Rhett Gérard Poché

A blog devoted to the study of art, art history, and visual literacy.

Do paintings sing?

Meanwhile, after Fall Break…

My Visual Literacy students had a rather engrossing conversation about race in contemporary art as seen in works by Kehinde Wiley, Kara Walker, and David Levinthal (among others).  We are currently screening Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, and I am excited to learn what they have to say about its thematic relationship to works by the aforementioned artists.

Our investigation of race, an often complex and difficult issue, has been thought provoking and enlightening.  I am proud of my students and thank them for such a lively discussion.  Now, it is almost time for us to move on to another Visual Literacy topic—religion and the controversies that arise from religious art in the public sphere.  I will be writing posts that relate to our classroom discussions on religious art and controversy.  However, at the moment, my attention seems to be elsewhere.

For one reason or another, I am still thinking about previous posts on the connections between visual art and music.  So, to get it out of my system, it is time for another “visual-aural literacy” post.

On that note (pun intended), I now present this self-portrait by Judith Leyster:

Judith Leyster, Self-Portrait, oil on canvas, 1630, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

The portrait depicts Leyster at work as she momentarily breaks from her painting and glances toward the viewer with a smile.  It is as if Leyster warmly welcomes us into her studio.  More importantly, she allows us to see one of her paintings in progress—a smiling violinist who, like Leyster with her palette and brush, employs his own instruments, a violin and bow, to create a work of art.

Leyster’s painting obviously alludes to the relationships between painting and music, but does not significantly elaborate on the topic.  Perhaps the links between painting and music are more evident in works by James Abbot McNeill Whistler (artist) and Claude Debussy (composer).  I’m sure Judith Leyster would agree.

Whistler created paintings that he described using terms associated with music, such as “arrangement,” “symphony,” and “nocturne.”  His likely intention was to underscore the formal relationships between painting and music.  For example, both the arrangement of form and color on a canvas and the arrangement of musical notes on a page culminate in finished compositions.

Whistler said:

“Nature contains the elements, in colour and form, of all pictures, as the keyboard contains the notes of all music. But the artist is born to pick and choose…that the result may be beautiful–as the musician gathers his notes, and forms his chords, until he brings forth from chaos glorious harmony.”

Such “glorious harmony” (of form and color) can be seen in Whistler’s Nocturne in Grey and Gold: Chelsea Snow, 1876.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne in Grey and Gold: Chelsea Snow, oil on canvas, 1876, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museums, USA / Bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop / The Bridgeman Art Library

In response to Whistler’s paintings, more specifically, his “nocturnes,” Claude Debussy composed an orchestral suite titled Nocturnes (including Nuages, Fétes and Sirèns) as a “study in gray painting.”

Click here to listen to Claude Debussy’s Nuages (Clouds)

Whistler and Debussy were obviously interested in conveying the emotive qualities of their respective art forms—in how painting and music share a common aesthetic language that can be deconstructed and rearranged to express fundamental human emotions.  A painting can “sing” of heartache, joy, loneliness, and the complexities of the human condition.  Color and texture can be “seen” in music as it renders mental images that touch us in deeply personal ways.

As someone old enough to actually remember audiocassettes, I could not resist making this final visual comparison.  Click on the images for a larger view.

Left: James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, 1871, oil on canvas, Musee d’Orsay, Paris
Right: Blown-Away Man, Maxell tape advertisement, 1980. Concept by Ed McCabe.

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Filed under: Visual Literacy

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