Ut pictura poesis

Ut pictura poesis is a Latin phrase literally meaning "as is painting so is poetry." The statement (often repeated) occurs most famously in Horace's Ars Poetica, near the end, immediately after the "other" most famous quotation from Horace's treatise on poetics, "bonus dormitat Homerus", or "even Homer nods" (an indication that even the most skilled poet can compose inferior verse):

Poetry resembles painting. 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. (Quoting from English translation.)

Horace meant that poetry (in its widest sense, "imaginative texts") merited the same careful interpretation that was, in Horace's day, reserved for painting.

Lessing opens his Laocoön: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry (1766) by observing that "the first who compared painting with poetry [Simonides of Ceos] was a man of fine feeling,"[1] though, Lessing makes it clear, not a critic or philosopher. Lessing argues that painting is a synchronic, visual phenomenon, one of space that is immediately in its entirety understood and appreciated, while poetry (again, in its widest sense) is a diachronic art of the ear, one that depends on time to unfold itself for the reader's appreciation. He recommends that poetry and painting should not be confused, and that they are best practiced and appreciated “as two equitable and friendly neighbors.”

W. J. T. Mitchell trenchantly observed that "We tend to think that to compare poetry with painting is to make a metaphor, while to differentiate poetry from painting is to state a literal truth."[2]


  1. Simonides, who wrote "poema pictura locguens, pictura poema silens" (poetry is a speaking picture, painting a silent [mute] poetry) was quoted by Plutarch, De gloria Atheniensium 3.346f.
  2. Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology (University of Chicago Press, 1986) page 49


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