A seemingly simple tattoo that might find its largest appeal among a select group of musicians, this month’s symbol is indeed uncomplicated, symmetric, and generally done in black. But for art and music fans alike, the tattoo of the f-holes of a violin has origins that can be traced to the early 1800s, and a certain French Neoclassical painting, and then to the early 1900s of liberated Parisian culture.
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) was a painter who flourished in the Romantic era of French painting, much to his own dismay. Ingres was an ardent admirer of the great masters of the Classical era, rejecting the Romantic school utterly. Instead, he pursued the Neoclassical course with its focus on topics from history and mythology and its precise and meticulous style. Gifted from an early age, and despite his Neoclassical focus, Ingres won acclaim when he was still only 17. At the age of 26, he was finally able to claim his Grand Prix de Rome with a government sponsored trip to the Villa Medici in Rome in 1806.
Once in Rome, Ingres produced numerous portraits, including one of particular interest to us, La Grande Baigneuse (The Great Bather), which he had hoped would demonstrate his mastery of the female nude. Although it was poorly received back in Paris, it stands as a classic today and is part of the collection of the Louvre.
Fast forward to Paris of the early 1920s where American photographer and painter Man Ray (Emmanuel Radnitzky of Philadelphia) would meet and fall in love with Alice Prin, better known as Kiki de Montparnasse. A symbol of the bohemians and also an artist, and possibly one of that centuries first notable independent women, Kiki is best remembered as a nude model who began her career at age fourteen. In 1921, Man Ray produced his iconic vision of her.
Seated naked, with the exception of a drape across her lap and her hair in a wrap, her face in profile, Man Ray gives us his homage to Ingres’s famous La Grande Baigneuse. But Man Ray makes the photograph his own by having Kiki’s torso appear virtually armless and pear shaped (not unlike a violin body) and photographically superimposing the black f-holes of a violin on her back. In a final clever turn of phrase, Man Ray titles the photograph, Le Violon d’Ingres (Ingres’s Violin). In doing so, he revives a well known fact during Ingres lifetime, his love of the violin.
As a young painter, Ingres had also seriously studied the violin. Although he chose painting as his vocation, the violin would remain for him a lifelong avocation. Eventually the French would use the phrase violon d’Ingres as a synonym for any hobby. By naming his photograph of Kiki Le Violon d’Ingres, Man Ray is essentially punning with both word and image, and also calling Kiki his hobby.
The tattoo of the two black f-holes of the violin is a direct reference to Man Ray’s photograph of the sound holes on Kiki. Although this tattoo often appears on the lower back, it can really be presented anywhere there is enough room to preserve its symmetry, including one of the left arm, and one on the right, and even on the back of the neck.