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Music and Art

Honoring a Singer
Bob Thompson (American, 1937-66), <I>Homage to Nina Simone</I>, 1965, oil on canvas
zoom Bob Thompson (American, 1937-66), Homage to Nina Simone, 1965, oil on canvas


The singer Nina Simone was born in 1933 in North Carolina. Her music was a unique mixture of jazz, soul, blues, folk, and gospel. Simone first found fame in New York, the center of vanguard music during the late 1950s. By the 1960s, she was popular not only for her eclectic sound, but also for her music’s connection to the civil rights movement.

The artist Bob Thompson grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, where he developed a love for music, especially jazz. When he moved to New York in 1959, he became associated with a community of avant-garde musicians, visual artists, and poets. Like jazz musicians, Thompson enjoyed the freedom of improvisation, and he participated in live art performances called “happenings.”

Thompson spent the summer of 1965 in Provincetown, Massachusetts, with a group of friends and acquaintances that included Simone. Perhaps he was drawn to Simone because of her ability to make a classic song her own. Thompson, too, often borrowed from artists he admired, changing their compositions and infusing them with his own style. For example, he adapted this painting from a 17th-century work called Bacchanale—The Adrians, by the French artist Nicolas Poussin.

In this painting, Thompson celebrates the singer by creating a world of vibrant colors, full of the energy her music must have generated in him. People gather together to relax, dance, and play. In the center sits a blue figure strumming a guitar, and just to the left stands Simone, recognizable by her unique hairstyle. She often wore her hair in a natural Afro that helped make her a cultural symbol for the black community.

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1. The hairstyle helps identify this figure as Nina Simone.
2. Thompson was inspired by Old Master painters like Nicolas Poussin.
Nicolas Poussin, The Death of Germanicus, 1627, oil on canvas


March 2007