Storied Strings: The Guitar in American Art Exhibition Guide

Storied Strings: The Guitar in American Art Exhibition Guide

Use this guide as you explore the exhibition Storied Strings: The Guitar in American Art!

American Art
Activity Type:
Special Exhibition
For a family audience exhibition guide, use the Family Guide: Storied Strings
Spanish language versions of both guides are available: Guía General: Cuerdas historiadas en español and Guía Familiar: Cuerdas historiadas en español.
For a large print versions of the exhibition text use the Storied Strings: Large Print Guide


Guitars appear often in American painting, sculpture, and works on paper.  

As meaningful to hear as it is fun to play, the guitar has unique expressive possibilities in the visual arts. Affordable, portable, and at home in all kinds of artistic and musical genres, the guitar can be likened to a microphone that gets passed around – across racial, geographic, economic, and other boundaries – making sure that everyone has the opportunity to speak and be heard.  

As you explore the exhibition, use this guide to consider:

  • What stories and ideas might be present?
  • Who might be telling them (artist, human subject, both)?
  • What role might the guitar play in the telling?

Fast Facts

  • This exhibition features 125 works of art, as well as 35 musical instruments spanning from the early 19th century to the present day. 
  • The works in Storied Strings are divided into ten sections: 
    1. Guitars, Paintings & European Prototypes
    2. Guitar-wielding Women 
    3. Parlor Games
    4. Hispanicization
    5. The Guitar in Black Art and Culture
    6. Personification
    7. Picturing Performance 
    8. Cold Hard Cash 
    9. Political Guitars
    10. Aestheticizing the Motif 
  • The exhibition also features smaller thematically arranged exploration spaces, including 
    1. Martin and His Legacy
    2. Parlors and People
    3. Lead Belly and the Lomaxes
    4. The Blues
    5. Women in Early Country Music
    6. The Visual Culture of Early Rock and Roll 
    7. Hawaii-ana 
    8. Cowboy Guitars 

Guitars, Paintings, and European Prototypes

Charles Cromwell Ingham (American, 1796-1863), Cora Livingston, ca. 1833, oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1947.17.73

While this exhibition celebrates and explores the guitar in American art and culture, the artworks in this first gallery remind viewers of the instrument’s European roots and introduce the emergence of the guitar in the United States.

In this gallery, as you look at the guitars and players depicted, compare what you see to your own understanding and familiarity with the instrument.

Consider this:

What aspects of the instruments seem most familiar to you?

How about the sitters who hold them and the scene in which they appear?

What clues do they offer about where and for whom guitars first appeared in the American story?

Think about how guitars appear in America today. How do these images compare?

Guitar-Wielding Women

Sue Hudelson (American, born 1967), Julie, 2006, Archival pigment print. Courtesy of the artist

The image of a woman with a guitar can present varied stories.  Sometimes the instrument refers to specific character traits of evolving American womanhood. In other instances it may indicate empowerment, musicianship, or re-cast gender roles.

Consider this:

Look at and think about the gaze and body language of the sitter(s) in these artworks.

Now look at the guitar.  What does its presence add or suggest to you? 

If you could visit with this person, what do you imagine she would say or sound like? 

What ideas might she share with you? What songs would she sing?

Parlor Games

John White Alexander (American, 1856–1915), Panel for Music Room, 1894, detail, Oil on canvas, 37 x 77 ¾ inches. Detroit Institute of Arts, Founders Society Purchase, Beatrice W. Rogers Fund, Dexter M. Ferry, Jr. Fund, Merrill Fund, and Eleanor and Edsel Ford Exhibition and Acquisition Fund, 82.26

The guitar’s presence in artworks depicting American domestic spaces can offer clues to commonly held ideas about class and decorum.

Consider this:

What other inanimate objects join the guitar in these artworks? Furniture, clothing, decorative objects, books?

Think about the placement of the guitar in relation to these other items.  What clues might this give to the sitters’ attitudes, social status, and abilities?


George Luks (American, 1867–1933), Pedro, early 1920s, oil on canvas. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Mr. and Mrs. William Preston Harrison Collection, 27.7.11, Digital Image © Museum Associates / LACMA. Licensed by Art Resource, NY

American artists, authors, musicians, and publishers have promoted a misleading association between the guitar and Spain.  Sometimes this association highlighted the cultural richness of Spain, but in other instances the instrument conveyed a sometimes disparaging  exoticism. This dynamic is at play in the artworks in this gallery.

Consider this:

For audiences of many of the works in this gallery, the presence of guitars helped characterize both sitter and scene. 

Where is the guitar? Held? Idle? 

How does the guitar work with other indicators of character or station?

The Guitar in Black Art and Culture

Many works in this exhibition are by Black artists or depict African American subject matter. They help us consider complex histories and narratives about the African American experience. In these works, the guitar may appear as a tool for empowerment and creative expression. It may also help tell the story of Black music as an intense form of expression, designating identity, pride, and achievement for individuals and communities alike. 

Consider this:

Where is a guitar in relation to the figure(s) in the work? Is there more than one? Now consider your position as the viewer. If you were part of this scene, where might YOU be in relation to the guitar?

  • Close by?
  • Far away?
  • Touching and playing?
  • Watching and listening?
  • In addition to the guitar, what elements in the artwork do you find familiar and recognizable? 

What seems unfamiliar, makes you curious, or is challenging to understand? 

If you could listen to the the music and stories of the individuals depicted, what do you imagine they might tell you about?


Otto Hagel (American, born Germany, 1909-1973), Odetta, 1958, gelatin silver print. Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, Tucson 98.117.66

Figures playing the guitar in American art can express psychological and emotional narratives. In these cases, guitars are often treated as an extension of or substitution for the human body.

Consider this:

Look at how the guitar is held or handled by the figures(s) in these artworks. How might you characterize each figure’s interaction with the guitar? 

  • Touching
  • Grasping
  • Embracing
  • Posing

In what ways does the handling of the instrument echo human-to-human physical interaction? 

What ideas might this convey, express, or evoke?

Picturing Performance

Making an image that depicts music can be challenging for artists.  The works on display in this section depict the attempt to show both the sights and sounds of guitar performance. Consider some of the different ways performance is pictured/captured in these images:

  • Does it include a guitar that is actively being plucked or strummed?
  • Is an audience necessary to illustrate active listening to a performance?
  • Is the musician singing along with the music being made by the guitar?

Consider this:

Imagine that what you see in an artwork is a frame from a moving image.  Look for clues about what came before or just after the moment depicted.  What role does the guitar play in the scenario you’ve imagined?

How might you describe the mood of the scene depicted?  Can you imagine a soundtrack that could play along and emphasize the mood?  What might the tune from your soundtrack be like if it were played by the guitarist in the image?

Cold Hard Cash

Unidentified artist, The Music Master [also called The Music Master of Philadelphia], ca. 1835, oil on canvas, 48 x 36 inches. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, J. Harwood and Louise B. Cochrane Fund for American Art, 2022.6

As a symbol, the guitar is capable of denoting both wealth and poverty. In some American art and visual culture, the guitar communicates ideas about financial exchange, consumerism, or conspicuous consumption.

Consider this: 

Can you see embellishments or decoration on the guitars? 

What other elements join the guitar in these artworks? Text, music, clothing, decorative objects, books? 

Think about what these elements add to the presence of the guitar?  

What messages might they help convey about the value and desirability of the instrument?

Political Guitars

Annie Leibovitz (American, born 1949), Bruce Springsteen, New York City, 1984
printed 2021, archival pigment print, Ed. 1/8 + 2AP. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Given by John Steward Bryan, by exchange

Because the guitar facilitates being heard and having a say, the American guitar can function as a political instrument.

In many of these images the guitar is accompanied by other indicators and signifiers of a social or political context.  Its presence can alert us to a more nuanced understanding of that context. 

Consider this: 

Try looking at the guitar in relation to other recognizable items present in each artwork. 

Consider other aspects of the image that are readable to you–an expression, a gesture, a sign, clothing, the environment. 

How does the presence of the guitar change or enhance your understanding of or curiosity about these aspects?  

Who is having a say in these images? What might their messages be?

Aestheticizing a Motif

Artists have used the guitar as a formal and ornamental device.  Its representation can highlight the skill of the artist or visually allude to a sonic experience.

Many of the artworks in this gallery show evidence of artistic decision-making and intention about  the use of color, form, and composition to evoke sound.

Consider this: 

What essential guitar-like forms do you recognize in these images? How might you characterize them?  You might call to mind descriptive words such as:

  • Curvy, solid, complete
  • Abstract, simplified, fragmented
  • Angular, linear, strong
  • Colorful, vibrant, loud
  • Muted, subdued, quiet
  • Complex, overlapping, repeated 
  • What if you were to associate a tone or sound to the forms you’ve described?   
  • What do you hear in your mind’s ear as you examine each artwork?

After your visit to the exhibition…

Take a break. Sit in the museum’s sculpture garden or café to share a snack and think about the art you have seen today and the stories it has revealed. Take time to reflect on what you noticed, felt, or thought and share your reflections with someone you came with or write down your own thoughts.

Search for more guitars and other instruments represented in artworks in the permanent galleries.

Visit the Interactive Gallery and explore the exhibit A Closer Look.

Explore VMFA’s American Art galleries to build on what you have seen and explored in the exhibition.

Learn more by joining us for talks, gallery programs, art history classes and more! For specific dates and details please see the online exhibitions page for Storied Strings: The Guitar in American Art.

Keep listening to songs from Storied Strings! Access a curated collection of songs related to the exhibition on this Spotify playlist.