ut pictura poesis

The Latin phrase Ut pictura poesis is an analogy that Horace introduced in his Ars Poetica to tentatively compare the art of painting with that of poetry. Translated literally, “as is painting, so is poetry,” the ensuing centuries have yielded many varied theories focused around this argument, some of which will be discussed later in this essay. In context, Horace employs the idiom to afford to literature the same broad analysis that painting requires in order to provide viewers aesthetic pleasure. [1] Just as paintings can be enjoyed with a close viewing while others necessitate greater distance, so too should one approach a poem with a close reading or with a broader eye to the piece as a whole.

The concept that poetry and painting might somehow be linked was not original to Horace, though he coined the phrase “Ut pictura poesis.” (see narrative-lyric-drama) Scholars generally agree that Horace would have known the work of Plutarch, who attributed the quotation “Poema pictura loquens, pictura poema silens” [2] to Simonides of Keos in his book De Gloria Atheniesium.[3] Plutarch employed the association to laud historians who wrote such imagistic prose that readers could “see” the moments they were reading. [4] As we will explore later, this idea has recently been revived in exploring analogies between portraiture and biography.

Plato, in his Republic, makes it explicit that he accepts neither painting nor poetry as a source of knowledge. [5] Both endeavors provide not the reality that precipitates knowledge but mimetic representations that deceive as they try to emulate truth. For Plato, both arts of painting and poetry give us a false simulation [see simulation-simulacrum, (2)]of the real, since neither provides the immediacy nor unmediated knowledge that comes from the study of philosophy. [see reality-hyperreality, (2)]

The same mimetic representation of life in painting and poetry is central to Aristotle’s Poetics but yield very different results. [6] (see mimesis, representation) Rather than discard illusions, Aristotle views poetic and artistic representations of the world as part of human nature. For him, those arts provide a way to get to the real.

Aristotle’s arguments concerning the structure of structural elements in tragedy and painting (plot and design, respectively) provided a springboard for the Renaissance discussion of Ut pictura poesis. [7] While both painting and poetry were popular, arguments of this era focused mainly around which should have precedence. Leonardo da Vinci recognized the imitation of nature in both arts but, not surprisingly, affirmed painting as the more noble art. [8] This paragone, or competition, between media of painting (and sometimes sculpture) and poetry placed primacy on painting because vision was regarded as superior to hearing, the sense on which poetry depended. [9] The supremacy of painting that da Vinci claimed was a crucial discussion in Italy, and one that gained substantial followers. In 16th Century Italy the dialogue concerning painting and poetry was divided into two distinct camps. Florentines employed the relationship to contrast painting to poetry while the Venetian debate centered on the unity of the two arts. [10] Concentrating on what painters might learn from poets and vice versa, both camps agreed that the imitation of nature was a key issue addressed by both arts.

Charles-Alphonse du Fresnoy’s poem, De arte graphica (1668), proved seminal in expanding the discussion of Ut pictura poesis beyond Italy. His opening passage, “Ut pictura poesis erit; similisque poesi/sit pictura…" [11] inspired both arguments and commentary as well as new avenues of exploration. [12] English poet John Dryden translated the poem into English in 1695, with an introductory essay “A parallel betwixt painting and poetry.”

A wider audience for discussion of the Horatian ideology also meant more criticism of the concept. Abbe Jean-Baptiste Dubos, making a distinction between the natural act of seeing and the arbitrary signs necessary for reading, argued for the primacy of painting. [13] This was supported and expanded in 1744 by James Harris in his Three Treatises. Particularly appropriate to an exploration of media and mediation, Harris distinguished between painting and poetry, “Poetry is forced to pass through the medium of compact, while painting applies immediately through the medium of nature." [14] The double mediation that occurs when writing is inscribed and then read depends on decoding the symbolic whereas figurative painting has immediacy with the viewer.

Much more critical than those who simply argued for the supremacy of one art over another, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Laocoön, originally published in 1766 and aptly subtitled “An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry,” attacked the very theoretical core of Ut pictura poesis. Lessing considers poetry and art of time and painting an art of space; poetry addresses the ear and is played out successively in time while painting speaks to the eye and everything is laid out in one space. [15] To transgress the border between time and space too frequently is dangerous, Lessing asserts, and leads to confusion of media. Instead painting and poetry should be “as two equitable and friendly neighbors,” trying to avoid each other, knowing that small transgressions are unavoidable, and at the boundaries making small concessions if absolutely necessary. [16]

Ut pictura poesis took on new meaning in the 19th Century when John Ruskin and the Romantics applied it to their conception of art, based not on imitation but expression. In Modern Painters, Ruskin made the distinction between painting and poetry, “Both painting and speaking are modes of expression. Poetry is the employment of either for the noblest purposes." [17] Although there were artists who still aligned figurative painting with poetry, the art world was moving away from what had previously been a polemical debate. The painting academies had given artists the status they once used poetic forms to achieve, and the art world was looking toward less representational art.

Lessing’s work influenced the early growth of semiotics, sparking discussions of how humans learn, see, and understand. Still focusing on Ut pictura poesis, we can look at the seminal works of C.S. Peirce and Ferdinand de Sausseure. In “Symbol, Index, Icon” Peirce outlines the triad that makes meaning possible: symbol, icon, and index. In our exploration of the relation between painting and poetry, this reinforces the connection of an image (icon) to the word that represents that image in language (symbol). In opposition the Peirce’s treatment of the elements of language as three signs, in his “Nature of the Linguistic Sign” Sausseur concentrates more on the atomic unit of symbol, index, and icon. The symbol, or linguistic sign, is always a double articulated form and requires both icon and index to create meaning.

In his 1940 essay, “Towards a Newer Laocoön,” Clement Greenberg changes the terms of the dialogue by investigating abstract art as a reaction to a confusion of the arts, and how it might deal with that confusion. “There has been, is, and will be, such a thing as a confusion of the arts." [18] He surveys the history of art as artists attempting mimic the dominant prototype of art, which serves to unite or combine (his word is “confuse”) the arts. Mimesis is attainable by artistic ability to create the illusion that their representation is real, an illusion fundamentally based in literary values. According to Greenberg, we can find in abstract art a rejection of earlier artistic denial of the materiality of painting. [19] He argues that value of art lies in emphasizing and the possibility of overpowering the medium. [20]

More recent work in the field of Ut pictura poesis has explored variable permutations of the original painting/poem relationship. Published in 1983, Richard Wendorf’s “Ut Pictura Biographia: Biography and Portrait Painting as Sister Arts” seeks to extend the general relationship of painting and poetry to a more specialized definition of portraits and biographies. He expands Aristotle’s assertion that a portrait can create something at once an ideal of beauty and a real likeness and links it to later writers such as Socrates and Dryden. Recognizing Lessing’s strict differentiation between time and space in literary and artistic forms, Wendorf argues that a portrait does engage in temporal movement. Factors such as “a ‘time of contemplation’… ‘intrinsic time’ [are] inherent in the texture itself of a picture, in its composition, or in its aesthetic arrangement." [21] Wendorf allows for a discourse less binary than Lessing’s, recognizing the limitations inherent in both literary and artistic practices while providing for a diffuse boundary between the two.

Ten years later, W.J.T. Mitchell’s “Ut Pictura Theoria: Abstract Painting and Language” deals with the question of whether abstract art has in fact escaped all traces of verbal form and what it means if it has. While criticizing Tom Wolfe’s superficial reading of abstract art, Mitchell builds on his recognition that abstract art does depend on a sort of “verbal contamination” in the form of theory. [22] The notion that art rests on theory is not a new one, and Mitchell traces it from early artists (such as Turner, Blake and Hogarth) to early European and later American abstract painters. He deftly answers potential objections that theory is outside the realm of the painter by presenting two answers; even figurative art depends on viewers knowing a narrative that exists outside the painting and abstract art still has content and subject, though representations may be absent.

The dialectic between painting and poetry evidenced in Ut pictura poesis reveals what I see as an inability for humans to create using only one sense. The question of which sense is more ‘natural’ and less arbitrary is an endless one, yielding often predictable results. A more pressing and provocative problem is that of the vibrations between poetry and painting, indeed between our senses themselves.

Judith Harvey
Winter 2002