Debussy and the Visual Arts

After winning the Prix de Rome and spending two years in Italy, Debussy returned to a Paris in 1887 to find the city’s artistic community engaged by the Symbolist movement. During these years Debussy’s personal tastes were established and refined; he went to museums, attended the annual Salons, and frequented commercial art galleries.  His piano student, Madame Gérard de Romilly, recalled that “Debussy was greatly attracted to painting.  He loved to visit museums and exhibitions of paintings, and he had a special predilection for the landscapes of the Norwegian painter Frits Thaulow and for Claude Monet.  Debussy always regretted not having pursued painting instead of music.”  Debussy himself claimed to love images as much as music.

Among the artists Debussy particularly admired was Edgar Degas, whom he knew and whose works he regularly saw at the home of his friend, the painter and collector Henry Lerolle.  Debussy was taken, as well, by the atmospheric paintings of the English Romantic landscape artist William Mallord Turner and by the works of the American expatriate James McNeill Whistler, a favorite of the poet Stéphane Mallarmé.  Debussy also contributed to the rising popularity of Japanese art and culture in turn-of-the-century France.  A print by famed Ukiyo-e artist Katsushika Hokusai, The Great Wave at Kanagawa, adorned the walls of his office and was reproduced on the cover of Debussy’s published score for The Sea.  

Image Credit: Félix Nadar (Gaspard-Félix Tournachon). French, 1820–1910. Claude Debussy, 1905. Photograph