The Music in Art

Beyonce and Jay-Z set the social media world ablaze when they posed – twice – in front of the Louvre’s Mona Lisa. The iconic image also helped set a new record of attendance back in 2018. Jean-Luc Martinez, the museum’s director, accredited the scene in the duo’s Apes–t video with a record-breaking 10.2 million visitors! But the relationship between the visual arts and music is one as old as time, with paintings inspiring songs from classical and opera to pop and hip hop. 

In honor of tonight’s Stare at Art with Ward at the Memorial Art Gallery, we’re providing a tour into some of the known – and unknown – paintings that inspired composers and musicians.

Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera (Allegory of Spring, c. 1482

Depicting Venus, Flora, Cupid, and Mercury, Botticelli’s Primavera displayed the themes of marriage and fertility. Classical composer Ottorino Respighi took inspiration from this and two other of Sandro’s masterpieces – The Adoration of the Magi and The Birth of Venus – when he composed his Botticelli Triptych in the 1920s. 

Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (c. early 1500s) 

Leonardo da Vinci’s 500-year-old masterpiece of the mysterious figure has captivated artists for centuries. In the literary world, Mona Lisa was one of many of Leonardo’s paintings to have a hidden message in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. (An actual team of experts has since discovered a possible ‘hidden code’ in Mona Lisa’s face.) Meanwhile, in the world of music, Nat King Cole swooned over the figure’s beauty back in 1950. 

William Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress (c. 1730s) 

Hogarth’s Progress is a visual narrative with Tom Rakewell as the central figure. It depicts Rakewell inheriting his father’s fortune and squandering it on drinking, clothing, and gambling – resulting in his decaying mental health and admittance into an insane asylum. Two centuries later, Chester Kallman, W.H. Auden, and Igor Stravinsky partnered together to create an opera loosely based on Hogarth’s paintings. 

Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night (1889) 

Starry Night was created after Van Gogh’s mental breakdown, self-mutilation, and admission into the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole lunatic asylum in May 1889. His stay also helped produce some of his best-known works, including the iconic scene of viewing the east-facing window from his room, just before sunrise, with the additional placement of a village. Today, Starry Night is one of his greatest works and one of the most recognized paintings in the world. American singer/songwriter Don McLean wrote a tribute to Van Gogh in 1971 and refers explicitly to the colors and tones of this renowned work. In 1990, Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara composed an opera, Vincent, based on the artist’s life.

Katsushika Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa (c. 1829-1833)

A woodblock print created in the late Edo period, The Great Wave is one of the most recognizable works of Japanese art. Depicting Mount Fuji in the background, it shows a wave threatening fishing boats off the coast of Kanagawa (today’s Yokohama). The wild force of the sea in this iconic work is said to have partially inspired French composer Claude Debussy’s La Mer in the early 1900s – with Hokusai’s work doubling as the cover of Debussy’s 1905 score. (You can view some of Hokusai’s pieces in the MAG collection online.) 

Arnold Böcklin’s Die Toteninsel (Isle of the Dead, 1886)

The title is attributed to a phrase sent by the Swiss painter to the original commissioners. Though Böcklin gave no clear explanation to the piece, some interpret it as a recently deceased soul carried by Charon – the Greek mythic figure who ferried souls to the underworld – transiting to the netherworld. Seeing Böcklin’s painting while in Paris in 1907, Sergei Rachmaninoff was captivated by the dark tones and mysterious allure to compose his Isle of the Dead symphonic poem a year later in Dresden. The composition is an example of Russian late-Romanticism of the 20th century. 

Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884)

Seurat employed the use of pointillism – simple dots of varying colors grouped to form an image – in this very famous image of a peaceful scene at a park near the Seine River. A century later, Stephen Sondheim created a fictionalized version of the artist painting his renowned work in a Broadway play. Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George musical would later go on to win a Pulitzer and Laurence Olivier Award. 

Wilhelm von Kaulbach’s Die Hunnenschlacht (The Battle of the Huns, 1850) 

A depiction of an epic battle between the Roman Empire and the forces of Attila the Hun, the piece displays a legend that the campaign was so ferocious that slain warriors ascended to Heaven and fought there. Franz Liszt took the dramatic scene to heart when he composed his symphonic poem in 1857, which called for “all instruments must sound like ghosts” in the first scene and employed horns and strings to portray the central battle theme in the second. 

Viktor Hartmann’s illustrations. 

Hartmann, an architect, designer, and painter, befriended Modest Mussorgsky in the late 1860s. Their friendship was founded on a mutual desire to create a uniquely Russian art movement devoid of Western ideas. Though Hartmann’s illustrations never made it to worldwide recognition, Hartmann’s works were exhibited after his death in 1873. Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition was a result of the exhibition tour. Composed for piano in 1874, Pictures is Modest’s famous piano composition. Forty-eight years later, Maurice Ravel orchestrated it in 1922 – a version most familiar with audiences today. 

Andy Warhol 

Some musicians found inspiration in artists rather than art. Such was the case when David Bowie celebrated the career of Warhol back in 1971. A leading figure of the pop art movement, Warhol explored the intersection of art, advertisements, and celebrity culture in a variety of media – from painting and silkscreening, to photography and film. (A Warhol piece of former First Lady Jackie Kennedy, shown above, is on display at MAG.) Unfortunately, Warhol was unimpressed after hearing the song for the first time: an awkward moment was silence was broken when Andy said to David, “I like your shoes.” 

And that’s the end of our tour! We hope you’ve enjoyed our trip and, if you can, enjoy tonight’s tour with Ward Stare at MAG

You can also see Ward this Sunday! Consider joining us at Nazareth College for an afternoon of music highlighting sections of our orchestra. Tickets can be purchased here, by phone at 454-2100, or in person at our new Patron Services Center at 255 East Avenue in the back of the building. Free parking in the adjacent garage off of Union Street, between East Ave & Broad Street.

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