Image credits: Paul Keene, (1920-2009), Street Quartet, 1990, acrylic on canvas, H.54 x W. 52.25 inches, James A. Michener Art Museum, Purchased with funds provided by Ann and Joseph Gardocki.

When you look at a work of art, you can describe it using adjectives, like calm, bright, energetic, and quiet. You can also compare visual art with music. Try it!

Look at this work by Paul Keene closely. Try comparing the colors to musical elements. Is the red loud? Strong? Is the blue quiet and calm? Is the work giving you a fast rhythm or a slow rhythm? How? Is the mixture of colors giving you the impression of many sounds, or do you only hear one sound? Use your imagination!

Paul Keene liked to use bright, bold colors in daring ways in his paintings. This use of color creates a sense of energy in the work. Color can be a powerful element in a work of art, and artists can use color in expressive ways. Sometimes color can just describe what an object looks like, symbolize something, or convey a certain emotion. What kinds of colors is Keene using in this work? Where is he placing the warm and the cool colors? What kind of feeling do you get from the colors being used? If the colors in this painting changed, how would its mood change?

Music was a large part of Paul Keene’s life, and his strong interest in blues and jazz began as a young boy.  As a child, he was inspired by songs during church services. As a teenager, he waited with his friends to see jazz musicians playing in the clubs in Philadelphia. Keene felt jazz was a rhythm and a unique language. He even created a series of paintings in the 1980s focused on jazz music. Keene believed that to succeed as a fine artist, “…the work must sing out, and the viewer must hear it.” He admired the great jazz musician, Miles Davis. Keene said that Davis could “create a picture in your mind with his music.”

Have you ever listened to jazz music before? If you haven’t, try it! Close your eyes and listen to the sounds. How would you describe it? What kind of instruments do you hear? How does it make you feel?

Activity: Discuss this work with a friend or family member. What kind of sounds or music is the quartet singing? Write down all the describing words you can think of. If you can, choose a piece of music that you feel goes with this painting. Next, do the opposite—listen to a music selection of your choice and then create a painting in response to it.  Be sure to see this work next time you visit the Michener!

See this painting in high gigapixel resolution on Google Arts and Culture.

Hear more about this painting on the Museum’s Permanent Collection Youth Audio Tour.

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