So many great musicians have dipped a brush in a paint pot that it’s almost easier to list the few songsmiths that haven’t sat in front of an easel as opposed to declaring the ever-growing masses who have. Patti Smith almost considers herself more of a painter than she does a musician, Paul McCartney has been hung-up in galleries all over the world, and Bob Dylan’s works sell for a fortune.
For many musicians, it is far from just a relaxing pasttime and represents a chance for an avenue of expression outside of song. David Bowie famously declared that he “[worked] through musical problems by painting them out,” and Patti Smith beautifully declared that art in all its guises offers her escape, “In art and dream, may you proceed with abandon. In life, may you proceed with balance and stealth.”
Ultimately, songs and paintings exist in the same realm. Through culture, humanity’s narrative is traced and preserved; as Frida Kahlo once said, “I paint flowers so they will not die.” That is a sentiment mirrored a thousand times over by songwriters who have discussed music’s ability to preserve a moment, feeling or expression.
Sometimes, it would seem that this playful mirroring between the two arts has produced some direct influence on each other. A great many songs have been written about paintings or painters, and below, we’re looking at the interesting stories behind five of the very best.
‘Vincent’ by Don Mclean
There are no prizes for guessing who Don McLean wrote this touching eulogy about, in the very first line he references one of the artists most famous works with The Starry Night. Thereafter he waltzes through a touching tribute ballad to Van Gogh in a very stirring fashion.
Although the narrative of Van Gogh’s life has changed in recent years, somewhat dating the line “you took your life as lovers often do,” Don McLean’s ode clearly comes from a place of sincerity and makes for a very poignant piece of songwriting.
‘Picasso’s Last Words (Drink to Me)’ by Paul McCartney and Wings
In the annals of history, pioneering Cubist art guru Pablo Picasso’s last words have been denoted as, “drink to me, drink to my health, you know I can’t drink anymore.” As far as last words go, that is as much of a catchy epitaph as any. Paul McCartney picked up on their pithiness and transposed them into the chorus of a song.
The song itself is the sort of Wings number that led Alan Partridge to declare that they were “the band The Beatles could’ve been.” It is clear from Paul McCartney’s own painting’s that Picasso was a firm creative influence on him.
‘What the Water Gave Me’ by Florence + The Machine
‘What the Water Gave Me’ is a picture by Frida Khalo, and it happens to be one of the most luminous and visionary works of all time. It encapsulates the dreamy otherworldliness of the bathroom’s private escapism. It is this insular, imaginative comfort that Florence Welch hoped to capture in song.
In 2011, the powerful singer-songwriter told NME Magazine, “A lot of the time when I’m writing, things will just appear. I was writing the song and this book on symbolism was lying around, and it had the painting in it. It’s nice to mix the ordinary with extraordinary.”
‘Andy Warhol’ by David Bowie
No artist has permeated into the music world quite like Andy Warhol. From his legendary cover designs for The Velvet Underground to his iconic cover for Aretha Franklin’s Aretha LP he has been a literal constant presence in music.
However, in a more figurative sense, much of the New York counterculture music scene revolved around him as some sort of mythic centrepiece.
David Bowie encapsulated his influence perfectly in. this immortalizing art to the art-pop luminary. The enigmatic lyrics and vibrant melody bare all the hallmarks of Warhol picture transposed into song.
‘Mona Lisa’ by Nat King Cole
Nat King Cole quite frankly has some of the best pipes that business has ever heard, his soft story telling ways lend themselves perfectly to a musing poem about what is perhaps the most famous painting of them all, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.
“Do you smile to tempt a lover, Mona Lisa? / Or is this your way to hide a broken heart?” Cole croons over a wistful swoon of strings in a song that is by parts charming and poignant. The melody conjures up days of Hollywood’s golden years and with it Nat King Cole crafts a masterpiece of his own.