The Long Conversation between Painting and Poetry


through the centuries

6th B.C.


4th B.C.



1st B.C.






















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~556 – 468 B.C.


"Painting is silent poetry, and poetry painting that speaks." Attributed to Simonides by Plutarch in his De Gloria Atheniensium, III, 346. ^

~360 B.C.


For Plato, poets and painters are both imitators and their work a third-generation removed from the truth.  "Therefore it would at last be just for us to seize him [the imitative poet] and set him beside the painter as his antistrophe. For he is like the painter in making things that are ordinary by the standard of truth; and he is also similar in keeping company with a part of the soul that is on the same level and not with the best part. And thus we should at last be justified in not admitting him into a city that is going to be under good laws, because he awakens this part of the soul and nourishes it, and, by making it strong, destroys the calculating part…" (The Republic 605a-c).  ^

~335 B.C.


"The poet being an imitator just like the painter or other maker of likenesses, he must necessarily in all instances represent things in one or other of three aspects, either as they were or are, or as they are said or thought to be or to have been, or as they ought to be." (Poetics 1460b:25) ^

~20 B.C.


"Ut pictura poesis," Horace writes, "As is painting so is poetry." He continues in his epistle to the sons of Piso (Ars Poetica): "Some works will captivate you when you stand very close to them and others if you are at a greater distance. This one prefers a darker vantage point, that one wants to be seen in the light since it feels no terror before the penetrating judgment of the critic. This pleases only once, that will give pleasure even if we go back to it ten times over." ^


Lu Chi

"Everything in the world exists within the tip of a brush." (Essay on Literature) ^

701 - 761

Wang Wei

Wang Wei was a renowned poet, musician, and painter.  Sung Dynasty poet Shu Shih later praised him saying: "In his poetry there is painting and in his painting there is poetry." ^

11th century

The image of falling leaves

By the 2nd century in Chinese poetry the image of falling leaves had become a symbol for "troubled times and great talent being cast aside. Admittedly hyperbolic, the allusion became popular in exile poetry before it appeared as a painting theme in the eleventh century. Paintings of falling leaves are sometimes accompanied by poems that empathize with unjust political punishment." (Alfreda J. Murck, Peking University) ^

11th-12th century

The School of Literati Painting

In the 11th century Chinese scholars said that "'Poetry is painting without form, and painting is poetry with form.' It was at this time that paintings became known as 'soundless poems.' Not surprisingly, the 11th-century landscape painter Kuo Hsi felt that an artist who captures the essence of a poem will naturally be able to convey it through a visual image. Under 12th century Emperor Hui-tsung (r. 1101-1125), lines of poetry were even frequently used to test painters at court. In illustrating the line, 'Scattered peaks conceal an ancient temple,' for example, most painters showed the tip of a pagoda, a roof, or even an entire building. The top candidate, however, depicted only a banner peaking out from the mountains, suggesting a temple concealed within the vast landscape. Hence, allusion is ideal for conveying the infinite possibilities of a poetic line. As scholar art became the mainstream of Chinese painting, artists not only described the natural world but also turned to art to express their feelings and ideas. Lines of poetry and writing provided an ideal vehicle for expression and illustration by artists, and 'Painting is in poetry and poetry is in painting' became a distinctive feature of Chinese art." (National Palace Museum, Taipei Taiwan, "The Theme of Poetry and Literature in Chinese Art Exhibit 2001") ^


Ma Yuan and Emperor Song Ningzong

Ma Yuan, one of the most famous artists of the Southern Song Dynasty (1126-1276), collaborated with the Emperor Song Ningzong on the Album of Poetry and Painting. ^

14th century

Persian Miniatures

Persian painters created beautiful illustrations for the national epic poem, the Shahnama, written by Abu'l Qasim Firdausi in 1010. The historical exploits recounted in that great poem become essential themes for the tradition of Persian miniature paintings. ^


Leonardo da Vinci

In his treatise on painting, Leonardo defends the primacy of painting against poets who have haughtily ranked painting as a mechanical art: "And if you call painting dumb poetry, the painter may call poetry blind painting. Now which is the worse defect? to be blind or dumb? Though the poet is as free as the painter in the invention of his fictions they are not so satisfactory to men as paintings; for, though poetry is able to describe forms, actions and places in words, the painter deals with the actual similitude of the forms, in order to represent them…. And if the poet gratifies the sense by means of the ear, the painter does so by the eye—the worthier sense; but I will say no more of this but that, if a good painter represents the fury of a battle, and if a poet describes one, and they are both together put before the public, you will see where most of the spectators will stop, to which they will pay the most attention, on which they will bestow most praise, and which will satisfy the best. Undoubtedly painting being by a long way the more intelligible and beautiful, will please most."  (From page 16 a-b  of a fragment of Leonardo's Libro di Pittura, in the Library of Lord Ashburnham. The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, Vol. I edited by Jean Paul Richter, Sections 653-654. ) ^



At the age of sixty, Michelangelo starts to write poetry seriously, beginning with love sonnets, and becomes the first great painter-poet in the European tradition. ^

17th century

Ragamala paintings

Indian ragamala paintings "illustrate poetry dealing with musical forms and actually help to instruct the musicians on the mood of the piece and the notes they should use to play it." ^


3rd Earl of Shaftesbury

"Comparisons and parallel[s] … between painting and poetry … [are] almost ever absurd and at best constrained, lame and defective." Plastics ^


Gotthold Ephraim Lessing

In his book Laokoön: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry Lessing attacks the tradition of ut pictura poesis as having caused great misunderstandings about the true nature of painting and poetry.  ^


William Blake

Blake writes, engraves, and prints his first illuminated book of poems, Songs of Innocence, combining great poetry with vibrant images. ^


John Ruskin

"Painting is properly to be opposed to speaking or writing, but not to poetry. Both painting and speaking are methods of expression. Poetry is the employment of either for the noblest purposes" Modern Painters, Volume 3 (5.31) ^


W. H. Auden

Auden's poem "Musée des Beaux Arts" is a brilliant exposition on a major theme of the great European painters, with a special focus on Breughel's painting Icarus:

"About suffering they were never wrong,

The Old Masters: how well they understood

Its human position; how it takes place

While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;" ^


Wallace Stevens

Stevens devotes a whole chapter in his book on poetics, The Necessary Angel, to the "The Relations Between Poetry and Painting," where he writes, "No poet can have failed to recognize how often a detail, a propos or remark, in respect to painting, applies also to poetry. The truth is that there seems to exist a corpus of remarks in respect to painting, most often the remarks of painters themselves, which are as significant to poets as to painters. All of these details, to the extent that they have meaning for poets as well as for painters, are specific instances of relations between poetry and painting. I suppose, therefore, that it would be possible to study poetry by studying painting, or that one could become a painter after one had become a poet, not to speak of carrying on in both métiers at once, with the economy of genius, as Blake did. Let me illustrate this point of the double value (and one might well call it the multifold value) of sayings for painters that mean as much for poets because they are, after all, sayings about art. Does not the saying of Picasso that a picture is a horde of destructions also say that a poem is a horde of destructions?" ^


William Carlos Williams

In his poem "The Dance" Williams writes a rollicking song for another Breughel painting:

"In Breughel's great picture, The Kermess,

the dancers go round, they go round and

around, the squeal and the blare and the

tweedle of bagpipes, a bugle and fiddles …" ^


Robert Lowell

"The painter's vision is not a lens, it trembles to caress the light," Lowell writes in his poem "Epilogue," which looks to painting for an insight into the technical challenge of poetic accuracy. ^



Please join this long conversation between poetry and painting by emailing your thoughts or research. If you're a poet or painter, how has that other art affected your work? If you are a student, critic, or lover of the arts what conjunctions or disjunctions between poetry and painting have you experienced?








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