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Kandinsky: the Abstract Artist Who Could See Music

Wassily Kandinsky is one of the most influential abstract artists in history. His paintings were inspired by a lifetime of experiences and the effects that music had on him. Join us as we journey through his life and artwork.

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Who is Wassily Kandinsky?

Wassily Kandinsky was born December 6th 1866 in Moscow, Russia. He was one of the very first abstract painters in modern painting, since most artists were very realistic painters at the time. Some of his famous paintings you may recognize are Squares with Concentric Circles, Composition X and Composition 8. Kandinsky wasn’t always an abstract painter, but started his art career in realism. Surprisingly, before he practised art, Kandinsky received a doctorate and studied law and economics! He spent a lot of his life travelling throughout European countries, ultimately gaining inspiration for his artwork.

Painting Music: How Synesthesia Inspired Kandinsky’s Art

Improvisation, Deluge by Wassily Kandinsky

Kandinsky had something rare called synesthesia, or joined perception, which is when someone automatically senses two of their 5 senses at once. For instance, if they heard certain sounds, they might see flashes of colour, or taste something in their mouth. Kandinsky would physically see colours when he heard music, and that inspired a lot of his artwork. The Yellow Sound was a play he directed in order to capture this unique feeling.

Kandinsky’s Life Before Painting


Kandinsky’s mother was in Moscow, one of his great-grandmothers was a Mongolian Princess, and his father was native to Kyakhta, Siberia, which was near the Chinese border. This in turn caused him to grow up with both European and Asian cultural heritage. Kandinsky’s family travelled a lot, and they visited Venice, Rome, Florence, the Caucasus, and the Crimean Peninsula until finally settling in Odessa, Ukraine in 1871. There, he finished secondary school, and became an amateur pianist, cello player, and painter. This was where he first became interested in colour, and believed that each colour had “a mysterious life of its own.”


Moscow, Red Square by Wassily Kandinsky
Flora by Rembrandt

In 1886, Kandinsky began to study law and economics at the University of Moscow, but was still very curious about colour. He constantly thought about Moscow's vivid architecture that is seen above, which was inspiration for his own artwork. We can see that represented in his painting titled Moscow Red Square.

In 1889, the university sent him off to study a culture in Vologda, a province in a forest. When he returned home, he gained a love of the non-realistic style of Russian folk painting. During that year, he also discovered Rembrandt’s works in the Hermitage, a Russian museum, and decided to keep learning about art with a trip to Paris. Meanwhile, he still continued law school, and graduated in 1893 with a doctorate.

Career Before Painting

By this point, Kandinsky wasn’t interested in continuing his law career, and wanted to be a painter, but he didn’t believe he could be one. Instead, he taught law at the university. When it was almost his 30th birthday in 1896, he was offered a position to be a professor at a university in Estonia. At this time, he had to make a tough decision and decide what he wanted to do with his future - art or law. In what he called a “now or never” mood, he refused the job offer, and travelled to Germany to become a painter.

How did Kandinsky Become a Painter?

The Village Choir by Anton Azbé (left) and Sounds of Spring by Franz von Stuck (right)

Once in Germany, Kandinsky enrolled in a private school run by Anton Azbé, who was a realist painter. After two years at the school, he decided to take a year to work and learn on his own. The following year, he re-enrolled in a different school -- the Munich Academy, where he was taught by Franz von Stuck, who was a painter, sculptor, printmaker and architect. In 1900, he graduated with a diploma and began a very successful career as a professional artist.

Kandinsky's Artistic Influences

Kandinsky was first inspired by Impressionism, Art Nouveau, Pointillism, European Expressionism and French Fauvism, all because of their interesting and unique use of colour. He hadn’t forgotten his inspirations from Moscow’s colourful architecture, and often used extremely vibrant colours and patterns to match what he remembered. Take a look at the vibrant colours in some of his paintings below.

A Mountain (left) and Group in Crinolines (right) by Wassily Kandinsky

Kandinsky’s Art Style

Improvisation 9 by Wassily Kandinsky

Kandinsky’s art style was a combination of everything that had influenced him, but he separated from the more realist style and developed a purely abstract style. He wanted to paint in a way where all the elements of art were visible without using actual objects or things you could recognize. He wanted to recreate what it was like to have synesthesia, to show what music looked like to him. While he wasn’t the first artist to be inspired by the feeling of music, his experience with synesthesia made him different from other artists that were inspired by music.

First Composition with Watercolour (left) and Composition VII (right) by Wassily Kandinsky
Bicycle Wheel by Marcel Duchamp

Even though he wasn’t the only or first artist within the abstract art movement, he was still known as one of the founders of the abstract art movement. This is mostly because of an artwork he created in 1910, that’s been given the name First Abstract Watercolour. Research done in the 1950s says that this artwork was actually created a little later in 1913, and was probably an experiment he did before painting Composition VII.

Kandinsky was an active member of the avant-garde art movement. Avant-garde artists created artwork that wasn’t popular or seen as “good” in most people’s eyes, but instead experimented with pushing the boundaries of what art was, like Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel above. Kandinsky helped found the 1909 New Artist’s Association - a group that displayed art that was largely rejected in the art community, and later created a different group with Franz Marc called Der Blaue Reiter, or The Blue Rider, named after one of Kandinsky’s paintings from 1903.

White Line (left) and Segment Bleu (right) by Wassily Kandinsky

In 1917, Kandinsky returned to Russia and in 1918 he became a professor at the Moscow Academy of Fine Arts. In 1919, he founded the Institute of Artistic Culture, and helped create 22 museums all across the Soviet Union. Kandinsky was given the job of a professor in 1920, and as a gift, the government organised a one man art show for him. The following year, he created the Russian Academy of Artistic Sciences, but the government had begun to prefer realistic art styles instead of avant garde, so Kandinsky moved away from Russia and settled in Berlin, Germany. This was when his art style completely changed again. While he used to paint spontaneously, he decided to try a different method, and began to paint in a more deliberate and calculated way. This change can be seen in his paintings White Line and Blue Segment.

Kandinsky and Circles

Several Circles by Kandinsky

Kandinsky is widely known for his use of shapes in his paintings, specifically, his use of circles. He included this shape in a lot of his art because, to him, it symbolised the cosmos. Kandinsky was also known to associate moods and colours with certain shapes. To him, a circle was a cold shape because of the lack of angles, and was associated with the colour blue. This idea was taught by Kandinsky during his time as a teacher at Bauhaus school - an art school that studied the relationships between shapes and colours.

Kandinsky’s Legacy

Kandinsky had one child named Vsevolod Kandinsky with his wife Nina Andreievskaya. In 1933, he moved to Paris. He lived his last 11 years near Paris, and became a French citizen in 1939.

Dominant Curve by Wassily Kandinsky

By this point, he preferred to call his work “concrete” instead of “abstract”. He combined the geometric shapes of his work during his time at Bauhaus and the organic shapes of his time in Moscow. Some of his art that emerged with this style are Violet Dominant, Dominant Curve (as seen above), Fifteen, Moderation, and Tempered Élan. In 1944, at the age of 77, Kandinsky passed away from cerebrovascular disease. He was a huge influence on 20th century art, being one of the main pioneers of abstract art and the avant garde movement. His work was far ahead of its time, and is now celebrated and practised by museums and classrooms around the world.

Kandinsky for Kids

Kandinsky inspired paintings are a great way to use paint as a form of expression. We’ve prepared two awesome kid-friendly art projects that use Kandinsky’s love of colour to create vibrant works of art.

Art Project #1: For Grades 1-5

Color Study, Squares with Concentric Circles by Wassily Kandinsky

This painting was a way for Kandisnky to represent the cosmos and use vibrant colours to bring life and energy to the artwork. He also wanted to see how different colours work together when they’re placed side by side. Recreate this wonderful Kandinsky painting in 3 easy steps!

  1. Use a ruler and a pencil to divide the paper into four square sections vertically and three sections horizontally.

  2. Prepare different paint colours including, but not limited to, red, yellow, blue, orange, and green.

  3. In each divided box create circles, starting with the smallest one in the centre to the biggest one on the outside. Make sure you switch colours for each circle!

Art Project #2: For Grades 6+

Composition X by Wassily Kandinsky

This art project is a creative abstract challenge to express your feelings using the elements of art without using recognizable or representational things. Play a song (it can be your favourite song, but try to choose one without lyrics) out loud and paint whatever comes to mind. Use a variety of colours, shapes/forms, lines, values, textures, and space to depict how the song makes you feel. Remember to keep in mind the rhythm and harmony of the composition. Does the song make you happy? What colours do you associate with happiness? Does the song make you calm? How do your brushstrokes look when you’re calm? Use this as a fun way to see how a song looks to you.

Teacher Resources:

If you’re a teacher that’s looking for classroom content based on Wassily Kandinsky, visit this quick and easy art history resource!

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If you’d like more worksheets related to art, check out our teachers pay teachers page where you can get worksheets and lesson plans for your classroom! More classroom resources like this can be found on our art resources for teachers page, where we break down art history and more!

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