produces a stimulation of another.  When Gershwin viewed a Siqueiros painting, he heard sounds made by the colors, and when Siqueiros listened to a Gershwin melody, he could see colors produced by the music. On a visit to New York City, Siqueiros painted George’s portrait, now hanging in the Blanton Museum on loan from the Harry Ransom Center.  What was originally intended to be a simple portrait turned into a concert scene with members of Gershwin’s family and close friends depicted in the front rows, including Siqueiros.  Siqueiros also painted the frame, with the colors bleeding from the canvas onto the frame.  Along the bottom edge of the frame are small nameplates identifying the viewers who George wanted to be in attendance in the imaginary concert.

The Faces on the Left Side

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From the left, on the front row, are Siqueiros, Mabel Schirmer, Mr. and Mrs. Leo Godowsky, Jr., Gregory Zilboorg, Mrs. and Mr. Ira Gershwin, and Leo Godowsky.  On the second row, at the left-hand end is Oscar Levant, and the third person from the left is Harry Botkin.  All were important figures in George Gershwin’s life for various reasons.   David Siqueiros, known for painting murals with social themes, developed a personal commitment to protecting the rights of the oppressed.  A member of the Communist Party, in 1938 he went to Spain to join the Republican Army and fight Francisco Franco.  Two years later he was arrested in Mexico for an attempted assassination of Leon Trotsky, a Russian Marxist who was a guest of Diego Rivera’s. In 1951 Siqueiros won second prize for foreign artists at the 25th Venice Biennial, and in 1967 he was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize. Next to Siquieros is Mabel Schirmer, of the G. Schirmer sheet music printing business, who helped George buy taxi horns like those he had heard in Paris and then used in composing “An American in Paris.” Leopold Godowsky, an inventor of such products as Kodachrome film was also a gifted pianist, composer and teacher, known as “a pianist for pianists.”   Dr. Gregory Zilboorg was a psychoanalyst whose patients included Kay Swift, Lillian Hellman, Marshall Field, and George Gershwin.  Ira Gershwin is famous for collaborating with his younger brother to write some of the most popular Broadway music, including “Embraceable You.”  Ira was the lyricist and George was the composer.  Oscar Levant, another famous musician and composer is represented in the painting along with George’s cousin Henry Botkin, the person who suggested that George contact Mexican painters when he went to Mexico in 1935.

The Faces on the Right Side

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Across the aisle are Gershwin’s parents Mr. and Mrs. Morris Gershwin, George’s older brother Arthur, Mrs. and Mr. Louis M. Paley, Kay Swift, and William Merrigan Daly. Mr. and Mrs. Morris Gershwin, were originally from St. Petersburg, Russia and immigrated to the United States in the late 19th century. They bought a used piano for eldest son Ira’s practice but George, at age twelve, couldn’t resist playing it. Arthur Gershwin, George’s brother, was not a musician and would introduce himself as the “unknown Gershwin.”  Mr. and Mrs. Louis M. Paley were both Gershwin supporters. She was the Gershwin boys’ younger sister and gave George the novel Porgy, which stimulated him to compose the opera Porgy and Bess.  Her husband, Lou Paley, was a lyricist who collaborated with both George and Ira during their early careers.

Kay Swift and George Gershwin 

Kay Swift was the most important woman in George’s life other than his mother.  George and Kay were romantically involved for about ten years. Kay made her own name in show business, being the first woman to score a complete musical.  She also wrote the music for “Can’t We Be Friends?” and “Can This Be Love?”  Proof that she was directly involved with George’s work appears in the form of her handwriting on some of his music, including Porgy and BessWilliam Merrigan Daly was a composer who helped George on many projects, including Concerto in F, possibly the music that George played in the concert that Siqueiros painted.  Max Dreyfus, a music publisher, hired George in 1918 to write songs.  The pay was $35 a week.  His first hit was “Swanee,” which became an Al Jolson standard.

A few years after the painting was complete, George began having dizzy spells and headaches.  He had an operation for a brain tumor but died the next day on July 11, 1937 at the age of 38. After his death, George received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song, “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” which he had composed with Ira.  The Congressional Gold Medal was awarded to both George and Ira in 1985. The only other songwriters to be so recognized were George M. Cohan, Irving Berlin, and Harry Chapin. Gershwin’s legacy lives on in both his music, and through Siqueiros’ portrait.

– Ray McLeod, Blanton Museum of Art Volunteer

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