Art History

The Color of Music

The Color of Music

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Four celebrated painters used the principles of music to advance composition and color

Any fine artist who is also a musician will attest that the worlds of painting and music share a wealth of commonalities. Two dialects of one language, these separate art forms have long influenced and borrowed from each other, and their interchangeable terminologies — composition, color, chromatic scale, tonality and rhythm, to name a few — reveal just how familial their connection is.

Beyond theory-related terms, however, visual art and music also share the ability to convey mood, movement and emotion, thereby eliciting a strong visceral response from the viewer. What’s more, just as musicians and vocalists know when they’re in tune, so, too, can visual artists sense when they’ve hit a harmonious “chord,” and the composition and color sing.


Several painters throughout history, especially those who helped shape Modernism, were strongly influenced by music and musicianship. Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780–1867), a French Neoclassicist whose frequent breaks with tradition and exaggeration of forms later inspired the likes of Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, also played second violin in the Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse while a student.

Over the course of his career, the artist’s evolving knowledge of musical structure greatly informed his development and theories as a draftsman, painter and teacher. His conversations and collaborations with composers Charles Gounod (1818–93) and Franz Liszt (1811–86) were especially influential, and Ingres was known for making frequent analogies to music while teaching at the French Academy in Rome and École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

“If I could make musicians of you all, you would thereby profit as painters,” he told his students. “Everything in nature is harmony; a little too much, or else too little, disturbs the scale and makes a false note. … Rightness of forms is like rightness of sounds.”


James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) was no stranger to the synergy between art and music. In the mid-1860s, he began titling his paintings with such musical terms as symphony, arrangement and nocturne, referencing the correlation between the variations in musical tone and the variations in color value.

Unlike Ingres, who emphasized the harmony of nature, Whistler offered an alternative to naturalism. He was pioneering a compositional technique based on the possibilities of paint itself and the abstract qualities of the picture plane.

He illustrated these and other points using musical metaphors in his famous Ten O’Clock Lecture, the tenets of which were foundational for the forthcoming Post-Impressionist and Abstract movements. “Nature contains the elements, in color and form, of all pictures, as the keyboard contains the notes of all music,” Whistler said. “But the artist is born to pick and choose, and group with science (knowledge), these elements, that the result may be beautiful — as the musician gathers his notes, and forms his chords, until he brings forth from chaos glorious harmony.”

If Ingres had Liszt and Gounod as brothers in composition, Whistler had the respect of Claude Debussy (1862–1918), as revealed when Debussy debuted his 1899 orchestral composition Nocturnes, inspired by Whistler’s later paintings.


By the time early Modernism and avant-garde color theory arrived, music was doing more than simply informing painting. Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944) and Paul Klee (1879–1940), in particular, were so influenced by music that one might call them composers who used color to create their music rather than painters inspired by musicianship.

Kandinsky believed abstract painting was the best way to replicate the melodic, spiritual and poetic power found in music. He spent his career applying the symphonic principles of music to the arrangement of color notes and chords.

He was particularly inspired by Synchromism — a movement based on the idea that color and sound are similar phenomena—and the composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951), whom he befriended and collaborated with to assign colors to certain musical notes. In his 1911 publication Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Kandinsky stated that “music is the ultimate teacher,” and further expounded on the ideas of synesthesia, the merging of two senses — in this case, sound and sight.


If Whistler made a noticeable turn from naturalism based on the improvisations of music, and if Kandinsky worked off of sound structure to create similar visual vibrations and frequencies, Paul Klee (like Ingres, a skilled violinist) took things one step further in his development of two major color theories: the Canon of Color Totality and polyphonic (many voices) painting.

Klee considered 18th-century composers such as Mozart and Bach to be the pinnacle of musical achievement. He felt the composers of his time — Bruckner, Wagner, and, particularly, Strauss — only appeared more expressive on the surface but were actually chained to the melody and meter of their own music.

This assertion became the starting point of his career-long mission to deconstruct Golden Age music and apply it to painting, thereby giving artists greater expressive power. His theory on the color of tonality, developed while teaching at the Bauhaus, examined the relationship and movement between colors, such as the circular movement between primary and secondary colors.

His paintings that exemplified his polyphonic theory looked at how the sound of a painting changed based on the number of elements and stylistic devices employed. In his theories, Klee asserted that rhythm marks the movement of time in both music and art.

“I am continually being made aware of the parallels between music and the fine arts,” Klee wrote. “It is certain that both art forms are defined by time. That can easily be proved.”

Showing Off Your Own Groove

Speaking of expressive power of the kind Klee was after, harness your own creative skills and put them out there for the world to see. The Artistic Excellence art competition is currently accepting submissions and your fine art should be in the mix! Take this opportunity to shine a light on what you’ve been developing in the studio and share your visual melodies with us by entering now.


Article written by Allison Malafronte and first appeared in Artists Magazine.

Watch the video: The Colors of life. Indian Music (August 2022).