Vance Kirkland

Kirkland and Synesthesia

A strange aspect of Kirkland’s paintings is that many of his color combinations are derived from classical music. Vance Kirkland had a rare ability called synesthesia—whereby he could sense colors when listening to music. While he could sense color when he listened to most music, he particularly enjoyed and wanted the complexities of classical music, then putting those colors into some of his paintings. He did not know the word synesthesia, and he forbade his friend Hugh Grant, now Director & Curator of Kirkland Museum, to tell others about his sense, fearing he would be considered a freak or, worse, accused of making up something sensational. However, in 1978, at age 73 and terminally ill with hepatitis (from a bad blood transfusion in the hospital), he was interviewed by two curators from the Denver Art Museum for his Vance Kirkland FIFTY YEARS retrospective, resulting in a 47-page catalog. On page thirty-three they asked, “Does your knowledge of and great appreciation for music have any discernible effect on your painting? For instance, do you feel a relationship between the tonalities of sound and color?” Kirkland answered, “I have always interpreted sound as color. Mahler, Schoenberg, Bartók, Berg, Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Ives all explored new tonalities that aided me in transposing sounds into colors.1

Hence Kirkland could “hear color” and would seek out unusual sonorities and mild to medium dissonance in orchestral and vocal classical music for the colors of some of his surrealist and abstract paintings. But, if a musical composition was heavily dissonant, Kirkland said he would “see” black or nothing that he could use in his paintings. Some completely harmonic compositions that he loved gave him non-contrasting colors that were not appropriate for his dynamic paintings—such as those by Beethoven, Brahms, Dvořák, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Puccini, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Verdi and many others. Chamber music, with a smaller number of instruments, particularly set off Kirkland’s synesthesia. Chamber works by modern composers produced unusual and vibrating color combinations he wanted for his paintings. His favorite classical works were the Six String Quartets of Béla Bartók.

Vocal classical music of opera, specific singers and ensemble singing also supplied him color combinations for his paintings. Particularly the voices of coloratura sopranos and tenors gave him bright colors that he preferred (hence operas by Bellini, Donizetti and others, as well as Cavalli and Handel with countertenor parts). He certainly loved other lower register voice categories; however, lower notes gave him more muted, mellow colors that are lovely but not what Kirkland wanted for his paintings. Kirkland’s synesthesia was additionally set off by ensemble singing such as duets, trios, quartets, etc. (particularly Richard Strauss, Mozart and Rossini; then Donizetti [sextet from Lucia], Bellini and Verdi). Ensemble singing paralleled Kirkland’s interest in chamber music.

Lists of Kirkland’s favorite classical composers and favorite operas have been documented by Hugh Grant for Kirkland Museum visitors and scholars. Kirkland’s top 25 favorite composers, in order, were Béla Bartók, Gustav Mahler, Sergei Prokofiev, Charles Ives, Dmitri Shostakovich, Vincenzo Bellini, Richard Strauss, Ludwig van Beethoven, Claude Debussy, Richard Wagner, Alban Berg, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Maurice Ravel, Gaetano Donizetti, Igor Stravinsky, Johannes Brahms, Lord Benjamin Britten, Giacomo Puccini, Giuseppe Verdi, Piotr Tchaikovsky, Franz Schubert, Alexander Scriabin, Carl Nielsen, Darius Milhaud and Elliott Carter.


Lewis Story and Dianne Perry Vanderlip, “An Interview with Vance Kirkland,” in Vance Kirkland FIFTY YEARS (Denver, CO: The Denver Art Museum, 1978), 33.