Poised and confident in Porto, Portugal

I found this carte-de-visite for sale in Massachusetts, which is the state with the second-highest number of Portuguese Americans (after California).  Who was this elegant young woman, posing confidently at an instrument a century and a half ago?  And what kind of instrument was it, exactly?  It looks too narrow to be a piano, yet the form doesn’t correspond to anything in the harpsichord family, as far as I know.

Portuguese lady by Fritz 4

The intricate carvings in the wood might help to identify it.

Portuguese lady by Fritz 5


The portrait was made by German photographer Martin Fritz, who had a studio in Porto from 1859 until 1873 or 1874, according to the Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography (p. 1152) and the Centro Português de Fotografia.

Portuguese lady by Fritz 3

Portuguese lady by Fritz 2



37 thoughts on “Poised and confident in Porto, Portugal

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      1. That’s very kind of you, thank you! You may have guessed that I have a bit of a fascination with photography in the UK during the Victorian era (and with British history at the time in general). However, as an outsider, my insight is very limited. Any comments and observations you can offer will be appreciated!

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  1. I was so intrigued by the instrument that I spent the last 45 minutes googling. 🙂 But after looking at dozens of images I have not seen one that resembles this one in the photo. I thought it might be a piccolo piano forte but the ones I saw looked much bigger and had more octaves. So I hope someone is able to solve this musical mystery! Whatever it is, I bet she played beautifully 🙂

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  2. I’m almost certain it’s a Victorian era ‘boudoir piano.’ They were sized for bedrooms or cottages, and were very popular. There’s more information about them here. In a sense, it functioned much like electronic keyboards do today, allowing someone to have the pleasure of playing without having a monstrous piece of furniture in the house.

    My hunch is that this lady not only played, but also performed: if not for audiences in concert halls, certainly for friends and family. I wonder which era’s music she favored? I’m sure she played beautifully.

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    1. You may well be right about it being in the “boudoir” branch of the piano family. It certainly appears to have the form of an upright piano, with vertical strings. I’ve seen similar instruments a few times in early portraits from the UK. I actually have two or three in my collection, but they aren’t scanned. I should really scan and share them. Thank you for the comment and link, Linda!

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  3. Poise is just the right word for this young woman. Her hands are resting so gently. And, her instrument is as delicately carved as her dress is trimmed. Quite lovely 😊 🎶

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  4. Looking at the dazzling array of names for different types of harpsichords and pianos and failing – sadly because I do like these names – to persuade myself that this is either a spinet, a virginal or a muselar………….. I seem to be agreeing with the suggestion that this is a Victorian upright boudoir-size piano.

    Heavy black satin would seem to indicate mourning. But she is so young for such sorrow and I hope her playing brought her comfort!


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    1. Yes, the names are delightful, and some of the instruments are very old! I never told you, but I found your blog when looking for information about the tambura; your post about Y.G. Srimati came up in search results. Music has a way of bringing people together. 🙂

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  5. Isn’t it funny how a photograph can show someone’s confidence? 🙂
    What also struck me were the numerous layers to her dress. Your eye follows the dress downwards and just when you think it should stop, there is a whole other under-layer peeping out! Clothes were so restrictive back then!
    As to the instrument, my best guess is a clavichord or spinet: both pre-piano and smaller (I think!)

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yes, the under-layer! What in the world was that for? 🙂

      Regarding her confidence, I really struggled to come up with a title for this post. I didn’t want to use a generic “Woman with instrument,” and I didn’t want to be funny (she’s far too dignified). So I tried to figure out what her pose and demeanor said to me, and the words “self-assured” and “confident” kept coming to mind. (I accidentally published the post before making up my mind).

      Liked by 2 people

    1. What a nice comment! There’s something enigmatic in her expression. I really struggled to come up with a title for this post, because I couldn’t put my finger on what it is I see in her. I’m so glad she looks kind to you and also looks like someone you’d like to talk to. That’s probably the best kind of reaction to a portrait. How’s your Portuguese? 😉

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  6. I was intrigued by the instrument, too. I’d never heard of a boudoir piano, great to learn something new. My first thought was harmonium, and then I discovered that there was such a thing as a parlour organ as well. It could be one of those, with the foot-operated bellows hidden by her dress.

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  7. I think you’ll find the instrument is one of these (but you’ll have to look for a carved and plainer-in-colour version): http://hansadlercollection.blogspot.com/2010/11/clavicytherium.html The thing is, pianos and more ‘normal’ versions of harpsichords, etc, have more keys. This one in your photo is very narrow. I’d wondered, in fact, if it was a studio prop – which it still might well be – but her hand casts a shadow on the keys that look realistic, even though some of the detail in the background of its keyboard doesn’t. Maybe you’ll find a portuguese version of it that resembles it more?

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    1. I haven’t looked specifically for early Portuguese pianos. That might be a good avenue! The closest thing I’ve found so far is this small piano that Renoir used in his series of paintings of “Two Young Girls at the Piano”: https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/1975.1.201/. It looks smaller than a modern piano, but still bigger than the one in my photo. I should probably just email the music department at a museum and ask!

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      1. The one in the painting’s normal size but looks narrower because of perspective – otherwise there wouldn’t be two pages of music there. 🙂 (But it’s a painting, so…) Yeah… asking a museum could work. I’ve an encyclopaedia of musical instruments somewhere, I’ll see if there’s anything in that. It might be more reliable than google!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Google has disappointed me a lot recently. Or maybe I just expect the Web to have everything, and it doesn’t, by a long shot. My parents have a book on the history of pianos, but it doesn’t have any illustrations that match, either!

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