Music as Art

Music as a metaphor for the creative act has been an iconic metaphor in the visual arts since at least the Renaissance, readily recognized by visual artists in all periods yet unseen by others. For example, female artists in the sixteenth century instead of painting their self-portraits laboring at a demeaning, manual craft showed themselves at a keyboard performing music. Sofonisba Anguissola, Lavinia Fontana and Tintoretto’s daughter, Marietta,  all did so. Yet although music is well-known and widely accepted as a metaphor for visual art in the work of individual painters, such as Courbet playing instruments in his early self-portraits or Matisse with his violin1, it is still largely unrecognized as a metaphor common to poetic painters in general.  


There are other links too, beyond poetry being central to both arts. A painter’s palette methodically laid out with a range of colors can be visually similar to a keyboard. Theodore Reff, a specialist in French painting of the nineteenth century, wrote that Paul Cézanne prepared his palette with as many as eighteen pigments, “arranging them in series like musical scales.”2 Yet, despite his own use of music in a simile for paint, Reff has generally failed to recognize Cézanne’s and Edgar Degas’ own use of music as self-representational. The reason why is obvious. Sight is so compelling as a representation of truth that we recognize a play on words much more easily than a play on something seen by our own eyes. Take a really good look.

1. John Klein, Matisse Portraits (Yale University Press) 2001, p. 106
2. Theodore Reff, “Painting and Theory in the Final Decade” in Cézanne: The Late Work, ed. William Rubin (Museum of Modern Art) 1977, p. 48


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