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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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Ut pictura poesis: “as is painting so is poetry,” is
often either implicitly or explicitly reversed to “as is
poetry so is painting,” to indicate an extended analogy,
if not an identification, between the two media. This
classical theory of parallels between the arts was
widely held and developed, especially from the Middle
Ages through the Enlightenment, and served as the
testing ground for theories of imitation and as the
incubator for systematic aesthetics. The discussions
often revolved around “natural” (painting) and
“arbitrary” (language) signs and symbols, and the ques-
tions, usually unstated until the eighteenth century,
were “How does painting or poetry communicate?”
and “What are the limits of each medium in time and

Particular emphasis was always placed on the ability
of the poet (or orator) to make his listener see the
object, and of the painter to make his viewer under-
stand meaning as well as imagine action. The usual
major developments of the parallel include the princi-
ples that both arts are imitative and that their subjects
must be significant and unified human actions, usually
drawn from history, epics, romances, and the Bible.
They must, therefore, express moral or psychological
truths, hold to consistency or “decorum,” and offer to
instruct, to delight, and to move, although these ends
and their relative importance were much disputed.
There were fairly regular demands that the painter as
well as the poet possess “learning,” along with innate
capacity and technical training. Theorists were usually
interested in justifying the arts in general, especially
in the face of criticism from historians and philosophers
who challenged their utility and morality.

The theory of ut pictura poesis is applied in many
ways. It may mean that the poet, without any real
attempt to compete with the painter, should give
enough concrete detail for the reader to form an accu-
rate and vivid picture. This position was particularly
common in the early eighteenth century, especially
when critics examined the nature of metaphor. An


equally important meaning may involve the poet's
control over the reception of detail. The poet may
“frame” or “light” a scene, or he may carry a reader
from “foreground” to “middle ground” to “back-
ground,” often using the painter's terminology. A kind
of stasis is often effected, even when, as in the novels
of Henry James and Thomas Hardy, a visual composi-
tion evolves as characters enter a space and take places,
almost as in a tableau. With ekphrasis (or ecphrasis),
an essentially rhetorical device in which an object
formed in one art becomes the matter for another, the
theory only apparently changes or takes on another
dimension. The poet may indeed complete with the
painter or the painter with the poet to render some
art object, may attempt, in effect, to translate it either
literally or spiritually. The poet may, however, be
responding to a painting, simply revealing his reactions
rather than attempting in any way a reproduction. The
converse is also true: the painter need not be trying
to reproduce the poem, or even to illustrate a facet
of it, but may be revealing his intellectual and
emotional reaction to the verbal art work.

Many Renaissance theorists, while admitting, even
urging, the parallels, tended to make a case for one
medium as superior to, or at least competing with, the
other. The most usual distinction was that poetry
appealed to man's essential faculty, reason, while
painting was simply and dangerously sensory; or,
conversely, that poetry appealed merely to slow reason
while painting rightly and immediately overwhelmed
the viewer through sight, the greatest of the senses,
by being clearly imitative of nature, by, to note a
favorite metaphor, “holding up a mirror to life.”
Gregory the Great in the sixth century, and during the
Renaissance Savonarola and Giulio Romano asserted
that paintings are “the scriptures of the igno-
rant”—Christ gave not only the gospels but his picture
on Veronica's veil—and so painting was seen as a
simple and powerful alternative for language, “books
of lay-men” (Thomas Fuller, Worthies of England,
1662). But there is an equally strong if not “popular”
Neo-Platonic view, well voiced by Pico della
Mirandola in Heptaplus (1489), that the picture is a
form of revelation, an incarnation of the Word. The
value of the image then is not to present truths to the
illiterate nor is it to interact with language for a more
intense impact on the viewer-reader. Rather, its
emblematic mystery or complexity, by serving as a kind
of vision, lures or thrusts the viewer to meditation on
truths. Furthermore, since the picture can be taken in
quickly (instantaneously?) the process of viewing
immediately transcends the gross sensory act and is not
far removed, at least conceptually, from Neo-Platonic
intuitive perception. The knot was cut by G. P. Bellori,
Vite de pittori, scultori ed architetti moderni (1672),
who claimed that both art forms appeal equally and
concurrently to the senses and the understanding,
and by Joseph Trapp, Praelectiones poeticae (1711-15;
trans. 1742), who suggested that both art forms be
combined to appeal to the whole man.

Some of the complexity surrounding the entire
problem of ut pictura poesis may derive from or be
reinforced by the intricacy of the word sentio, which
in its various forms in Latin, English, and the Romance
languages indicates “knowing” or “understanding” as
well as “experiencing through the senses.” Language
symbolizes while painting can imitate by natural signs,
and the interior confusion revealed through the
ambivalent, perhaps ambiguous, use of sentio to record
the experience both of language and of the plastic arts
of painting and sculpture appears to be another aspect
of the general confusion of art forms. It is worth noting
that in Greek graphein means “to write” or “to paint”
(as does hsieh in literary Chinese), while until the late
eighteenth century Western knowledge of hieroglyphs
was limited to seeing them as either literal or mystical
representations of things, rather than as language.

Furthermore, the easy exchange in the arts of terms
such as “harmony,” “proportion,” “highlight,” and
“decorum” encouraged difficulties as critical vocabu-
laries were sought. Such terms may well have been
the metaphors of a man who knew one art form well
but wanted to talk of another less known. But once
the engaging analogies were started, they were there
to be extended. In addition, terms of plastic arts such
as “chiaroscuro,” “Claudian,” and “sculpturesque,”
when applied to literature, are often limited to similar
content rather than to similar form (Giovannini, 1950).

One major problem in considering ut pictura poesis
is the difficulty of determining whether the many com-
ments on the sister arts reflected a concern for aes-
thetics or for social and financial position. Until the
eighteenth century there was little pursuit of what we
would call the “aesthetics” of the parallel, as is
evidenced by the general lack of systematic discrim-
ination among all fields of learning or the arts. Even
the “arts” and the “sciences” were not clearly distin-
guished until the resolution of the “quarrel between
the ancients and the moderns” in the late seventeenth
and early eighteenth century, so from the classical
period through the seventeenth century, thinkers
bundled together what to the twentieth-century man
appear to be very strange bedfellows: musicians and
astronomers, cooks and architects. Francis Bacon, in
De augmentis scientiarum (1623), IV, 2, categorizes
music and painting as arts of simply sensory pleasure
with the cautionary note that they may overstimulate
already wayward emotions; he indicates their low rank


by not including them with the liberal arts of poetry
and history, both of which demand reason and imagi-
nation. Well past the Renaissance, painters were seen
as mere craftsmen who made things that appealed to
the senses; they were hardly worthy of the status tradi-
tionally given the rational or inspired poet (Kristeller,
1951; 1952).

Within this context, from the fourteenth through the
seventeenth centuries, art theorists in Italy, France, and
England almost invariably claimed that painting, like
poetry, was a liberal, not a mechanical art. The essen-
tially sociological aim of raising the position of the
painter through the parallel with the poet is nicely
demonstrated by the arguments for the superiority of
painting over poetry as found in Leonardo da Vinci's
Paragone in the early sixteenth century and is carried
on by the Comte de Caylus, Tableaux tirés de l'Iliade,
de l'Odyssée d'Homère, et de l'Énéide de Virgile
Joshua Reynolds, Discourses (1769-90), and J. M. W.
Turner, Lectures (1811-23). In the latter half of the
eighteenth century, however, social respect rose
sharply for the painter who produced a unique work
in a universally “read” form (R. Cohen [1964], Ch. IV).

Modern scholars concerned with the interrelations
of the arts often fail to recognize the differences be-
tween the use of one art by another and the trans-
ference of styles from one art to another. Many studies
in Geistesgeschichte, Weltanschauung, and milieu have
been superficially attractive, but too often they are
presumptuous or “hobbyhorsical” in the pursuit of
parallels (R. Wellek [1942], and R. Cohen [1964], Ch.
IV). The great danger in any specific application of
the theory of the relations between poetry and painting
is that the literary critic starts to see “pictures” in even
the slightest touch of detail or suggestion of stasis. A
critic's interest in ekphrasis may tempt him toward a
full analogy between a particular poem and a particu-
lar painting on the basis of a few similar but minor
details. A different type of danger is that many early
theorists must be read with particular care since they
often use the term “poetry” to mean, or to include,

Although the emphasis in this study is on the art
object, whether verbal or plastic, as art object, the
obvious must not be overlooked: a demonstrable inten-
tion and effect of crossing art forms has an historical,
cultural, or contextual significance that transcends the
formally aesthetic. The medieval ordered portrait of
the blond heroine is not only painterly and further is
not only “ideal beauty,” but it is goodness as well, or
even primarily. The landscapes of Pope, Balzac, the
Brontës, Zola, and Hardy are far more than simply
places in which characters move, just as are the paint-
ings of Bosch, the Breughels, Watteau, Constable,
Turner, Henri Rousseau, and Cézanne. They may be
worlds of the senses, but they are also the landscapes
of meaning.