Music Feature

The Color of Sound, the Sound of Color; Sound and Light, Music and Art: Part II

March 18, 2013 - Williamsburg, MA, most recently updated August 1, 2017, Easthampton, MA:

This is, however, present in the American artist Thomas Cole's unpublished Journal – November 1834-February 1848: "Thoughts and Occurrences," in its 3rd entry (p. 4-7) dated "November 8th [1834; he is preparing to return to New York City from Catskill (Note that this is prior to Fields' publication of Chromatography […])]: "I made a small circular diagram of colours to-day. It reminded me of an experiment I have long wished to try, and have thought a good deal about. The idea was suggested by something I read, when a boy, I do not know where. It is what may be called the Music of Colours. I believe that colours are capable of affecting the mind, by combination, degree, and arrangement, like sound. […] It is evident that there is an analogy between colour and sound; and with study and experiment it might be traced through all its ramifications. I am not aiming to prove the analogy, but to show that there is plausibility in the theory that an instrument might be constructed by which colour could be played, and which would give to those, who had cultivated their taste in the art, a pleasure like that given by music. If I attempted to make an instrument, I should try the experiment with six colours and their semitints […] The instrument might be played by means of keys, like those of a piano, except that, instead of moving hammers to strike strings, they might lift, when struck, dark or black screens from before coloured compartments. Transparent compartments, with either sunlight or artificial light behind, would perhaps produce the most brilliant effect." (Quoted in Louis Legrand Noble, The Life and Works of Thomas Cole, New York: Sheldon, Blakeman & Co., 1856 [a rpt with a new title of the 1st ed. pub. by Cornish, Lamport and Co., 1853 & rpt by Sheldon, Lamport and Blakeman, 1854]; rpt, Cambridge, Mass: The Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 1964, Ed. Elliot S. Vesell, pp. 140-41; I have also seen an image of the original and have silently corrected Noble's transcription errors). This "instrument" that plays colors, is envisioned some 80 years before Scriabin's clavier à lumières or the 1915 "Chromola" (See above). Homer (See below) refers to this envisioned instrument as "the 'color-organ'." (p. 28)

Thomas Cole (1801-1848), was born in England and came to the USA in 1819, so he may have read Field's Chromatics […] when it was first published before he left England. At age 9, he had worked as an engraver of calicos in a print-works, thus gaining intimacy with colors (Noble, pp. 3-4), and was an avid reader all his life. He was the first artist of what we now call the Hudson River School of painting, the first American art movement, that romanticized the American wilderness landscape. His final home, Cedar Grove farm in Catskill, NY, is a National Historic Site;

he may have had a copy of Field's Chromatography [...] in his library there, although none appears in his list of books drawn up in December 1839, now found in Box 6, Folder 2 of the Thomas Cole Papers in the collection of the NY State Library in Albany; he might also have seen or acquired it on his trip to Europe in 1841-42 which began and ended in England. He devised some color wheels based on the information in it. One endpaper of a sketchbook dating from 1839, but containing things drawn as late as 1844, now (acquired in 1940) in the Princeton Art Museum has a hand-drawn reproduction of the frontispiece of this Field book with text copied from its pp. 22-24 in Cole's handwriting (See William I. Homer, "Thomas Cole and Field's 'Chromatography'," Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University, Vol. 19, No. 1, Special Number in Honor of Ernest Theodore DeWald on the Occasion of His Retirement (1960), pp. 26-30.) Cole also associated colors with specific notes on the scale. In the aforementioned Journal entry, a drawing of rising quarter notes with downward tails on a stave (no clef symbol; we must assume treble, since the lowest note is in the space of 'A') has a column of upper case letters below it with the related color beside them, thus: A - Red, B - Orange, C - Yellow, D - Blue, E - Green, F - Indigo, G - Violet (p. 6). This is the vertical version of the horizontal one in the 1870 Mallet revision of Chromatography […] mentioned above. Cole, who played the flute (His sister Sarah played the harp; their instruments are in the home.) was also a poet; his journals contain many poems as do some of his letters; several are quoted in Noble.

Michel Eugène Chevreul (1786-1889 – yes, he did indeed live to 103 and worked right up to the end!) addressed the issue briefly. He worked for the Gobelins Tapestry Works, a royal, then national company, and had his laboratory, where he worked on formulating dyes, on its premises. He published De la loi du contraste simultané des couleurs in Paris in 1839; it was reissued by the French government in a lavish edition in 1889 for the centennial of the French Revolution and as a tribute to Chevreul; a statue of him is located in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. It was translated into English by Charles Martel (pseudonym of Thomas Delf) as The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colors and their Application to the Arts, London: Henry G. Bohn, 1854; I have looked at the 3rd ed., 1859. The most accessible edition of the work is that under the same title by Faber Birren, which uses the 1854 text (West Chester, PA, Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 1987); it has additional detailed succinct introductory material to establish the context of the original, and reproduces the dozen photographs by Nadar of Chevreul in his laboratory along with a photo of the statue. Chevreul created the cercle chromatique, the first color wheel, using 6 primary colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet (He deemed indigo identical to violet), and created 5 different degrees of mixture/shading between the adjacent evenly mixed ones for a total of 72 tinctures. He was aware of the earlier attempts at creating an analogy between color and sound, but did not believe in it. He recognized the similarities between the senses of hearing and sight, and their differences from the other three senses because they lack a concrete physical or chemical contact with the object sensed: "(973.) Hearing is the sense which passes as having the greatest affinity with sight; for every one (sic.) knows the comparison that has been instituted between sounds and colours, not only when considered as sensation, but also when it has been sought to explain their propagation by the wave theory." (Birren ed., p. 153; paragraphs are numbered in the original) He also pointed out that mixtures of colored lights do not produce the same results as mixtures of colored pigments (See below.).

Following on Chevreul's work was Hermann von Helmholtz (1821-1894), whose Handbuch der Physiologischen Optik (Handbook of Physiological Optics or Treatise on Physiological Optics) translated into English for the Optical Society of America was widely known; he dealt with color vision, and also published in 1863 Die Lehre von den Tonempfindungen als physiologische Grundlage für die Theorie der Musik (On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music) which became the basic study of acoustics and influenced musicologists, but he did not delve into any analogy between the two. Ogden Nicholas Rood (1831-1902, Chair of the Department of Physics at Columbia University from 1863 until his death) wrote his Modern Chromatics (London & NY: Appleton and Co.) in 1879, revised and re-issued under the title Students' Text-book of Colour; or Modern Chromatics with Applications to Art and Industry, and reprinted numerous times; I looked at the 1916 edition. Its new title gives a clearer indication of its content and purpose than the original one: it has an entirely scientific thrust, dealing with the diffusion of colors of light via a prism and other ways of producing them, however, like Chevreul, he believed in contrasting colors. Only its final chapter: "On the Use of Colour in Painting and Decoration," deals with art, fewer than 20 of its 329 pages, in spite of the fact that he was an amateur artist, working primarily in watercolors. Nonetheless, some artists were familiar with the theories and experiments that it documents and with the color wheel that is more nuanced and less strictly evenly subdivided than Chevreul's. There is no suggestion of an analogy of colors with sounds in his work either, however. The pointillists, like Georges Seurat (1859-1891) and Paul Signac (1863-1935) were heavily influenced by his and Chevreul's works.

A modern artist who dealt with the subject of color in a manner entirely different from color wheels and optics of light refraction was the German Josef Albers (1888-1976), who taught first at the Bauhaus in Dessau and then Berlin, and moved to the USA in 1933 when the Nazis closed the school because his wife Anni, a textile artist, was Jewish. He went directly to the then new Black Mountain College in NC where he taught until 1950, when he went to Yale University in New Haven, CT, where he lived until his death. He focused on the perception of color by the eye and brain. His magnum opus, Interaction of Color, a work of art in its own right because its separate plates in 80 folders were all individually produced by screen printing using over 800 individual inks, was published by the Yale University Press in 1963, at a huge cost in a slipcase edition limited to 2000 copies, that were sold out by 1968. The text of its companion "Commentary" volume was adapted by Albers and published with a selection of plates chosen by him in paperback in 1971, revised in 1975, revised again and expanded in 2006, and re-issued in a 50th anniversary edition this year.

This version is written as a series of observations or studies, exercises, and experiments using colored papers in 26 chapters (the 26th the equivalent of "Acknowledgements") that form a course, which can be taught or supervised – teacher/student, parent/child, or self- for a serious adult – that culminates (theory comes after practice) in Albers' own color system, an equilateral triangle made up of 9 identically sized smaller equilateral triangles, the 3 primary colors, red, blue, and yellow at its apexes, the 3 secondary ones, violet, green, and orange, completing the external sides, and 3 closest/least different tertiary ones, filling the empty internal spaces. He closes the color-contrast analysis circle by referring back to Chevreul, refining his findings based on subsequent knowledge (p. 54). Its Introduction begins: "The book Interaction of Color is a record of an experimental way of studying color and of teaching color. In visual perception a color is almost never seen as it really is – as it physically is. This fact makes color the most relative medium in art." (p. 1) It is eminently affordable ($18) and worth owning for its insight and concision; you will look at color with greater understanding and deeper appreciation after reading it. An electronic version of the original has been available since 1994 from the Yale Univ. Press in collaboration with the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation in Bethany, CT, and is now, this year, available in digital format as an App.

While Albers was not a synesthete and did not specifically address the concept, he does offer numerous analogies and correspondences between color and sound: "Colors and hues are defined, as are tones in music, by wave length." (p. 34 in 2103 paperback ed.), or: "We emphasize that color harmonies, usually the special interest of color systems, are not the only desirable relationship. As with tones in music, so with color–dissonance is as desirable as its opposite, consonance." (p. 67), or again: "A 'transformation of 4 reds to 4 blues of a slightly lower key seems comparable to a transformation of a tetrachord in music from 1 instrument to another. Therefore we are also in color concerned with 'intervals.' But such rearrangement is far more complicated with colors than with musical notes." (p. 131). The closest he comes to talking about synesthesia is: "Though we were taught, only a few years ago, that there is no connection whatever between visual and auditory perception, we know now that a color changes visually when a changing tone is heard simultaneously. This, of course, makes the relativity of color still more obvious…" (p. 71) [See also Addendum 2, below.]

Some composers were also artists, and were aware of the earlier color theories and the books. The most famous of these in modern times was Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), who exhibited with Der Blaue Reiter, the Munich-based German Expressionist group in his early years. He began painting in 1907 and was quite prolific, painting in many genres and continuing throughout his life, and his style changed quite a bit over the years. Some of his paintings were nearly as revolutionary and jarring as his twelve-tone music and other innovations such as the Sprechstimme in Pierrot lunaire. A couple bring Edvard Munch's (1863-1944) The Scream (1893) to mind: one of his self-portraits and Der rote Blick (The Red Gaze, 1919, reproduced in Maur, p. 36) are not too far removed from it, although more abstract and with more muted colors. Among his representational ones are a portrait of composer Alban Berg, and a portrayal of the funeral of Gustav Mahler (reproduced in Maur, p. 37). "Schoenberg and Cézanne share the pragmatic sense of color as a matter of contrast and interrelationships, although it is evident that Schoenberg would go further in systematically setting forth laws for their use." (Riley, p. 280) "Schoenberg's thinking on aural and visual color was influenced by two Russian masters, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Wassily Kandinsky. Rimsky-Korsakov's Principles of Orchestration (1891; trans. Edward Agate, New York: Dover, 1964) begins and ends with a valediction on 'tone coloring.' Its very first sentence (p. 1) reads: 'Our epoch, the post-Wagnerian age, is the age of brilliance and imaginative quality of orchestral tone coloring.'." (Riley, p. 283)

Schoenberg also wrote about both music and art. In Harmonielehre (Theory of Harmony), he discusses Klangfarbe (tone color), the second dimension of tone. (Riley, p. 280) His 1913 opera Die glückliche Hand (The Hand of Fate) conceives color "as an integral and even structural element of the intended multimedia event" (Harvard Dict., p. 180), not unlike Scriabin's concept in the same time period. But in spite of creating in both worlds Schoenberg did not formulate a system of exact correspondences between sounds and colors. Sociologist, philosopher, musicologist, and composer Theodor Adorno (1903-1969), in his tribute essay on Schoenberg in his Prismen; Kulturkritik und Gesellschaft (1955; Prisms, trans. by Samuel and Shierry Weber, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1981, pp. 149-171) writes: "Of all his accomplishments in integrating musical means, not the least was that he conclusively separated colour from the decorative sphere and elevated it to a compositional element in its own right. It changes into a means for the elucidation of musical interrelations (p. 169). According to Riley (p. 279), he described his music as "pantonal"; "atonal" is a misnomer.

Some artists contemporary with him were music lovers and occasionally portrayed musical subjects, painting portraits of composers or scenes of events or performances. Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), Russian born painter who lived and worked mostly in Germany (except during WW I when he returned to Russia) until the rise of the Nazis in 1933 when he moved to France, was a member of Der Blaue Reiter, taught at the Bauhaus, and was one of the first painters to move away from representation towards abstraction; he had studied piano in Moscow. He "explored harmonic relationships between sound and color and used musical terms to describe his paintings, calling them 'compositions' and 'improvisations'." (Cytowic, p. 270) In his book, Über das Geistege in der Kunst, he "claimed that each color had an intrinsic sound." (Cytowic & Eagleman, p. 101) He said he heard tones and chords as he painted and that yellow was at middle C; he may thus, like Messiaen, have been a bi-directional synesthete. One of his most famous paintings, made in 1911 and frequently reproduced, Impression III (Konzert), depicts abstractly listeners in a semi-circle around a stage with a few musicians on it next to a large black spot that suggests either emptiness or a massive orchestra, using contrasting colors to individualize the personages, their heads mostly merely white outlined in black. He also wrote a one-act opera. Der Gelbe Klang (The Yellow Sound, 1912), that involves a mixture of color, light, sound, and dance, like Scriabin's unfinished Mysterium; Thomas de Hartmann (1885-1956) actually composed the music. He also said there was a correlation between the 12 colors of the standard wheel and Schoenberg's 12-tone system.

Another artist associated with Der Blaue Reiter and subsequently the Bauhaus was Swiss-born Paul Klee (1879-1940); he returned to Switzerland in 1933, where he remained for the rest of his life, his style changing dramatically in his last years. He, too, had a lifelong association with music: his German father was a music teacher; his Swiss mother a singer trained in Germany, and he was an accomplished violinist. He was also a member of Der Blaue Vier (The Blue Four), formed in 1923 with Kandinsky, Russian Alexei van Jawlensky, and American Lyonel Feininger (See below.); they exhibited together in the USA in 1925. Many of his paintings are abstract, some with representational elements, albeit in numerous different styles over his lifetime. But it is clear from his choice of titles, several of which use musical terms like Whistler's (See below.), such as "Harmony," like Harmony in Blue-Orange(1923), Ancient Harmony (1927), Harmony of Northern Flora (1927), "Composition," "Polyphony," including several painted in 1932: one, two, and three, that have overlapping transparent layers of paint, and "Variations," and from his choice of colors and their relationship to each other, that he felt some sort of relationship between sounds and colors, although he did not write much to reveal details. The most specific he got was comments like: "One day I must be able to improvise freely on the keyboard of colours: the row of watercolours in my paintbox." (Hajo Düchting, Paul Klee; Painting and Music, Munich and New York: Prestel, 1997, p. 17; quoting from Felix Klee, ed., Paul Klee Tagebücher, 1898-1918, Cologne,: DuMont Schauberg, 1957; The Diaries of Paul Klee, trans, Penelope Crowe, Berkeley & LA: Univ. of California Press, 1974, entry 1124) About his polyphonies, he said: "Polyphonic painting is superior to music in so far as (sic.) the temporal element has more of a spatial quality. The sense of simultaneity emerges in an enriched form." (Ibid., p. 65, quoting Diaries, entry 1081)

Many European artists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were seeking a way or ways to transform art from its traditional focus on realistic portrayals of people, places, and things (portraits, landscapes and genre/historical paintings, still lifes) to something more abstract. Several movements sprang from this, including Impressionism which sought to paint the effects of light on the subject, and actually had a basis in the science of light as its starting point. The German Expressionists were also part of this progression away from faithful representation. Other movements were more general, but the ulterior motive of many was a principle known as « l'art pour l'art » ("art for art's sake") that originated in mid-19th-century France (Writer Théophile Gauthier [1811-1872], author of the poems that Berlioz set in his Les Nuits d'été, was the first to adopt it as a slogan.) and spread elsewhere, juxtaposing it to art for celebration or representation, and whose further development became not unrelated to the invention of photography, a medium capable of doing what theretofore only talented and trained artists could do. In the 20th century, this led to "abstract art," when artists such as the Cubists moved even further away from reality, banning anything remotely resembling something specific.

Some artists were propelled in this direction by a desire to produce works that are more like music, which is absolutely abstract: you cannot represent a musical sound by anything concrete other than a note on a sheet of score paper. Rimington wrote, in 1911: "But though, in the case of sound, the great art of music has been created, no such art with colour for its main object has yet been built up. There is, however, no reason why this should continue to be so, or why a great colour art analogous to the art of music should not be developed." (p. 2) He attributes this situation to the previous technological difficulties of producing an instrument capable of producing colors, as opposed to the production of instruments that produce musical sounds, and offers his invention See above.) as the solution.

Conversely, throughout the 19th century, some composers had been frustrated by the entirely abstract nature of music, and sought to make it into something more concrete. One of the methods was to give it a narrative, make it tell a story, like a work of literature. This was particularly true in the Romantic period; think of Berlioz' Symphonie fantastique, Op, 14 (1830) and his Harold en Italie, Op. 16 (1834), which is really a concerto for viola and orchestra in form if not in name, but as a work is a long distance from a classical-era concerto. Another method was to attempt to evoke a place, especially an exotic one, with 'exotic' quite broadly defined: think of Emmanuel Chabrier's (1841-1894) exotic España (1883-84), but this practice dates at least from the Baroque era with works such as Rameau's Les Indes galantes (1735), and includes such things as the Turkish marches in some Mozart and Beethoven works. Orchestral and instrumental color focuses grew out of these efforts, as both movements developed throughout the 19th century. In the 19th and early 20th centuries as well, some pianist-composers sought to write works that evoked or even conjured up an image of specific places, structures, legends, events, etc.; think of Liszt's Jeux d'eau à la Villa d'Este, and others of his pieces in his Années de pélerinage, or some of Claude Debussy's Estampes and Images, like Pagodes and Poissons d'or, or his Préludes, such as La Cathédrale engloutie or La Puerto del vino.

A listener's conjuring up an image in her/his mind, in the "mind's eye," imagining a field with cows in it while listening to Beethoven's Symphony No. 6, the "Pastoral," for example, colored though it may be, does not constitute synesthesia, any more than do mere associations of sounds and colors. Although Messiaen composed his Chronochromie [Color of Time] (1959-60) and his Couleurs de la cité céleste (1963) synesthetically, selecting chords and modes based on the colors they represented for him, the works really fall into the categories of orchestral color and evocation of nature. The latter, based on the Bible's book of Revelations and inspired by specific lines quoted in the score that refer to the rainbow and to various colored gem stones (He said: "I don't think I've ever gone so far with the sound-color relationship; certain sound combinations really correspond to certain color combinations, and I've noted the names of these colors in the score in order to impress this vision upon the conductor, who will, in turn, transmit this vision to the players he directs. The brass should, if I dare say it, 'play red'; the woodwinds should 'play blue,' and so on." [Messiaen, p. 139]), uses actual bird songs in its score, and also imitates a cascading mountain stream, and the listener, unless s/he is the same sort of synesthete as Messiaen, will not perceive those colors upon hearing the music, sublimely harmonious though it is, even if s/he can conjure up the mental image of the waterfall.

One musical form actually grew out of composers' attempts, conscious or un-, to be portrait painters. This was a significant fad among the French Baroque clavecinistes, who sought to depict, using patterns of rhythms and sounds, the dominant characteristics of individuals of the aristocracy and evoke their personalities, generally entitling the works with the characteristic itself or the family name of the subject preceded by the feminine article, such as François Couperin's (1668-1733) La Princesse de Sens, or Antoine Forqueray's (c. 1671-1745) La Du Breüil, or of stereotypical figures such as Couperin's La Diane, and Rameau's La Villageoise and La Follette, or Forqueray's La Couperin (Couperin also wrote a La Forqueray!) and La Rameau that evoke his colleagues, for example. It had its antecedents in similar Renaissance pieces for lute (or guitar) found in nearly every national tradition across Europe. In the Romantic era, this evolved into the works for piano known as "character pieces" that most composers wrote, epitomized by Robert Schumann's (1810-1856) Carnaval, Op. 9 (1834-35), in which he depicts Eusebius and Florestan, representations of the opposing aspects of his own bi-polar personality, along with characters from the Commœdia dell'Arte like Pierrot, Arlequin, Pantalon and Colombine, and friends and acquaintances including his then fiancée (not Clara). Many composers continue to create such works even today. Other composers over the centuries have written similar works for nearly every instrument in the plucked string family, including the harp, the bowed string (both violin and viol), woodwind, brass, and even percussion families. Some of Debussy's Préludes, like General Lavine – eccentric, derive from this tradition.

The painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) was a firm and strong adherent of the l'art pour l'art principle and focused his efforts on making color the central focus of the work, perhaps the first artist to do so incessantly, systematically, and unapologetically. The titles for many of his works contain color words: what we commonly call "Whistler's Mother" is actually entitled: Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother (1871). Many others use in addition names of musical forms, such as 'nocturne,' for example: Nocturne: Blue and Gold; Old Battersea Bridge (1872) and Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket (1875), which depicts fireworks over the same bridge, a work that was part of Debussy's inspiration for his Prélude Feux d'artifice (Book II/12; 1915). There are some very hazy paintings of scenes in Venice that also use "nocturne" in their titles, for example Nocturne: Blue and Gold - St Mark's, Venice (1879-80).

Other musical terms appear as well, such as Symphony in White No. 1, The White Girl (1862) [There are two other interpretations of this portrait (1864, and 1865)] and Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink: Mrs. F.R. Leyland (1871-73)* [Her husband, Frederick R. Leyland, became a major patron of Whistler, and was, in fact, the person who suggested the term 'nocturne' to him in a letter in the early 1870s]; Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville (1865)*, Harmony in Grey and Green: Miss Cicely Alexander (1872-74) and The Zattere: Harmony in Blue and Brown (1879-80); Variations in Violet and Green (1871) and Variations in violet and grey – Market Place, Dieppe (1885); Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen (1864); and The Giudecca: note in flesh coulour (1879-80) and Convalescent or Petit Déjeuner; note in opal (1883-84). 'Note' seems to be used in the musical, not the correspondence sense: to wit, the title of his second and last exhibition in NYC was: 'Notes'- 'Harmonies' – 'Nocturnes'; even 'arrangement' can be interpreted or understood in a musical sense, as in Arrangement in Blue and Silver – The Great Sea (c. 1885).

"Nocturne in Blue and Silver" is used for several scenes: Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Chelsea (1871), his first painting using "nocturne" in its title, and Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Cremorne Lights (1874); most involve water, and began with numerous Thames River subjects. Such a scene, Nocturne (1870-77), hangs in the White House in Washington, DC (Whistler's home in Chelsea in London that he sold in 1879 when he went to Venice was also called 'The White House.'). The Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, now houses Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room (1876) that was created for the Leylands' home at 49 Princes Gate in London. Examples abound.

Whistler's titles led to a court case that resulted from a negative review of his Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket by the art critic (also draughtsman and watercolorist) John Ruskin (1819-1900) published on 2 July 1877, in which he wrote he "[…] never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face." Whistler sued Ruskin for libel over this statement and won, although he was not awarded a large sum of money: just one farthing (= ¼ a pence). But the ultimate outcome of this ambiguous/ambivalent verdict and award was that it settled the artist's right to portray what he wished how he wished, without needing to conform to any established conventions or tradition, and the critic's right to express his opinion respectfully as he saw fit – the verdict was seen as being the result of a lack of that respect on the part of Ruskin, the award as the thought that such a case should never have gone to trial.

During the trial on 25 and 26 November 1878, where the offending painting was displayed, as well as his Nocturne: Blue and Gold; Old Battersea Bridge, he carefully avoided referring to his paintings as "pictures," calling them "arrangements," "symphonies," "nocturnes," etc., and he stated: "Art should be independent of all clap-trap – should stand alone, and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear [my emphasis], without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism, and the like." This statement was quoted in the press and has become universally famous. Concerning 'nocturne,' he said: "By using the word 'nocturne' I wished to indicate an artistic interest alone, divesting the picture of any outside anecdotal material which might have been otherwise attached to it. A nocturne is an arrangement of line, form, and colour first. The picture is throughout a problem that I attempt to solve. I make use of any means, any incident or object in nature, that will bring about this symmetrical result." This may be, but it is not the original meaning of the word which was applied beginning early in the 19th century – the first composer to use it, in 1813, was John Field (1782-1837), but it was Chopin (1810-1849) who made the form famous, his first ones written in 1830-31 – to pieces of music, mostly for the piano, that were dreamy and suggested dusk or evening; prior to Whistler, it had not been used in visual art.

After the trial, Whistler issued three publications dealing with his tussles with art critics:

1) the 17-page pamphlet Whistler v. Ruskin: Art and Art Critics in December 1878, just in time for Christmas;

2) The Ten O'Clock, a lecture he delivered at that hour on 20 February 1885 at Princes Hall in London, repeated on 24 March in Cambridge and in Oxford on 30 April, and subsequently printed in 1888, in which he set forth his ideas about art, his place in the history of art and in his own society, his inspiration, the relationship of his works to nature ("Nature contains the elements, in colour and form, of all pictures, as the keyboard contains the notes of all music. / But the artist is born to pick, and choose, and group with science, these elements, that the result may be beautiful–as the musician gathers his notes, and forms his chords, until he bring forth from chaos glorious harmony."), and current movements in art and aesthetics. It was translated into French in 1888 by the poet Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898), whom he met in Paris that year and with whom he became close friends; Whistler regularly attended Mallarmé's Tuesday evening salon gatherings after he moved to Paris in 1892; and

3) The Gentle Art of Making Enemies (1890, rev. & expanded 1892) in which he recounted the trial in the first 19 of its 340 pages, reprinted the W. v. R. pamphlet (pp. 21-39), reprinted The Ten O'Clock (pp. 135-159; above quote on pp. 142-43) and reactions to it, including excerpts from one by Oscar Wilde, with whom he became close friends beginning in August 1881, and also set forth his ideas and principles in notes, comments, and reflections, and included letters to the editor and to and from others, telegrams, the catalogues of two exhibitions: one of 51 of his Venice etchings and drypoints (pp. 93-105), and one entitled "Nocturnes, Marines, and Chevalet Pieces" (44 items, including several of those listed two paragraphs above, pp. 293-328) with critics' comments (many of them negative. (The 1892 edition was reprinted by Dover in 1967 and can still be found at very reasonable prices. See also: Linda Merrill, A Pot of Paint: aesthetics on trial in Whistler v. Ruskin, Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.)

In spite of the profusion of musical terms in his titles, the prominence of harmonious blends in his choice of colors and his painting style, and his numerous references to the similarities between painting and music, Whistler seems not to have devised any systematic relationship between the colors and actual musical sounds, notes, or keys. Rather he seems to have found an intuitive parallel between music and painting, and used those terms to evoke an ambiance, atmosphere, emotion, mood, or sentiment that the musical form in its title might also evoke or inspire and exploit it to (pre-)dispose the viewer favorably to his works as well as to epitomize his aesthetic vision. He focused first and foremost on tonal harmony or harmonies among and between tones or shades of colors; he owes something of a debt in this to the Romantic artist J.M.W. Turner, but took Turner's work with light in land- and seascapes (his 1845 Sunrise with Sea Monsters is a late example) 'to the next level' into the realm of color per se. Turner’s 1835 Music Party, East Cowes Castle, Petworth is already well on the way using much brighter colors; note the similarities in treatment, albeit in a totally different style, to Kandinsky’s 1911 Impression III, Konzert, of people gathered around a music-maker, with black and white being important central colors.

In The Gentle Art…, Whistler wrote: "My whole scheme was only to bring about a certain harmony of colour." (p. 8) [The most accessible and thorough reference book for him is Richard Dorment & Margaret F. MacDonald, Whistler, London: Tate Gallery Publications, 1994, catalogue for an exhibition that was held at the Tate, the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, where I saw it; all of the aforementioned paintings are reproduced in it, and many more, with the Symphony in White No. 2 on the hardcover edition's jacket and cover of the paperback edition. Unreferenced quotes in the first two paragraphs about Whistler above appear on pp. 137 and 122 respectively.] Whistler was the model for the character Elstir in Marcel Proust's (1871-1922) À la recherche du temps perdu; he is also named in the work and paintings marked with an * above are mentioned or alluded to in it.

On the other hand, there were a number of artists and theorists who had either very detailed or less fully developed systems of specific color-sound correspondences. Several artists in the early decades of the twentieth century, leading up to and just after WW I, developed concepts and theories about the interrelationships of colors, their relationship to each other and their harmonies or dissonances, and associated them with the notes of the musical scale. Both concepts were also associated with emotional reactions to the two art forms and their products. As Charles Riley writes, "Color is identified with the emotional, rhapsodic, emancipated, formless, and even deceitful aspect of art."(p.6) It is always contrasted with line, design, structure; color is Dionysian, line Apollonian. Initially, the concepts were developed in connection with abstract art, "the creation of a painting generated by the physical properties of color alone," in the words of William C. Agee, in Synchromism and Color Principles in American Painting, 1910-1930, the catalogue of a 1965 exhibition in NYC (New York: M. Knoedler & Co., 1965, p. 9), but eventually they were also applied to figural and representational paintings including landscapes, portraits, and still lifes. Morgan Russell (1896-1953) insisted that "color as a generator of form, movement, and rhythm, orchestrated and moving in time demands an abstract painting, composed like music, of an intangible, non-literal matter." (Ibid., p. 20)

Major French painters such as Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) and Henri Matisse (1869-1954) and German ones such as the Expressionists and members of Der Blaue Reiter and Die Brücke groups, used these principles without systematizing them, for example, Franz Marc (1880-1916; he was killed in WW I) in works like his 1913 Small composition I, who also painted a pair entitled Playing Forms and Fighting Forms (both 1914) and applied them to paintings of animals, one of his favorite subject matters, as in his 1914 Vögel (Birds), or his 1913 Träumendes Pferd (Dreaming Horse) that he had earlier painted realistically in entirely unrealistic colors – think of his famous 1911 Die grossen blaue Pferde (The Large Blue Horses).

Some American painters became acquainted with the works of those artists while living in Paris in the pre-WW I years, where Robert Delauney (1885-1941) and his wife Sonia Delauney-Terk (1885-1979), whom they knew personally and with whom interacted and occasionally exhibited, were also experimenting with such concepts, making their own color wheels. These painters "adapted nineteenth-century theory to a twentieth-century concept of color, which was viewed as a means to a pure, non-associative painting." (Ibid. p. 32).

Robert later wrote:

Toward 1912-1913, I had the idea of a kind of painting which, technically, would rely only on color, on contrasts of color, but these developing in time and making themselves perceived simultaneously, at one go. I used Chevreul's scientific term: simultaneous contrasts. I played with colors as one might express oneself in music through a fugue of colored phrases treated contrapuntally….It is impossible to deny the evidence of these colored phrases animating the surface of the canvas with various kinds of cadenced measures which succeed one another, outstrip one another in movements of colored masses – color acting, this time, almost independently, through contrasts.

(quoted in Dora Vallier, L'art abstrait, Paris: Librairie Générale Française, 1967; Abstract Art, trans. by Jonathan Griffin, New York: Orion Press, 1970, pp. 198-99; original source not cited, but the quote comes from Robert Delauney, Du Cubisme à l'art abstrait; Documents inédits [Unpublished notebooks and other papers] publiés par Pierre Francastel […], Paris: S.E.V.P.E.N., 1957, p. 81, which is note [No. 25] in a notebook from 1939-40, when Delauney is recollecting his artistic development).

His Windows series (13 paintings) are the best example of his work in this style, that combines abstraction and representation in transparent objects in a setting of geometric shapes of contrasting but harmonious colors, and at the same time recalls without imitating Claude Monet's (1840-1926) various series such as the Poplars, Haystacks, and Rouen Cathedral in its repetition of some subject matter with differences in colors and interpretation. Monet appears, incidentally, to have been the first painter to use colors in shadows "in the sense of trying to write a formulaic approach to them. In this sense, he was like a scientist in approaching the derivative aspects of color relationships." (Cytowic, p. 255) Thus the Delauneys got not only their concept but also their term of "simultaneous," as in Sonia's famous "Simultaneous Dress" that she wore to a ball, from Chevreul. Olivier Messiaen repeatedly stated that Robert Delauney was his favorite painter precisely for this reason.

The American painter Stanton Macdonald-Wright (1890-1973) was in Paris from June 1909 to February 1915, worked with Russell, and exhibited abstract works created using these principles, that he titled synchromy/-ies (= with color), with him both in Berlin and Paris in 1913. In their jointly composed introduction to the former exhibit, they wrote:

Mankind has until now always tried to satisfy its need for the highest spiritual exaltation in music. Only tones have been able to grip us and transport us to the highest realms. Whenever man had a desire for heavenly intoxication, he turned to music. Yet color is just as capable as music of providing us with the highest ectasies [sic.] and delights.

By having liberated ourselves from certain impediments and ties and plunged boldly into the unknown, we have wrested from nature the secrets necessary for bringing painting to this highest degree of intensity. Moreover, painting has the advantage over music of being closer to reality, for the visual sense connects us with nature to a higher degree than does the sense of sound. There is nothing higher to be striven for in art once this is finally achieved. (Gail Levin, Synchromism and American Color Abstraction, 1910-1925, New York: George Braziller & the Whitney Museum of American Art, 1978, p. 129; catalogue for an exhibition organized by the Whitney, that also traveled to 5 other cities., trans. from orig. German by Martha Humphreys.)

They also exhibited in "The Forum Exhibition of Modern American Painters," held at the Anderson Galleries in NYC in March 1916, that constituted the first introduction of this style of painting to the US, and was the most important modern art exhibition in the US after the (in)famous Armory Show in February-March 1913 that introduced to American art lovers modern European artists who overshadowed the American ones whose work constituted ¾ of those in the show [There will be some centennial exhibits this year.]. The Forum was the name of the sponsoring magazine; its art critic, Willard Huntington Wright, brother of Stanton Macdonald-Wright, often referred to as "America's first aesthetician," formed a six-member organizing committee, including himself, painter Robert Henri (See below.) who did not exhibit, and photographer Alfred Stieglitz. Each member wrote a 2- to 3-page forward for the catalogue (New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1916, pp. 25-41) that followed an introductory essay by Wright entitled: "What Is Modern Painting?" (pp. 13-24).

Seventeen artists (of 21 invited) exhibited; each wrote an "Explanatory Note" for the works shown, printed on the left page facing the reproduction on the right page of one painting of her/his choice, presented in alphabetical order in the catalogue. Macdonald-Wright's begins: "I strive to divest my art of all anecdote and illustration, and to purify it to the point where the emotions of the spectator will be wholly æsthetic, as when listening to good music.", and closes: "By the above one can see that I strive to make my art bear the same relation to painting that polyphony bears to music. Illustrative music is a thing of the past: it has become abstract and purely æsthetic, dependent for its effect upon rhythm and form. Painting, certainly, need not lag behind music." ([p. 56]; pages of the notes & reproductions section are unnumbered, facing Organization, 5 [1st link below]; he exhibited 12 paintings).

Morgan Russell wrote, in his note ([p. 67]; he exhibited 8 paintings) facing Cosmic Synchromy (1913-14; 3rd link below):

My first synchromies represented a personal manner of visualizing by color rhythms; hence my treatment of light by multiple rainbow-like color-waves which, expanding into larger undulations, form the general composition.

In my next step I was concerned with the elimination of the natural object and with the retention of color rhythms. An example of this period is the Cosmic Synchromy. The principal idea in this canvas is a spiralic plunge into space, excited and quickened by appropriate color contrasts.

His concluding paragraph reads:

While there will probably always be illustrative pictures, it cannot be denied that this century may see the flowering of a new art of forms and colors alone. Personally, I believe that non-illustrative painting is the purest manner of æsthetic expression, and that, provided the basic demands of great composition are adhered to, the emotional effect will be even more intense than if there was present the obstacle of representation. Color is form; and in my attainment of abstract form I use those colors which optically correspond to the spatial extension of the forms desired.

(See also Anne Harrell, The Forum Exhibition: Selections and Additions, New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1983, pp. 3-7; "Introduction" to the catalogue for a retrospective exhibition. Other famous participating artists include Thomas Hart Benton (See below.], Arthur G. Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, and Man Ray; several other exhibitors mention the connection between painting and music and the importance of color rhythms in their notes.)

Here are links to some representative paintings:

Stanton Macdonald-Wright:

Abstraction on Spectrum (Organization No. 5) (1914): & use the Advanced Search feature with the artist's name.

Synchromy in Purple minor (1918):

Yin Synchormy No. 3 (1930):

Morgan Russell:

Cosmic Synchromy (1913-14): [Synchromie cosmique; this is on the cover of the Levin book.]

Synchromy in Deep Blue-Violet (1913) [Synchromie en bleu-violacé]:

Both artists knew the Delauneys, although they parted ways; much later (1939-40) Robert Delauney claimed to have invented synchromism, but this was likely the result of memory issues related to his age and not a deliberate attempt to claim credit unjustifiably. Macdonald-Wright admitted that Russell coined the term and originated some of the concepts, but it was he who set them forth in a rational, organized text in his 1924 a treatise on COLOR, privately published in only 60 copies with individually hand-painted accompanying color plates because it was intended for his students in the Art Students League in Los Angeles. It was reprinted in facsimile in The Art of Stanton Macdonald-Wright, an exhibition catalogue for a 1967 retrospective at the Smithsonian Institution (Washington, DC, Smithsonian Press, 1967, pp. 65-100.), but without its plates and templates, a real disservice because the original is very difficult to find; some plates are reproduced in another exhibition catalogue: Will South [ et al. (incl. Agee)], Color, Myth, and Music: Stanton Macdonald Wright and Synchromism, NC Museum of Art, 2001, pp. 32-33.). [It was this 2001 exhibition, which I viewed numerous times independently, and showed several times to friends and to groups as a volunteer docent at the NCMA, that piqued my interest in this subject and set me off on the path of inquiry, investigation, reading, and research that led to my writing this piece.]

In the treatise, Macdonald-Wright set up an exact relationship between the 12 colors of the color wheel formed from primary, secondary (created with equal mixtures of the primaries), and tertiary colors (created with equal mixtures of the primary and secondary ones), with the intervals of the 12 notes/semitones (including sharps and flats) in a Western chromatic scale on a keyboard, and created "color scales," beginning with the key of C = yellow, followed by yellow-green, green, blue-green, blue, blue-violet, violet, red-violet, red, red-orange, orange, yellow-orange, and back to yellow (reproduced in South, p. 32). For the key of red, you find the equivalent musical key by starting at the position of red in the sequence of the notes of this scale (G#/Ab); likewise for the key of blue mentioned earlier (E), or green (D), for example. For his paintings, he chose the colors that matched the notes of the triads, 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes of musical chords, rather than the theretofore customary selection based on their geometrically opposite positions in the standard color wheel, and created "color chords." The plates and templates illustrated the process. He suggests chords that would be most suitable for specific genres of paintings. "Thus the scale, when utilized with intelligence[,] takes the place of the sun in nature, and binds all things or colors (because in painting we enter a world where color is everything), into a close-knit unity. In music and painting the utilization of the scale is merely man's way of stating his belief in the possible existence of complete perfection." (treatise, p. 31 [97 in facsimile]).

Note that in Scriabin's color circle of fifths (shown in Cytowic & Eagleman, p. 191), the key of C is red, A is green, and the key of blue is F minor (F#/Gb) as mentioned earlier (Ibid, p. 190). This wheel and the correspondences are also found in the writings of Helena Blavatsky (1831-1891), founder of the Theosophical Society, with which Scriabin was familiar. Theosophy has a long history of which you can explore a summary here. None of the Synchromist painters seem to have been adherents of this, and perhaps were not even aware of it.

In fact, Macdonald-Wright and Russell (and some others) derived these ideas from the lessons of Canadian Ernest Percyval Tudor-Hart (1873-1954), who was teaching in Paris at the time, where both joined his class. Tudor-Hart based "his musical system of color harmony on a purely psychological rather than a physical group of equivalents." (Levin, p. 1) "He claimed that pitch in sound related directly to luminosity in color, that tone in sound equaled hue in color, and that intensity of sound corresponded to saturation of color [See above about the biological/physical perception of color.]. He explained: 'The twelve chromatic intervals of the musical octave … have corresponding sensational and emotional qualities to those of the twelve chromatic colors.'." (Ibid., quoting Klein, p. 103). He set forth his concepts in a pair of articles in The Cambridge [UK] Magazine: "A New View of Colour," Feb. 23, 1918, pp. 452-56, and "The Analogy of Sound and Colour," Mar. 2, 1918, pp. 480-86. In the latter, he posits a spectral range (including all possible blends of the 7 basic colors) equivalent to 11 octaves, with only 7 visible to the human eye, the bottom 2 appearing black and the top 2 appearing white. This is essentially the equivalent of the standard piano keyboard; it equals 84 keys, 88 = 7.33, 90 = 7.5 octaves. He calculates the blends and progressions mathematically and proportionally.

Some other American artists working in the same period, including Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975)*, who lived in Paris from 1908 to 1911 and was close to Macdonald-Wright then, and later studied with him in 1915 when both were back in NYC, also followed these principles. Benton used the term 'synchromist' in the title of at least one of his works, but most of his works in this style have been lost or destroyed. Other artists who were well-known then but are nearly entirely forgotten now, followed Macdonald-Wright's and Russell's lead, although did not consider themselves Synchromists or follow the principles precisely. Notable among them are Patrick Henry Bruce (1881-1956) and Arthur Burdett Frost, Jr. (1887-1917), both of whom also lived in Paris in the early 20th century and knew Russell and Macdonald-Wright and the Delauneys, to whom they became very close and whose Orphism style they ultimately followed; both also took a class from Matisse, one of the originators of that style [The link is excellent, chock full of information, and with several illustrations and internal links, nearly all of which are pertinent to this piece.].

Their Synchromist works often combine abstraction and representation while focusing on the harmonious relationships of the colors; in particular, Frost painted a Harlequin (reproduced in Agee, Pl. VII) that would make a splendid diptych to Picasso's famous one. Alexander P. Couard (1891-1965), Konrad Cramer (1888-1963), Andrew Michael Dasburg (1887-1979)*, Asheville, NC, native James Henry Daugherty (1889-1974), Arthur B. Davies (1862-1928), Morton Schamberg (1882-1918), and Jay Van Everen (1875-1947) are yet others. [Artists whose names are marked with an * also exhibited in The Forum Exhibition; Dasburg's catalogue statement, facing his Improvisation, focuses on rhythm, "on coordinating color and contour" ([p. 50]; he exhibited 9 paintings); he also writes: "I differentiate the æsthetic reality from the illustrative reality."] All of them painted their works in this style before Macdonald-Wright wrote his treatise, and all of them painted works in other styles as well.

Other well-known artists who also followed this path, but with less emphasis on the harmonies among the colors and their connection to music, include Josef Albers (1888-1976), who taught for a time at Black Mountain (NC) College, and Joseph Stella (1887-1946); they tended to use color more geometrically and separately in the manner of the Cubists, who often worked in black, white, and grey, tones that do not relate well to musical sounds, and highlighted contrasts more than harmonies. Many Synchromist paintings are more curvilinear, even sinuous in their geometry than Cubist ones or those of Albers and Stella. For Macdonald-Wright in particular, the paintings "are cubist fragmentations metamorphosed into elusive segments of shimmering light and color." (Agee, p. 32.) "Cubism […] provided a structural basis from which the entire range of the spectrum was diffused in an all-encompassing and enveloping iridescence." (Ibid.) The Synchromists produced "sophisticated rendering[s] of figures in space through the use of color properties." (Levin, p. 43). These works are not unrelated, as Agee points out (p. 32), to "the atmospheric effects" of the works of J.M.W. Turner that Macdonald-Wright admired, and to the works of Whistler although their tones are often brighter and less hazy.

Two other artists, Hardesty Gillmore Maratta (1864-1924) and Henry Fitch Taylor (1853-1925), were also color theorists and published some of the fruits of their reflections and experiments. Maratta devised a system that assigned each color to a corresponding musical note. He then directed artists to combine colors at prescribed intervals, using "chords" to achieve a harmonious effect. Robert Henri (1865-1929, a member of the organizing committee of The Forum Exhibition who did not exhibit in it), and John Sloan (1871-1951) also seem to have followed this system, the latter having been introduced to it in 1909 by the former, who learned it directly from Maratta in that year, and followed it from then on, while Henri seems to have used it primarily in his portraits. George Bellows (1882-1925) was also a disciple of the system [scroll down on the linked document to find Marratta's color keyboard reproduced from The Maratta Scales of Artists' Oil Pigments, 1916. John Weichsel Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.].

Maratta also published a diagram: "A chart for Finding Triads and chords" in 1909 (Scientific American Supplement, LXVII, Nov. 13, p. 311, referenced in Levin, p. 126), and Taylor published "The Taylor System of Color Harmony" in a February 1923 issue of the Color Trade Journal (XII, pp. 55-58, referenced in Levin, p. 126) that included "a ready reference chart of color Harmony", also "attempt[ing] "to link a chromatic scale in music to one in color and stress[ing] major and minor triads or chords." Both, like Macdonald-Wright, said their charts were superior to the standard color wheel (Levin, p. 42), and both started with red rather than yellow as middle C, so for them, the key of blue was G#/Ab. Note the similarities to and differences from Rimington's Colour-Organ's keyboard.

(For Part III of this article, click here.)