I have been asked on several occasions to select one image to illustrate a lecture or discussion about 20th-century painting. More often than not, I use Henri Matisse’s 1916 “The Piano Lesson” – my favorite painting to visit in New York City.

The “Piano Lesson” features a boy sitting at a piano, facing the viewer. But it is an image dominated by the color balance of its sophisticated geometrical structure. It is anchored by the crossing of a horizontal line, created by both the top of the piano and the intersection of the floor and the wall, and a line through running from the top to the bottom of the painting that starts as a diagonal edge of a green trapezoid. The intersection creates a matching congruent angle (a “vertical angle” in geometry speak) balancing the green form against the pink trapezoid of the piano top.

These colored patches are hardly part of a loud and jangly quilt: The painting insistently defaults to a cool gray which sets its intellectual flavor. In the lower left is an abstracted warm brown figurative sculpture, while in the upper right is a stylized woman sitting on a stool with naught but a white oval for her face.

To the casual viewer, no doubt she is the attentive teacher keeping watch over her charge’s practice. But the woman on a stool could also be another painting at the Museum of Modern Art that Matisse made two years earlier.

So, do we really know what are we looking at?

A warmer piano lesson image is Romare Bearden’s “Homage to Mary Lou (the Piano Lesson),” a 1984 lithograph on view in the Bates College Museum of Art’s jazz-themed exhibition “Convergence: Jazz, Films and the Visual Arts.”

Bearden’s image features two brightly dressed women at a piano. One is playing and the other stands looking on with her hand on the other’s shoulder. The entire scene pulses with colorful rhythms. And instead of being applied to a geometrical matrix like Matisse’s insistent compositional structure, the driving force is a stylized approach. More simply, the Bearden appears more about style and rhythm whereas the Matisse is more focused on structure and representational issues.

While Matisse’s young pianist faces us like a defiant boy wishing to be somewhere else, Bearden’s piano is turned so we can look onto the keyboard and share the women’s absorption in the music.

But Bearden is clearly riffing on the Matisse, not only in his title and color choices but in the structure as well. Where the teacher/painting sits in the Matisse, Bearden gives us a person-shaped opening in a door curtain. In other words, the shaped space is a marker of a person – but of a person’s absence, like a footprint (or a painting).

While Bearden’s entire scene is stylized and abstracted – the black keys, for example, don’t follow the 2/3/2/3 structure of a real piano – the one thing in hyper focus is the music, which is perfectly legible despite its size. This is a significant point, particularly in light of the fact that the two women in Bearden’s image are black. It was once generally illegal to teach slaves to read in order to dehumanize and control them. (Because most Americans cannot read music, this puts us into the position of slaves who were denied the right to learn.)

Moreover, these are hardly the simple notes of a beginner lesson. It’s not even piano music – it’s an entire score featuring a tsunami of 32nd notes. (It has the same three clefs of a piano quartet, but the piano’s usual treble and bass clefs are not paired.) I didn’t recognize the bluesy phrases, but Bearden’s depth in musical culture (as well as his audience’s) makes it virtually impossible this is arbitrary.

Is this a master lesson in scoring or, maybe, composing an orchestral work? One thing is certain: When we reflect this back onto Matisse’s masterpiece, we can feel the genius of Bearden’s respectful subtlety.

How often do we see brilliant paintings of black women engaged in sophisticated culture with such active agency? (This question asks both how often this happens and whether we can actually recognize it when it does.)

Jazz is difficult to define because it is so many things: a genre, a style, a historical current of African-American culture, an aesthetic and so on. “Convergence” doesn’t try to narrow the definition of jazz, but instead offers a range of works that come together on the theme (not unlike a jam session). If you have an idea about jazz, you will likely find it at play among the works. But whether you initially connect with the tune, the riff, the rhythm or the lyric hardly matters.

This is a powerful show filled with strong works by major artists like Bearden, Faith Ringgold and Maine’s own David Driskell, as well as compelling works by artists whose faces are fresher and less familiar to our local audience. Not only is Driskell’s “Five Blue Notes” my favorite painting on view, but the show was organized by the David C. Driskell Center for the Study of the Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and the African Diaspora at the University of Maryland, College Park.

One of the most important themes in “Convergence” is one of the hardest to see. It is the idea that jazz is a style and that styles are a marker of identity. The show is filled with (stylized) images of black musicians in performance and wisps of a decidedly not-local vernacular (e.g., “Papa Can Blow”). Whether we are talking about the Impressionists or the clothes that kids wear, we use style as a means of coming together, both for the sake of community and to assert identity.

Curator Sonié Joi Thompson-Ruffin, whose fiber piece “Strange Fruit” is one of the most poignant works in the show (it lives up to Abel Meeropol’s hauntingly beautiful lyric about lynching made famous by Billie Holiday) leaves it to the audience to connect the tendrils our own cultural experiences to jazz. While it is a respectful and decidedly non-condescending curatorial stance, it does challenge the audience to connect the dots. My concern is that the historical texture of this show could be misread by the predominantly white Maine audience as “jazz is them” – something apart or different, rather than a shared component of American culture.

Just as a show of visual art, “Convergence” is exciting, interesting and worthy. But it’s much more than that: It’s an opportunity to engage in an important and constructive conversation about the American community and what we share within it.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

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