The Art Connection

Paintings & Etchings that Inspired Musical Works

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"The Isle of the Dead" by Arnold Bocklin

The Isle of the Dead
by Arnold Bocklin

The Isle of the Dead

by Sergei Rachmaninoff

A widow shrouded in white accompanies her husband's draped coffin in a rowboat to a rocky island whose cliffs are carved with tomb chambers. Bocklin painted five versions of "Island of the Dead" between 1880 and 1886. The image became widely known through poor color reproductions and a freely adapted etching of the 1890s.  It is thought that Rachmaninoff only saw a reproduction -- possibly in black and white -- in 1907.

"The Birth of Venus" by Sandro Botticelli
The Birth of Venus
by Sandro Botticelli


Three Botticelli Pictures

by Ottorino Respighi

Botticelli was commissioned to paint the work ("La Nascita di Venere") by the Medici family of Florence. It depicts the goddess Venus, having emerged from the sea as a fully grown woman, arriving at the sea-shore. The painting was completed in  in 1486, and inspired the third of Respighi's Three Botticelli Pictures. The other two paintings referenced in Respighi's work are '"La Primavera" (Spring) and "The Adoration of The Magi."  

Goya: "Figures dancing in a circle"
Figures Dancing in a Circle 

from Los Disparates (1816-23)
by Francisco de Goya


by Enrique Granados

Composer Enrique Granados was inspired by the works of 18th-19th century painter Francisco Goya--specifically from a set of sketches of Spanish life that Granados had seen in the Prado museum in Madrid. In Goyescas, the composer celebrates the Spanish national character in Goya's work, but does not single out any one painting by the artist.

16th-century altarpiece by Matthias Grunewald

Altarpiece in Isenheim
by Matthias Grunewald


Symphony "Mathis der Mahler,"
by Paul Hindemith

In 1933, German composer Paul Hindemith was working on an opera based on the life of 16th century painter Matthias Grunewald, who had believed his creative output stood above the politics of his time.  Hindemith first produced a symphony based on themes from the opera, depicting scenes from Grunewald's famous 16th century altarpiece in Isenheim, with the second movement focusing on the image of Christ being laid in the tomb. 

Victor Hartmann paintings
Paintings by Victor Hartmann 


Pictures at an Exhibition
by Modest Mussorgsky

Hartmann had a varied career, illustrating books, working as an architect, and a watercolorist, focusing on Russian motifs, before his early death from an aneurysm at the age of 39. The exhibition of over 400 of his paintings was displayed in the Academy of Fine Arts in St Petersburg, in February and March 1874. While attending the exhibition, Hartmann's friend, Modest Mussorgsky decided to write a piano cycle suggested by what he had seen.

Arnold Bocklin's "Play of the Waves"
Play of the Waves 

by Arnold Bocklin


Play of the Waves
by Max Reger

Painted in 1883, after Bocklin had been swimming in Italy with a friend who dove into the waves, swam some distance underwater, and suddenly resurfaced, to the surprise of a group of women in a  bathing party. Bocklin decided to portray a similar scene drawn from the world of mythical underwater creatures.  The German title [Im Spiel der Wellen] is sometimes translated as "Playing in the Waves."

Watteau's "The Embarkation for Cythera"
The Embarkation for Cythera 

by Jean-Antoine Watteau


L'Isle Joyeuse
by Claude Debussy

The Embarkation for Cythera is a 1717 painting by the French Rococo artist Jean-Antoine Watteau. The island of Cythera was considered the birthplace of Venus, thus these 'daytrippers' symbolize the brevity of love.  Debussy's 1905 L'Isle Joyeuse captures that same erotic sensibility.

Watteau's "The Pleasures of Love"
The Pleasures of Love 

by Jean-Antoine Watteau


Les Biches
by Francis Poulenc

Watteau excelled in his depictions of revelry and pleasure, balls, picnics, hunts, dancing and the seductive chase, focusing on the diversions of the leisured class in their most favorable light.  In The Pleasures of Love, critics (and Poulenc) saw a portrayal of King Louis XIV flirting with various women in his Parc aux biches-or deer park--at Versailles

Otto Bromberger's "The Four Temperaments"
The Four Temperaments 
by Otto Bromberger


Symphony No. 2 
"The Four Temperaments"

by Carl Nielsen

The crude painting that inspired composer Carl Nielsen is unknown, but given the location in a country tavern, it might have been similar in content to this illustration by Otto Bromberger (1862-1943).  When you click on the image above, you will see all four personality types: Phlegmatic (relaxed, quiet, even sluggish), Melancholic (introverted and given to thought), Choleric (ambitious and leader-like), and Sanguine (sociable and pleasure-seeking).