ut pictura poesis

Literally meaning, “as is painting, so is poetry,” u.p.p., frequently referred to as the Horatian simile, is culled from Horace’s Ars Poetica (l. 361). Horace’s dictum posits an essential similarity or comparability of the literary and visual arts, a similarity suggested elsewhere in the classical tradition. Though of minor significance within the Ars Poetica itself, u.p.p has, since the Renaissance, occasioned an enormous volume of both positive and negative commentary bearing on the kinship of the two arts (Princeton 881-2). In general, ancient suggestions of u.p.p. tend to stress the depictive capacity and visual reception of painting as an appeal for clarity in poetic work. Modern invocations usually aim at dignifying painting, and, most recently, at freeing it from the dominance of literature. Renaissance and Baroque scholars have used u.p.p. to suggest classical forebears of their attempts to legitimate painting as a liberal art, while others such as La Fontaine, Shaftesbury, Lessing, Irving Babbit, and Clement Greenberg have explicitly or implicitly attacked the dictum, claiming that its study and adherence leads to a “confusion of the arts” (Princeton 882). U.p.p. has recently acquired new currency in the discourse examining the relationship of word to image in media expressions.

Equation and comparison of the so-called sister arts of poetry and painting do not begin with Horace. Larrabee notes that Simonides of Keos was long credited with having said (according to Plutarch), “Poema pictura loquens, pictura poema silens,” or poetry is a speaking picture, painting a silent poetry” (Princeton 881-2). Of much greater importance to future discourse, however, are the views of the relationship of painting to poetry (and vice-versa) expressed in Aristotle’s Poetics, though, as Rensellaer W. Lee notes, Horace and Aristotle “had by no means tended to identify [poetry and painting] as did the Renaissance and Baroque critics” (Lee 5). Despite Aristotle’s general subordination in the Poetics of opsis under lexis, [see Melos/Opsis/Lexis] while identifying the objects of dramatic imitation as “men in action,” he stipulates that, as in painting, these men must be portrayed “either as better than in real life, or as worse, or as they are” (Poetics 3). Much like Horace, then, Aristotle here establishes literature as an art form comparable to painting, in this case in its objects, capabilities, and limitations in imitation.

As Larrabee, Rensselaer W. Lee, and W.J.T. Mitchell each point out, the past and present centrality and currency of u.p.p. in aesthetic discourse stand in marked disproportion to its role and explication within Horace’s text [see aesthetics]. The Horatian simile is formulated at the end of a discussion warning the poet to avoid blemishes, though some may be excusable if the work in general possesses great beauty. In the 18 lines on this theme alone, Horace compares the poet to a musician, a marksman, and a copyist. U.p.p. comes in the following immediate context:

    (l. 371) As it is with a picture,
    So with a poem; one will attract you more
    The nearer you stand, another, the farther away.
    One likes the shadow, another will want to be seen
    In broad daylight, and has not fear of the critic
    With all his shrewd insight. One gives pleasure
    But once only; another will always give pleasure,
    Though people ask for it back ten times over. (Horace, 300)

Horace, then, neither defends nor notably explains the simile, only noting that different poems, like different paintings, come off best under varying conditions and kinds of scrutiny. At the beginning of the Ars Poetica, Horace maintains a conceit linking the demands of taste exerted on the two art forms, but goes no further in grounding the relationship (ll. 1-37).

As R.W. Lee ably shows, between the middles of the 16th and 18th centuries, u.p.p. was used by Lomazzo, du Fresnoy, Dolce, and Francisco de Hollanda, among many others, to establish an integral, fraternal relationship between the two art forms. Lee notes that during the Renaissance, the task of these apologists for painting, “who sought to invest painting with the dignity of a liberal art,” most frequently consisted “in asserting that painting merits serious consideration as a liberal art only by virtue of its likeness to poetry” (Lee 7,3). The medium of poetry, then, occupied the privileged position in the relationship between the two art forms. Similarly, equally according to the Horatian simile while stressing the other side of the equation, many, like Dolce, as Lee points out, argued that “every composition of learned men” is painting, (Lee 3). On the other hand, “a particularly imaginative painter,” in Larrabee’s phrase, was said to manifest poetical qualities (Princeton 882). During this period, the simile was frequently drawn out, regularly equating along Aristotelian lines design with plot, and expression with color. The discourse on u.p.p. was not limited to critics and academics, rather specific recourse to the “poetic” faculty of visual art proved explicitly instrumental to the conceptions and productions of several painters, among them Poussin (Princeton 882).

The reaction against u.p.p. began in the early 18th century, and found its best proponent in G. E. Lessing. La Fontaine, as Lee and others note, anticipated the movement to downplay similarities in the “sister arts” in a couplet from his Conte du Tableau:

    Les mots et les couleurs ne sont choses pareilles
    Ni les yeux ne sont les oreilles
    . (in Lee 9)

Similarly, Shaftesbury writes in Plastics (1712) that “[c]omparisons and parallel[s]… between painting and poetry…almost ever absurd and at best constrained, lame and defective” (Princeton 882). Lessing spearheaded this movement in his Laokošn (1766). Here, the eminent German playwright and critic argues against the equation of method and objects of the sister arts. He compares the two arts to the properties of two “equitable and friendly neighbors,” who, while allowing “slight aggressions” onto the “extreme frontiers” of their property, “do not permit the one to take unbecoming liberties in the heart of the other’s domain” (Lessing 91). In this highly influential text, Lessing draws attention to the traditional distinction between literary and visual art: the one progresses through time while the other may be frankly and statically descriptive. Citing Homer, Lessing argues that, though minor violations may be acceptable, poetry should describe in a narrative manner, indicating qualities only within a narrative frame whenever possible, while painting should confine itself to one moment, not attempting a depiction of any narrative swath.

Since the early 20th century the study of the Horatian simile has been revitalized to discuss the theoretical underpinnings both of Chinese-influenced visually oriented poetry and of increasingly verbal visual arts expressions. As Wai-Lim Yip notes, unlike Western poetry, traditional Chinese poetry functions in a presentational mode: the Chinese poet “captures visual events…releasing them from the restrictive concept of time and space” (Yip 7). Eliding narrative and location, such a technique consciously resembles painting, considerably complicating Lessing’s critique of u.p.p. Many poets of Western modernism, notably Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, adapted the Chinese style for use in their own work, frequently diminishing the role of tense and syntax in their poetry, as well as taking on a more presentational, visual emphasis. Western visual arts, especially the “Armory Show” (1913) also directly influenced Williams, whose use of visually oriented methods and of painting as a theme remained central through his last, posthumous collection, Pictures from Brueghel (1962) (Yip 21).

From the side of the visual arts, however, 20th century criticism of u.p.p. has proved overwhelmingly negative and cautionary. Irving Babbit and Clement Greenberg revived Lessing’s strain of argument in the early-mid 20th century, arguing for greater distinction between the arts in their prominent texts, The New Laokošn: And Essay on the Confusion of the Arts (1910) and “Towards a Newer Laocoon” (1940). Greenberg’s essay champions stresses the contemporary validity of newer forms of “abstract” visual art [see abstraction] through valorizing its focus on the individual medium (Greenberg 23). On the other hand, Greenberg views representational Surrealist art is at best a slave to literature, presumably due to its modified realistic technique and overt dependence on psychoanalytic theory. Though Greenberg does not cite u.p.p. by name, in documenting (and deploring) the effect of the historical primacy of literature on the plastic arts, he thrusts himself very much into the debate over the borders between the neighbor arts–on the side of good fences.

Observers such as W.J.T. Mitchell have also renewed u.p.p. in order to examine the shifting and hotly debated boundaries between word and image, as well as critical and art-historical disciplines. Using approaches suggested in a thoroughly contemporary manner by neurology and structural linguistics, Mitchell compares the domains of word and image to “two countries that speak different languages but that have a long history of mutual migration, cultural exchange and other forms of intercourse” (“Word and Image,” 49). Mitchell, noting among other relations the verbal experience of the icon and the visual experience of the printed word, proposes looser borders between word and image, their discourses, and the sister arts that represent them.

Judging from the increasing multimedia expressions of verbal and visual art, formal extrapolation of the Horatian simile seems unlikely again to occupy a central position in aesthetic scholarship. Nonetheless u.p.p. remains vital in tracking multimedia excursions and incursions, as well as in grounding an historical analysis of the borders being crossed. Furthermore, a broader interpretation of the Horatian simile bears on the study of media per se [see mediation, mediology, mediascape, mediasphere.] By virtue of its internal comparison and equation of diverse media, u.p.p. disputes the argument, held by such media theorists as Marshall McLuhan, in favor of abolishing the form-content distinction. If poetry is like painting, the medium is not the message. Through positing the comparability of the extrinsic method, content, and effect of media, u.p.p. is absolutely current in proposing a less technologically deterministic stance towards media and society.

Martin Schwartz


Aristotle, Poetics. trans. S. H. Butcher (Mineola, New York: Dover, 1997).

Horace, The Collected Works of Horace. trans. Lord Dunsany and Michael Oakley (London: J. M. Dent, 1961).

Clement Greenberg, “Towards a Newer Laocoon.” Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism. Volume I: Perceptions and Judgments 1939-1944. ed. John O’Brian. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986).

S. Larrabee, “ut pictura poesis,” The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. ed. Alex Preminger (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974).

Renssalaer W. Lee, Ut Pictura Poesis: The Humanistic Theory of Painting. (New York: Norton, 1967).

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Laocošn; An Essay on The Limits of Painting and Poetry. trans. Edward Allen McCormick. (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1962).

Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. (New York: McGraw Hill, 1964).

W. J. T. Mitchell, “Word and Image.” Critical Terms for Art History. ed. Robert S. Nelson and Richard Shiff (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

Wai-Lim Yip, “Translating Chinese Poetry: The Convergence of Languages and Poetics-A Radical Introduction” in Chinese Poetry. ed. and trans. Yip (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997).

William Carlos Williams, Pictures from Brueghel and other poems. (New York: New Directions, 1967).