Top 10 Works of Art Mentioned in Songs


Works of visual art are commonly inspired by stories and music. The visual artist can take inspiration in another work of art and create an image. It isn’t easy to reverse the process; but, over the years there have been many examples of songwriters and composers taking inspiration from paintings and sculpture. Can you think of any songs that mention works of art? Keep your eyes open, and listen for these top ten works of art mentioned in songs.


L’Embarquement pour Cynthere (1717) by Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721)

L'Embarquement_pour_Cythere,_by_Antoine_Watteau,_from_C2RMF_retouched Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Greek island of Cythera is known as the mythical birthplace of Venus, goddess of love. The French rococo painter Antoine Watteau’s painting depicts members of the French aristocracy on a visit to the island enjoying an amorous celebration, symbolized by cupids flying circles around pairs of lovers. During the French Revolution, students hated this candy colored, carefree painting, and supposedly used it as a target for darts. Nevertheless, the painting inspired the composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918) write L’isle Joyeuse (The Island of Joy) (1904), a solo piano piece that portrays the ecstasy of lovers.


A Rake’s Progress (1735) by William Hogarth (1697-1764)

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A Rake’s Progress is a series of eight engravings depicting the social rise and decline of Tom Rakewell, the son of a rich English merchant. After Rakewell wastes all of his money feeding his voracious appetite for entertainment and pleasure, he ends up imprisoned in the notorious Bedlam Hospital. The moral of Tom Rakewell’s dangerously idle behavior inspired the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky to write a three-act Opera, The Rake’s Progress (1951), after he settled in the United States in 1945.


The Raft of the Medusa (1818-1819) by Théodore Géricault (1791-1824)

JEAN_LOUIS_THÉODORE_GÉRICAULT_-_La_Balsa_de_la_Medusa_(Museo_del_Louvre,_1818-19) Image: Wikipedia

Visitors to the Denon wing of the Louvre can view this epic painting, which depicts the terrible incident of a shipwrecked French frigate off the coast of Senegal in 1860. 150 soldiers on board fended for their survival by resorting to cannibalism and brutality. Géricault showed the vain hope of the survivors reaching out to the rescue boat on the horizon. The painting was interpreted as Géricault’s comment that the French monarchy was corrupt and could not take care of its people. Many years later, the German composer Hans Werner Henze (1926-2012) wrote an oratorio for orchestra and choir called The Raft of Medusa. Henze said his piece was a requiem for Che Guevara, the revolutionary Marxist. After the first scheduled premiere performances were interrupted by anarchist protestors, the piece was finally performed in 1971.


The Blessed Damozel (1875-1878) by Dante Gabriel Rosetti (1828-1882)

Dante_Gabriel_Rossetti_The_Blessed_Damozel Image: Wikimedia Commons

Inspired by Poe’s The Raven, English poet and artist Dante Gabriel Rosetti wrote his best known poem, The Blessed Damozel in 1850. Rosetti later republished the poem and made paintings with the same title. The damsel is a young woman who observes her love from heaven with an unfulfilled yearning to be reunited. Rosetti’s story inspired by French Impressionist composer Claude Debussy to write La damoiselle élue (1888), a cantata for two soloists, female choir, and orchestra.


Die Toteninsel (1880-1886) by Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901)

Image: Wikimedia Commmons

The Swiss symbolist painter Arnold Böcklin painted a few versions of Island of the Dead, which became a popular print in Europe. There are many symbols of death and mourning in the romantic image, which depicts a desolate, rocky island dotted with cyprus trees (known as the “mournful tree” to Greeks and Romans) and a lonely rowboat across a dark expanse of water. After he emigrated to America, Russian pianist and composer Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) wrote a symphonic poem Island of the Dead in 1909. The famously romantic composer is said to have been inspired by a black-and-white print of Böcklin’s painting and probably would have not written the song had he instead seen the original, color version of the scene.


The Battle of the Huns by Wilhelm von Kaulbach (1805-1874)

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This massive painting was designed for a staircase in Berlin’s Neues Museum in around 1855 as part of a series of frescoes depicting the most important episodes in history. The scene depicts a ferocious battle between Attila and the Huns and a Roman coalition. According to legend, the battle was so fierce that dead souls continued fighting in the sky as they rose up to heaven. Only traces of the frescoes remain because the staircase was severely damaged during the bombing of Berlin. The Hungarian composer Franz Liszt (1811-1866) wrote a symphonic poem titled Hunnenschlacht in 1857. The first section of the piece has a dark, tempestuous, ghostly sound. A battle cry follows, and the song builds to an intense climax that includes an organ and offstage brass instruments.


Black Square (1915) by Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935)

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Malevich’s Black Square painting was first exhibited in 1910 at the Futurist Exhibition in the Russian city of Petrograd (today St. Petersburg). The simple black composition typifies Malevich’s leadership of the Suprematist movement, which celebrates pure artistic freedom and was focused on basic geometric forms painted in a range of colors. The movement’s goal was to lead to the “supremacy of pure feeling or perception in the visual arts.” The painting inspired a pop song by the Welch alternative rock band Manic Street Preachers called Black Square (2014). The song’s lyrics declare sympathy with the movement’s goals: “art is never modern, for art is eternal.”


Where the Wild Things Are (1963) by Maurice Sendak (1928-2012)

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Where the Wild Things Are is a beloved children’s book that has a fantastic plot focused on a young boy named Max, whose bedroom transforms into a wild jungle environment. Max encounters beasts called “Wild Things” and embarks on an adventure as their leader; but then he cooses to head home and enjoy the warm supper his mother has prepared. Sendak won the 1964 Caldecott medal for his illustrations and the book has remained popular with children since it was first published. In the 1980s, Sendak worked with composer Oliver Knussen on a children’s fantasy opera based on the book. The opera premiered in London in 1984 and in the United States in 1985.


Stained Glass Windows (1967) by Marc Chagall (1902-1970)

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Marc Chagall was considered the last survivor of the first generation of European modernists and for decades was the world’s best known Jewish artist. He created 12 colorful stained glass windows for the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, which he envisioned as “jewels of translucent fire” representing the tribes of Israel. The British composer John McCabe (1939-2015) wrote a 30-minute tone poem titled The Chagall Windows for orchestra in 1975. McCabe also wrote orchestral pieces inspired by Islamic art and the architecture of Antoni Gaudi.


Big Eyed Waifs by Margaret Keane (b. 1927)

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The contemporary artist Margaret Keane is an American artist who is now famous for painting her big eyed waifs, portraits of women and children with signature “Keane eyes.” She has achieved fame even though her husband Walter had taken credit for the paintings up until 1970. “Big Eyes” the Tim Burton-directed biographical film about her life, was released in 2014. Pop singer Lana Del Ray performed the languid song “Big Eyes,” which is written from Margaret’s point of view. It was released on the soundtrack to the film.


Featured Image: Detail of Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa, 1818-1819, Source: Wikimedia