Mermaid Polka. Lith. of Napoleon Sarony, 1850. [H. D. Hewitt]More here. Click on image to see much finer, larger version.
In the nineteenth century, informal musical entertainments were a very common American pastime, and the piano was a common presence in American parlors. The piano’s rise in popularity coincided with advances in printing technology, and a booming sheet music industry was one result of these simultaneous developments.
American consumers purchased particular pieces of music for various reasons. Certainly, popular songs of the American musical stage became bestselling sheet music, but it is clear that sheet music publishers recognized that American consumers would buy even unfamiliar music if the cover art was appealing enough. Pictorial sheet music covers did double duty within the household: displayed above a keyboard even when a piano wasn’t in use, they functioned as decorative art.
Nineteenth-century pictorial sheet music covers capitalized on an endless array of already popular subjects, ideas, and themes in order to capture buyers’ attention. Over the course of the nineteenth century, sheet music images of beautiful women remained the most consistently popular type of illustration. In Mermaid Polka, these nude and loosely robed young women are graceful, demure, and carefree. They embody various ideas about women’s nature, with a titillating erotic accent. This lavish visual fantasy of beautiful young sea nymphs frolicking in the moonlight was meant to appeal to a wide variety of potential buyers. While women and men alike might have enjoyed this image for its pictorial beauty and expression of innocent romantic pleasure, men might also have associated it with antebellum dancing-girl performances (which were enjoyed by overwhelmingly male audiences) and European paintings like Botticelli’s celebrated fifteenth-century work, The Birth of Venus.
Friday, May 11, 2012
Mermaid Polka, Sheet Music,1850
Beauty, Virtue and Vice online exhibit of the American Antiquarian Society website (from which the images is also sourced):