Painting and Music

by Andrea Gottdang

1 Cautious Beginnings

2 The Invention of Musical Painting

3 Music as a Model for the Arts

4 The Ubiquity of the Musical in Painting

5 Abstraction

6 New Departures Typified by Constructivism and De Stijl

7 Finale and Prelude


Music has written itself into the history of painting in many ways. The principal means until well into the eighteenth century was through the visual representation of musical subjects and motifs. Yet artists also sought inspiration from music: they reflected the possibility of transferring formal principles and structural analogies from music to painting, and they drew theoretical assumptions from their comparisons of painting with its sister art. Reflections of this nature became more common throughout Europe from the end of the eighteenth century onward, reaching a climax in the debate about abstract painting that took place in the 1920s. In actual practice, artists such as Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and Piet Mondrian mainly focused on reflecting individual aspects such as polyphony and color-sound relationships. During the course of the twentieth century, artists’ interest in music shifted from painting to new art forms (e.g., film, happenings, and new media).


1 Cautious Beginnings

Since ancient times explanatory models of the world have reflected an interest in assigning colors to sounds — in addition to postulating associations between the seasons, planets, elements, metals, and points of the compass — although this interest initially had no notable impact on painting. The different arts have also long been compared to one another in the domains of philosophy and aesthetics, though the comparisons usually pertain to certain partial aspects of the arts and seek to establish hierarchies between them. As early as the seventeenth century, fruitful links were made between color and sound, complexion and musical harmony, and drawing and melody.[1] These associations proliferated in the form of metaphors in art literature (e.g., a concert of color). The shining complexion of sixteenth-century Venetian painting, in particular, seemed very close to that of its sister art. The harmony of the colors was seen to resemble both the harmony of sounds and the interplay of different musical instruments. It is said to be no coincidence that Paolo Veronese depicted himself, Titian, and Tintoretto as musicians in his Wedding at Cana (1562/1563, Paris, Louvre). However, only occasional efforts were made prior to the eighteenth century to apply the formal principles of music to painting. While it is true that in 1647 Nicolas Poussin used ecclesiastical modes and their calculated application to obtain different musical effects in order to explain to a patron the need to attune a composition to its subject,[2] here Poussin was really using an analogous model to bolster his argument rather than developing a set of rules to be followed rigorously in painting.

2 The Invention of Musical Painting

The basis for the comparison between painting and music shifted in the eighteenth century when the canons were established for those fine arts that were argued to have a common goal by writers on aesthetics (e.g., Charles Batteux, Moses Mendelssohn, Johann Georg Sulzer). The definition of the goal varied depending on the particular author, consisting, for example, in imitation of nature, sensuous perception, or impact on the recipient. And yet painting and music each addressed the sensory organs in their own way. Painting and music were subjected to a paradigmatic comparison and were allocated by means of the categories, respectively, of space, stasis, and understanding to the eye, and of time, movement, and feeling to the ear.

Towards the end of the eighteenth century, a utopian vision of musical painting that affected the beholder only by means of color and form was described in German Künstlerromane such as Wilhelm Heinse’s Ardinghello and Ludwig Tieck’s Franz Sternbalds Wanderungen [3] Two repositories of musical effect emerged in painting: landscape and color.

3 Music as a Model for the Arts

Musical aesthetics had a stronger influence on painters around 1800 than on individual composers or musical works. Arthur Schopenhauer was not alone in believing that all art aspires to the condition of music.[4] Schopenhauer credited music alone among the arts with the capacity to directly depict the will and to exist independent of — and even in the absence of — the world.

On the one hand, music was fascinating as an art form that was free of the obligation to imitate nature. On the other, romantic musical aesthetics celebrated musical art as a metalanguage that not only had a direct effect on emotion but also enabled a metaphysical dialogue with the distant realm of spirits (E.T.A. Hoffmann).[5] Music was therefore often seen as a potential role model for the other arts. Philipp Otto Runge was one of the first to attempt to portray structural associations between music and painting. The composition of the individual drawings in his graphic cycle Die Zeiten (The Times of the Day), conceived as early as 1803, corresponds to the characters of the four movements of a symphony. Had Runge completed the cycle in oil, as he had intended, he would also have portrayed the notion of the unity of color and sound.

Painters who reflected on the reciprocal influence of music and painting were not necessarily well versed in the rules of composition and harmony. Most of them sought inspiration at the abstract level of general art theory. Even Eugène Delacroix, who was a friend of Chopin’s, did not carry out a systematic comparison of music and painting.[6] The purpose of his reflections on music was to achieve clarity about his own artistic concerns. He was not interested in interminglin 最the arts or combining them in order to obtain some kind of special effect.[7] Mainly the debate revolved around the analogy between music’s and painting’s use of their respective creative means: these, in view of the intrinsic logic of artistic form, were seen to be able to develop their effect independent of the object. Principal representatives of this view were Charles Baudelaire and John Ruskin, with the latter writing in 1853: The arrangement of colors and lines is an art analogous to the composition of music, and entirely independent of the representation of facts.[8]

4 The Ubiquity of the Musical in Painting

Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Signac, Paul Cézanne, and others saw the intrinsic value of color and its expressiveness in terms of the contiguity of painting and music.[9] Color is in itself mysterious in the sensations it awakens in us. Thus, we must use it in a mysterious way when we employ it not for drawing but to harness the musical effects that emanate from it, from its own nature, from its interior, mysterious, enigmatic power.[10] Whistler chose titles such as Nocturne: Blue and Gold in order to emphasize that the coloring was independent of the object depicted. As the nineteenth century advanced, there were increasing reports of painters being inspired by musical works and using music to attune themselves to their work on paintings (e.g., Arnold Böcklin and Anselm Feuerbach). This practice — still used today — does not necessarily yield evidence within the painting of its musical impetus, but it remains important for understanding the genesis of the work and the role of music in it. More concrete associations can be found in the peinture wagnérienne that developed in France around Henri Fantin-Latour; it focused on motifs from Wagner operas but also sought to use color to create visual equivalents for the qualities of Wagner’s music.[11] These approaches went hand in hand with a fascination for the notion of fusion of sensory impressions, which was elaborated to such an extent in symbolist literature, for example (Charles Baudelaire, Maurice Maeterlinck, Arthur Rimbaud, Stéphane Mallarmé), that sensory perception no longer appeared to be linked to a sensory organ: the eyes appear to hear, the ears to see. This idea soon fascinated artists, too, who now wanted to create their paintings without being bound to a subject, using only colors and forms.

5 Abstraction

Between 1880 and 1915, it became fashionable for Salon painters to give musical titles to their works, while there was also an enormous increase in the use of musical terms to describe different moods in paintings. Critics and reviewers who viewed avant-garde art positively saw catchy, simple equations between music and painting as well as the use of musical terms in descriptions of paintings as effective means to bring this new type of nonobjective painting closer to the public. Because this development bore the risk of comparisons between painting and music becoming arbitrary, artists such as Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and František Kupka objected to the excessively simplistic claim that they wanted to paint music.[12] The artistic and theoretical oeuvre of the masters shows, however, that they were by no means opposed to a complex, reflected exchange with music; they simply rejected the shallow topos used by many art writers.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, a period in which artists all over Europe and America were seeking to legitimate their nonobjective approach, reflections on the relationship between music and art received further new impulses; for example, Johann Sebastian Bach’s fugue compositions became fashionable again.[13] In 1907, Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis had already used a fugue as a composition model for a painting (which was still tied to landscape motifs), and now Georges Braque and Kupka, alongside many others, referred in the titles of their works to Bach and to the fugue. As a paradigm of absolute musical logic, the fugue offered a comparative model for emancipation from the object and the reach towards abstraction. Bach’s music, which had been enjoying a renaissance since the end of the nineteenth century, was considered objective, constructed according to rules, profoundly poetic, and highly modern.[14]

Arnold Schoenberg’s music also became important for individual members of the Blauer Reiter group of artists, for, as a parallel development in music, his step into atonality represented a link to abstraction in painting. With reference to the principle of inner need, it became possible to contrast painting with visual ornamentation. Freedom from association with an object had already become the common denominator between ornamentation and music in the nineteenth century. Just like nonobjective painting, ornamentation drew its aesthetic effect from non-figurative creation and was now valued more highly. On the other hand, it remained applied art. As a decorative element, therefore, it represented for Kandinsky an insufficient goal in art.[15]

Above all, however, Schoenberg’s overcoming of traditional functional harmonics seemed to touch on problems that spanned several genres and whose resolution — in the sense of Kandinsky’s demand that the arts learn from each other not superficially but fundamentally — would also prove beneficial for the theory of painting.[16] In particular, Kandinsky was concerned with Schoenberg’s definition of a dissonance as a more remote consonance.[17] Kandinsky tried to apply this equal ranking of the means of expression fruitfully to painting because he saw in it an opportunity to expand the relationship between color and form. Kandinsky believed that it was no longer necessary to find associations between the two because harmony is anti-geometrical and anti-logical.[18] Artists’ interest in structural parallels between developments in music and painting was not limited to the theoretical: Kandinsky’s Impression III (Konzert) (1911) originated as a response to a concert featuring works by Schoenberg.

Together with theosophical and occult teachings, color-tone analogies again gained currency. Such correspondences seemed to be subject to cosmic laws as the highest instance, which artists sensed intuitively before scientists managed — as prophesied — to prove them. Although the views of many artists developed entirely independently, they were often similar — see Kupka and Kandinsky, for example — because of the artists’ common interests in theosophy, research on synesthesia, and symbolist literature.

Even within individual groups of artists, ideas about the relationship between music and painting diverged depending on each artist’s individually chosen artistic task. While Whereas Kandinsky, for example, saw associations between colors, forms, and sounds in a more inclusive model, Klee’s thoughts revolved around structural aspects such as polyphony and rhythm, with the latter even providing the title for some of his works, such as Rhythmisches, strenger und freier (1930). In the United States, the synchromists tended to include music in their considerations and discussions of abstraction, setting color and sound in relation to each other as well as intuitively transposing musical pieces into painting. The cubists, by contrast, did not investigate the application of musical principles to painting, although often the names of composers are found in their works. The preference for motifs such as violins and guitars is also not due to a desire to speak to the inner ear of the recipient and to evoke the sound of violins and guitars, but rather can be credited mainly to an interest in the shape of musical instruments.

A new development began to emerge in futurism’s multisensory experiments and theories. Although Giacomo Balla captured the movements of a musician in La mano del violinista (The Hand of the Violinist, 1912), his aim had less to do with musical structure than with portraying the dynamic processes of playing music. Assemblages seemed to be more appropriate than paintings for pictorial artists whose work focused on the new sound art.

6 New Departures Typified by Constructivism and De Stijl

Whereas the debate about associations between music and painting and between colors and sounds abounded prior to World War I with irrational, theosophically influenced ideas, Kandinsky, Klee, Johannes Itten, and others in the Bauhaus movement subsequently sought teachable and learnable methods for setting painting in relation to music. The constructivists were also in dialogue with music, even if their works — at least among recipients who relate music to different moods — awaken little in the way of musical associations. El Lissitzky, Ljubov Sergeevna Popova, and Alexander Rodchenko, for example, saw harmony, rhythm, and melody as exact truths because their construction is based on laws that can be identified and verified just the same as in music. The development was similar in De Stijl.[19] If Theo van Doesburg had initially hoped to learn something through his work on the motif from the music of Bach, by 1920 he saw all classical, noncontemporary music as being excessively determined by the subjective will to express.

In addition, both van Doesburg and Piet Mondrian dealt intensively with dance. Mondrian shared his enthusiasm for jazz with Man Ray and Henri Matisse. These artists, while giving titles evoking this musical style to their work, did not necessarily claim structural links to jazz, but only declared their commitment to experimentation, the city, the rupture with convention. Mondrian succeeded in creating a comprehensive synthesis of these themes in Broadway Boogie Woogie (1943).

7 Finale and Prelude

There were already numerous individual approaches among the pictorial artists of the first half of the twentieth century who tackled the question of music; although positions became even more diverse in the second half of the century (e.g., represented by Jakob Weder, Jack Ox, Robert Strüblin), it is notable that they still often focused on the so-called classicists of music history — Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven.

The search for substantive relationships between musical art and the pictorial arts as well as experiments with new means of visualizing music shifted to film, the new media, installations, and happenings, a trend in which the further expansion of the concept of what is music (and what is art) also played its part.

all footnotes

[1] Andrea Gottdang, Vorbild Musik: Die Geschichte einer Idee in der Malerei im deutschsprachigen Raum, 1780–1915 (Berlin/Munich: Deutscher Kunstverlag, 2004), 42–45. On the evolution of the system of the fine arts, see Paul Oskar Kristeller, “The Modern System of the Arts,” in Renaissance Thought 2 (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 163–227.

[2] Jan Białostocki, „Das Modusproblem in den bildenden Künsten,“ in Stil und Ikonographie: Studien zur Kunstwissenschaft, ed. Jan Białostocki (Dresden: Verlag der Kunst, 1966), 9–35; Jennifer Montagu, “The Theory of the Musical Modes in the Académie de Peinture et de Sculpture,” in Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 55 (1992): 233–248.

[3] Wilhelm Heinse, Ardinghello oder die Glückseligen Inseln: Eine Italiänische Geschichte aus dem 16. Jahrhundert, ed. Dürten Hartmann-Wülker (Nördlingen: 1986); Ludwig Tieck, Franz Sternbalds Wanderungen, ed. Alfred Anger (Stuttgart: Reclam 1994).

[4] Arthur Schopenhauer, Schopenhauers handschriftlicher Nachlaß: Aus den auf der Königlichen Bibliothek in Berlin verwahrten Manuskriptbüchern, vol. 4, Neue Paralipomena, ed. Eduard Grisebach, 3rd ed. (Leipzig: Reclam, n.d.), 31. Walter Pater wrote a similar dictum in 1873: All art constantly aspires to the condition of music; see Walter Pater, The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry (New York, 1940), 111; first published in 1873 under the title Studies in the History of the Renaissance. For outlines of developments in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, see, e.g., Karl Schawelka, Quasi una musica: Untersuchungen zum Ideal des ‘Musikalischen’ in der Malerei ab 1800 (Munich: Mäander, 1993); Gottdang, Vorbild Musik; Karin von Maur, ed., Vom Klang der Bilder: Die Musik in der Kunst des 20. Jahrhunderts (Munich: Prestel, 1994/1996); Jörg Jewanski and Hajo Düchting, Musik und Bildende Kunst im 20. Jahrhundert: Begegnungen, Berührungen, Beeinflussungen (Kassel: Kassel University Press, 2008).

[5] Dahlhaus, Klassische und romantische Musikästhetik, 111–121.

[6] Wilfried Johannes Bentgens, An der Grenze des Fruchtlandes: Musik und Malerei im Vorfeld der Moderne (thesis, Universität Essen; Zülpich, Germany: Prisca, 1997), 63–64; Schawelka, Quasi una musica, 225–238.

[7] An anecdote about an ancient artist who arranged for trumpets to ring out behind a painting depicting a war scene in order to intensify the impact on the viewer drew the following sarcastic comment from Delacroix: You can’t create paintings depicting battles anymore without adding gunpowder. Eugène Delacroix, Journales I–III, ed. A. Joubin (Paris: Burty, 1932), 2:439–440.

[8] Cited in Werner Hofmann, Die Grundlagen der modernen Kunst (Stuttgart: Kröner, 1987), 166.

[9] Bentgens, An der Grenze, 163–169.

[10] Paul Gauguin cited in Walter Hess, Dokumente zum Verständnis der modernen Malerei (Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1984), 30.

[11] Astrid Sebb, Peinture Wagnérienne: Phasen und Aspekte der Wagner-Rezeption in der französischen bildenden Kunst zwischen 1861 und 1914 (thesis, Universität Düsseldorf, 1999).

[12] See Andrea Gottdang, „Die Rezeption Johann Sebastian Bachs in der Klassischen Moderne oder ‘die verrückte Idee, das Bild Fuge zu nennen’,” in Musica e arti figurative: Rinascimento e Novecento, ed. Mario Ruffini and Gerhard Wolf (Venice: Marsilio, 2008), 266. Kandinsky, for example, declared the following in 1912: I personally cannot possibly want to make music by painting, since I believe that such a form of painting is impossible and unattainable. Wassily Kandinsky, Die Gesammelten Schriften, ed. Hans K. Roethel and Jelena Hahl-Koch (Bern: Benteli, 1980), 1:25.

[13] Gottdang, Die Rezeption Johann Sebastian Bachs; Friedrich Teja Bach, “Johann Sebastian Bach in der klassischen Moderne,” in Vom Klang der Bilder: Die Musik in der Kunst des 20. Jahrhunderts, ed. Karin von Maur (Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, rev. ed. Munich: Prestel, 1994/1996), 328–335.

[14] See, e.g., Albert Schweitzer, Johann Sebastian Bach (Leipzig: Breitkopf Härtel, 1947), 404. He writes of Bach’s works: They seem very modern to us, and at the same time we have the feeling that they have very little in common with post-Beethoven art. In 1917, Paul Klee wrote in his Tagebücher, ed. Felix Klee (Cologne: DuMont, 1957), 380: Mozart and Bach are more modern than the nineteenth century.

[15] Wassily Kandinsky, Über das Geistige in der Kunst, ed. Max Bill (Bern: Benteli, 1952), 115.

[16] Kandinsky, Über das Geistige in der Kunst, 55.

[17] Cited in Jelena Hahl-Koch, “Kandinsky und Schönberg: Zu den Dokumenten einer Künstlerfreundschaft,” in Arnold Schönberg. Wassily Kandinsky: Briefe, Bilder und Dokumente einer außergewöhnlichen Begegnung, ed. Jelena Hahl-Koch (Salzburg/Vienna: Residenza, 1980).

[18] Kandinsky shared these considerations in a letter to Schoenberg; Hahl-Koch, Kandinsky und Schönberg, 19.

[19] Von Maur, Vom Klang der Bilder, 422–429.

List of books in this text

An der Grenze des Fruchtlandes: Musik und Malerei im Vorfeld der Moderne
1997, Author: Bentgens, Wilfried Johannes Publisher: Prisca

Ardinghello und Die glückseeligen Inseln: E. italiän. Geschichte aus dem 16. Jh
1986, Author: Heinse, Wilhelm Publisher: Greno

Arthur Schopenhauers handschriftlicher Nachlass: Aus den auf der Königlichen Bibliothek in Berlin verwahrten Manuskriptbüchern
o. J., Author: Schopenhauer, Arthur Publisher: Reclam

Das Modusproblem in den bildenden Künsten
1966, Author: Białostocki, Jan Publisher: Verl. d. Kunst VEB

Die Rezeption Johann Sebastian Bachs in der Klassischen Moderne oder ›die verrückte Idee, das Bild Fuge zu nennen‹
2008, Author: Gottdang, Andrea Publisher: Marsilio

Die gesammelten Schriften, Bd. 1
1980, Author: Kandinsky, Wassily Publisher: Benteli Verl..

Dokumente zum Verständnis der modernen Malerei
1984, Author: Hess, Walter Publisher: Rowohlt

Franz Sternbalds Wanderungen
1994, Author: Tieck, Ludwig Publisher: Reclam

Grundlagen der modernen Kunst: Eine Einführung in ihre symbolischen Formen
1987, Author: Hofmann, Werner Publisher: Kröner

J. S. Bach
1947, Author: Schweitzer, Albert Publisher: Breitkopf

Johann Sebastian Bach in der klassischen Moderne
1994/1996, Author: Bach, Friedrich Teja Publisher: Prestel

Journales, Bd. 2
1932, Author: Delacroix, Eugène

Kandinsky und Schönberg: Zu den Dokumenten einer Künstlerfreundschaft
1980, Author: Hahl-Koch, Jelena Publisher: Residenz

Klassische und romantische Musikästhetik
1988, Author: Dahlhaus, Carl

Musik und Bildende Kunst im 20. Jahrhundert: Begegnungen - Berührungen - Beeinflussungen
2009, Author: Jewanski, Jörg and Düchting, Hajo Publisher: Univ. Press

Peinture Wagnérienne : Phasen und Aspekte der Wagner-Rezeption in der französischen bildenden Kunst zwischen 1861 und 1914
Author: Sebb, Astrid

Quasi una musica: Untersuchungen zum Ideal des »Musikalischen« in der Malerei ab 1800
1993, Author: Schawelka, Karl Publisher: Mäander-Verl.

1957, Author: Klee, Paul Publisher: M. DuMont Schauberg

The Modern System of the Arts
1965, Author: Kristeller, Paul Oskar Publisher: Harper

The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry
1928, Author: Pater, Walter Publisher: Macmillan

The Theory of the Musical Modes in the Académie de Peinture et de Sculpture
1992, Author: Montagu, Jennifer

Vom Klang der Bilder: D. Musik in d. Kunst d. 20. Jh. ; [anläßl. d. Ausstellung Vom Klang d. Bilder, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, 6. Juli bis 22. Sept. 1985]
1985, Publisher: Prestel

Vorbild Musik: Die Geschichte einer Idee in der Malerei im deutschsprachigen Raum 1780 - 1915
2004, Author: Gottdang, Andrea Publisher: Dt. Kunstverl.

Über das Geistige in der Kunst
1952, Author: Kandinsky, Wassily Publisher: Benteli-Verlag

see aswell

  • Johann Sebastian Bach
  • Giacomo Balla
  • Charles Batteux
  • Charles Baudelaire
  • Ludwig van Beethoven
  • Arnold Böcklin
  • Georges Braque
  • Paul Cézanne
  • Frédéric Chopin
  • Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis
  • Eugène Delacroix
  • Theo van Doesburg
  • Henri Fantin-Latour
  • Anselm Feuerbach
  • Paul Gauguin
  • Vincent van Gogh
  • Wilhelm Heinse
  • E. T. A. Hoffmann
  • Johannes Itten
  • Wassily Kandinsky
  • Paul Klee
  • František Kupka
  • El Lissitzky
  • Maurice Maeterlinck
  • Stéphane Mallarmé
  • Henri Matisse
  • Moses Mendelssohn
  • Piet Mondrian
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
  • Jack Ox
  • Walter Pater
  • Ljubov' S. Popova
  • Nicolas Poussin
  • Man Ray
  • Arthur Rimbaud
  • Aleksandr M. Rodčenko
  • Philipp Otto Runge
  • John Ruskin
  • Arnold Schönberg
  • Arthur Schopenhauer
  • Paul Signac
  • Robert Strübin
  • Johann Georg Sulzer
  • Ludwig Tieck
  • Tintoretto
  • Tizian
  • Paolo Veronese
  • Richard Wagner
  • Jakob Weder
  • James McNeill Whistler
  • Works
  • Ardinghello und die glückseligen Inseln
  • Broadway Boogie Woogie
  • Franz Sternbalds Wanderungen
  • Impression III (Concert)
  • Rhythmical, Stricter and Freer
  • The Four Times of Day
  • The Hand of the Violonist
  • The marriage at Cana
  • The old Battersea bridge

  • Timelines
    1700 until today

    All Keywords
  • Entgrenzung (Chap. 5, 6, 7)
  • Polysensualität (Chap. 4, 5.1)
  • Pythagoreismus / Universelle Harmonie (Chap. 1)
  • Wechselspiel der Künste / Paragone (Chap. 1, 2, 3, 5)
  • polyphony (Chap. 5, 5.1)
  • rhythm (Chap. 5.1, 6)
  • substitution (Chap. 4)

  • Socialbodies
  • Bauhaus
  • Der Blaue Reiter
  • Louvre