The Piano Forte in Pittsburgh

Have you ever imagined what it would be like to travel with a piano across the Alleghenies before the days of trucks, railroads or even canals? Yet an ad appearing in the Post-Gazette of July 20, 1813 suggests someone did just that.

The advertisement of 1813, published some sixteen years before the completion of the canal, informs readers only that a fine-toned piano forte was for sale. A maker is not identified and it is unknown where the instrument was manufactured. It could be that the piano traveled, somehow, from Baltimore or Philadelphia, but it could also have been made at home.

With advertisements appearing as early as 1814, Charles Rosenbaum was one known maker, and he seems to have worked in the city for five years. The quality of his work suggests a degree of cultural sophistication unexpected in a frontier town, and reinforces the complexities and cost of importing goods from the east.

Yet if Rosenbaum was the first manufacturer of piano fortes in Pittsburgh and he set up shop in 1814, then the piano advertised in 1813 could not have been made by him. If it had journeyed across the Alleghenies, it wouldn’t be the only piano to do so. Family history tells us that a Philadelphia-built piano forte owned by General Richard Butler was given to his daughter Mary in 1791, just before leaving on a fateful military expedition. In 1791, the piano forte somehow made it over Indian trails from Philadelphia to what is now Lawrenceville. It’s now located in the Heinz History Center.

(shown is a New York made piano forte now at the Westmoreland Museum of Art)

About Art After X

With the death of President Kennedy in 1963, America changed. As hard as it is to minimize that sentiment, the effect of Dallas was even greater. The same year saw the merging of the Dallas Museum for Contemporary Arts, which had been central to the art scene, and the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. Douglas MacAgy, then the director of DMCA, not only opposed the merger, but also declined to directorship of the combined museum. The regionalist movement which had been strong for decades, was giving way to more of an interest in what was going on nationally, and internationally. Like it or not, Dallas was on the national stage. When the Kennedy’s arrived in Fort Worth, local collectors had decorated a hotel room with internationally-renowned works. While the president and his wife learned a great deal about the ability of Texans to collect major art, there was little they could glean about the local scene in this era-defining city. With this in mind, we have begun a project to look not back at the art scene in Dallas, but foreword from 1963. We are interviewing gallery owners, curators and others involved in the art scene then, but this will be a story told mostly through interviews with artists active in the city from that point into the 1980s. The result will be a book with a video component. We hope you will join us in our journey. The hashtag for the project is #artafterx and the url will point to the latest updates on this weblog.

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