Correspondences: Art and Music



In his 1902 essay “Musical Painting and the Fusion of the Arts, the critic Camille Mauclair compared the musical compositions of Claude Debussy to landscape paintings by Claude Monet and other Impressionist painters. “The landscapes of Claude Monet are in fact symphonies of luminous waves,” Mauclair wrote.  Debussy’s music, he continued, “based…on the relative values of sounds in themselves, bears a striking resemblance to these pictures.”  According to Mauclair, “Harmony, value, theme, [and] motif” are “employed equally by musicians and painters.” 

The notion that close relationships exist between art and music gained currency in France earlier in the century, during what is usually called the Romantic period.  The concept of "correspondences" emerged slightly later.  Derived from the title of one of the poems in Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal (“The Flowers of Evil”), “correspondences” refers to the relationships among the senses and between the senses and the arts:

Like prolonged echoes mingling in the distance
 In a deep and tenebrous unity,
 Vast as the dark of night and as the light of day,
 Perfumes, sounds, and colors correspond.

(“Correspondences,”1857, second stanza, trans. William Aggeler, 1954)

In the 1890s, scientific investigations concerning perception had an impact on the work of visual artists.  Neo-Impressionist painters such as Georges Seurat and Paul Signac responded to the color and optical theories of Charles Henry, Ogden Rood, and Michel Eugène Chevreul, among others. The relationship between sound and visual sensation, addressed from a scientific perspective by Charles Henry, became a major preoccupation for Symbolist artists and poets in their evocations of dream and subjective emotional states.  Many avant-garde artists were intensely interested in synaesthesia, a rare psychosensory condition characterized by the fusion of information from one sense (for example, sight) with that of another (for example, hearing).  The scientific literature on the subject and the experimental poems of Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé (whose Afternoon of a Faun inspired Debussy’s great orchestral work) led artists to explore color as sound and sound as color.  Music, re-imagined as an inherently abstract art form, provided avant-garde artists, writers, and intellectuals with a powerful alternative to realist modes of representation.

Image Credit: Berthe Morisot. French, 1841–1895. The Mozart Sonata (La Sonate de Mozart), 1894. Oil on canvas. SCMA, Bequest of Mrs. Robert S. Tangeman (E. Clementine Miller, class of 1927). Photograph by Petegorsky/Gipe

Sound file: The opening stanzas of the poem The Afternoon of a Faun (L’Aprés-midi d’un faune) by Stéphane Mallarmé, recited in English and in French by Professor Mary Ellen Birkett,  French Studies Department, Smith College. Produced by RBH Multimedia, Inc.