When I want to feel inspired, most of the times my favorite music playlist is all I need to summon the muses, and I guess I’m not the only one who does that. Throughout history, painters and other visual artists have stated that specific melodies or songs inspired them to depict the music on a visual level. The best example of this is Wassily Kandinsky, whose synesthesia allowed him to create some of the most mind-bending paintings based on the music he listened to. Nonetheless, can inspiration happen the other way around? Can paintings inspire music? Well, although it isn’t as common, it has happened in all music genres, from classical music to hip hop or heavy metal. So, if you’re open to listening to anything and showing off your art knowledge, take a look at this list of songs as well as the iconic paintings that inspired them.
“La Mer” by Claude Debussy – The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai
Let’s start with something classic. This iconic piece by the famous French composer uses the instruments to depict the growth of the natural force that is depicted in Katsushika Hokusai’s most iconic panel, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, which is perhaps the most famous Japanese artwork in the world. As you listen to the song, you can picture the waves, going up and down, more and more powerful, and the struggle of the ships, now completely small and vulnerable to the force of the sea.
“Viva la Vida” by Coldplay – Viva la Vida, Watermelons by Frida Kahlo, and Liberty Guiding the People by Eugène Delacroix
This single by Coldplay is a particular case because while it was inspired by Frida Kahlo’s painting, the music video, as well as the concept art of the album Viva la Vida was inspired by Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Guiding the People. Nonetheless, the band’s frontman, Chris Martin, has stated that the idea behind the album is Frida Kahlo’s strength to face hardships and still celebrate life. However, perhaps in visual terms, it’s better a music video related to Delacroix’s inspiring painting instead of a bunch of watermelons (now that I think about it, I’d watch a video about that too!).
“Venus” by Lady Gaga – The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli
As you can infer by the name, Lady Gaga’s album Artpop is centered on art. While the cover was made by pop artist Jeff Koons, this song in particular was inspired by the well-known Botticelli’s masterpiece, The Birth of Venus. While the lyrics seem to depict the goddess in an alien-like fashion, her descriptions visually allude to the Renaissance image of the goddess emerging from the seashell.
“Vincent (Starry Starry Night)” by Don McLean – The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh
Vincent van Gogh’s most famous painting, The Starry Night has inspired several songs in the last century. However, perhaps the most famous example of how this painting has touched the hearts of artists from other disciplines is Don McLean’s song “Vincent.” While the song refers to van Gogh’s works in general, The Starry Night is particularly highlighted in the lyrics, describing the blue and dark tones of the painting in contrast with the golden shine of the stars in the background.
“Danse Macabre” by Camille Saint-Säens – Danse Macabre paintings and poems from the Middle Ages
The Danse Macabre was a particular artistic and literary genre that showed people dancing with the Death or skeletons. These artworks worked as a reminder of humanity’s mortality, so they were in vogue during the Middle Ages, when the life expectancy wasn’t as high as it is nowadays and the plague took the lives of thousands of people. French composer Camille Saint-Säens, inspired by this tradition, created a “musical poem” where he depicts Death summoning the dead to dance to the tune of his violin.
“What the Water Gave Me” by Florence and the Machine – What I Saw in the Water by Frida Kahlo
Now, changing of music genre, Florence and the Machine has also found an important source of inspiration in a Frida Kahlo painting, in this case What I Saw in the Water. This highly symbolic painting shows an almost dreamy vision of human life and death floating on the water of a tub. While the song refers to children being swept to the sea, the imagery was inspired by Kahlo’s portrayal of the bodies on the water.
“Right Wing of the Garden Triptych” by Cradle of Filth – The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch
I had to include this song because of the cultural impact of Hieronymus Bosch’s masterpiece, particularly the right panel of the Garden of Delights triptych, where Hell and all its bizarre torments are portrayed. In this song by Cradle of Filth the lyrics focus on the apocalyptic tone of the painting as well as the torments that await the sinners according to Bosch’s vision (yeah, it had to be that metal!). But if you’re not so much into this music genre, you can take a look at the lyrics so you have an idea of how the painting is described throughout the song.
Perhaps next time you’re in search for inspiration you can go to a museum and search for a new work to inspire you and feed your creativity. It doesn’t matter the music genre, we can’t deny that music has found a great muse in the art world.
Cover image: Liberty Guiding the People by Eugène Delacroix.