Music and painting have danced together harmoniously across the centuries, two kindred art forms that inspire and complement one another. Sounds lift painters’ brushes, just as images give music shape and color. This melodic muse continues to strike deep chords today. Let’s explore some high notes in the creative conversation between canvas and composition.
Painting the Music
Many artists literally paint music, from quaint village dance scenes to cosmic synesthetic visions. Violins, harps, and sheet music flow from their brushes in joyful consonance. Others capture the emotional resonance of melodies - the melancholic longing of a nocturne, or the irrepressible delight of carnival music. Their visual artworks reflect music’s boundless capacity to stir the soul.
The Classical Tradition
For centuries, classical scenes of muses with lutes sought to encapsulate music's ineffable beauty. Picasso's neoclassical works resonate with lyres, horns and guitars, exuding Mediterranean musicality. Kandinsky's synesthetic canvases conveyed harmonies of color and sound. Today, Kerry James Marshall nods to jazz greats in his portraits, while multimedia artist Christian Marclay explores intersections of music, image, and technology.
Direct Musical Inspirations
Music also provides a direct source of inspiration. Vivaldi's intense concertos fueled Turner's moody seascapes. Violin concertos guided Kandinsky’s improvisations. The rhythm of Flamenco saturates Picasso’s bluesy Rose Period. Countless artists have channeled specific musical works into unique visual expressions.
Music as a Shaping Force
For others, music broadly influences their creative practice and style. Van Gogh said a "painter paints what music makes him see.” He painted to songs, weaving melodies into radiant landscapes and night cafes. Matisse called music his "principal source of inspiration,” letting rhythms shape his bold colors and patterns. Mondrian's rigorously ordered grids evoke pictorial harmonies. Music guided these artists’ inner visions.
Notable Musical Muses
Some key examples of painters inspired by music include:
Wassily Kandinsky - This Russian pioneer of abstract art sought direct parallels between music and painting in his dreamlike canvases. He conjured cosmic synesthetic visions expressing the tones, colors, and emotions of music.
Vincent Van Gogh – Deeply moved by melodies, Van Gogh painted to music, saying it allowed him to “express colors more vividly.” Operatic arias, hymns, and folk songs colored masterpieces like The Starry Night.
Paul Klee - A musician himself, Klee plumbed music’s formal elements like tempo, harmony and syncopation to craft his whimsical visual rhythms, colors and symbols. His lectures unpacked their shared creative language.
Henri Matisse - MATISSE called music his “principal source of inspiration,” letting rhythms shape his bold colors and patterns. He listened to classical and jazz during his radical cut-outs period late in life.
Gerhard Richter – This pioneering German artist behind both photorealism and abstract works drew inspiration from music. Richter has created abstract paintings titled after specific pieces of music, translating tones and textures into colorful canvases. He describes music as giving him "access to latencies of order,” and views painting as frozen music that visually captures musical elements. For Richter, music provides a deep well of creative possibilities.
Georgia O'Keeffe – This pioneering modernist incorporated rhythms and syncopation inspired by jazz and blues into her sensuous, organic paintings of flowers and landscapes. She pushed color harmonies in new directions under the influence of jazz legends like Duke Ellington and George Gershwin. O’Keeffe’s radically simplified forms evoke the cadences of these energetic musical genres.
The Resonance Between Music and Art
Music and painting share a timeless bond - rhythm, harmony, imagination, emotion. As Kandinsky wrote, “Our ears ring with the music of the spheres.” For centuries, artists have tuned their brushes to melodies and arias, distilling music into indelible images. They teach us to see sound, and hear the visual. May the creative conversation between these sister arts continue to hit perfect pitch.