American neo-expressionist artist Jean-Michel Basquiat once said, “Art is how we decorate space;

Music is how we decorate time.” While influenced heavily by the hip hop and punk scenes happening on the Lower East side of Manhattan during the late 1970s, Basquiat tapped in to the same inspiration that so many other artists of the modern era discovered: Music, and the artistic flow that comes with it.

Visual arts and music have always been sisters. However, from the late 19th century and into the 20th century, the influence music has had on visual arts seems to have increased, at least according to the names of the pieces that were produced. From James McNeill Whistler’s “Nocturnes” fascination in the late 19th century to Stuart Davis’s “Swing Landscape” (1938) and Henri Matisse’s “Jazz Suite” (1947), one could almost find a history of Western music while looking at the trends of its visual arts.

A reason for this could be surmised in Walter Pater’s famous quote, written in 1877 and stating, “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.” What is this “condition of music” he writes of? Interpretations vary, but one could say that music is a transcendental art form, taking its listeners to another frame of mind or nostalgic past moment. It’s one of the core ingredients that has made music the influential artform that it is today.

What the Visual Arts Can Learn Through Music

Through science, we understand that color has the potential to achieve this same goal of subconsciously affecting a person’s mood and emotions, but translating music’s transcendental ability to the visual arts requires more than just color. And many visual artists of the modern era show intense fascination toward discovering exactly what else is required.

In a 2007 article published by Sharon L. Kennedy entitled Painting Music: Rhythm and Movement In Art, the author writes about Morgan Russell and Stanton Macdonald-Wright, who were influential in connecting art to music. She notes, “Interested in the psychological effects of color and sound [Russell and Macdonald-Wright] developed the method of color composition based on what they termed color chords derived from the color wheel. Russell has been credited for inventing synchromism, meaning ‘with color’. It was chosen as an analogy to the musical term symphony to denote his emphasis on color rhythms. The Synchromists’ first exhibited in Munich in June 1913, with artwork that was controversial because of its abstract and ephemeral nature.”

Music as Art Inspiration

Beyond its own influence, music has been a consistent source of inspiration for visual artists, both as motivation for a piece and stimulus while a piece is being created. For example, an instructional module published by the Museum of Modern Art entitled Music and Art discusses various paintings in which music or musicians are the subject. From Henri Rousseau’s “The Sleeping Gypsy” (1897) to Henri Matisse’s “Dance (I)” (1909), modern visual artists have placed much emphasis on the role that music plays in humanity’s artistic expression.

Still other artists have spoken of the undeniable inspiration music offers to them during the process of creating visual art. Stuart Davis, an early American modernist painter, adopted a proto-pop style that was decidedly jazz-influenced. In listening to the music of jazz pianists like Earl Hines and Fats Waller, he described his use of color intervals as similar to the way in which Hines used space in his music.

Ultimately, visual artists have sought to replicate visually what music accomplishes auditorily. In a thought-provoking piece published on, the author notes that:

Modernist painters plundered popular American music, as well as the European avant-garde. It’s striking, indeed, to consider how thoroughly the melodies of the African diaspora—everything from bluegrass and the blues to jazz, swing, and bop—pervade the art of white Americans and Europeans. From the way Stuart Davis described his Hot Still-Scape for Six Colors—7th Avenue Style (1940), you’d think he was talking about a jazz sextet instead of a painting: “[The six colors] are used as the instruments in a musical composition might be, where the tone-color variety results from the simultaneous juxtaposition of different instrument groups.”

The Future of the Relationship Between Visual Art and Music

Rather than being a question of which artform is more evolved than the other, it is more of a discussion as to how visual artists can achieve the same level of transcendence that musical artists seem to so easily find. Is it about color or space? Or is it something deeper? Thankfully, we have talented visual artists who are eager to explore these questions.