The Painter-Poets

The following is extracted from the Introduction to The Painter-Poets, Selected and Edited by Kineton Parkes (London: Walter Scott Ltd, n.d. [1890]). The book is dedicated to John Addington Symonds, and, of course, includes selections from Blake, and some rather obscure poets, alongside the Pre-Raphaelites, from Ford Madox Brown to Rossetti and Walter Deverell. There is much here to disagree with, but it raises some interesting arguments.

The Art of the Poet and the Art of the Painter are closely connected, and in many cases the inspiration of each is drawn from a like source. The same groundwork is given, and upon it two structures are built – Poems and Pictures. The mechanism of each must be perfect, and the knowledge of the medium of each must be perfect, if a perfect work of art is to be the result. It is produced firstly from the mind, for the mind; the variation is in the medium. A picture or poem to be great must contain the expression of its creator’s thought, and in proportion as it does this is it an abiding monument of that thought. The greatest work of art is that which contains the most expression combined with perfect manipulation and selection of medium. Mere imitation is worthless; it contains no expression and declares nothing great. A great work of art must have meaning, and that meaning must be expressed beautifully, chastely, and harmoniously; clearly and without ambiguity. There is that within the mind of a great artist which will out; there is a power which will manifest itself in one way or another; there is a flood which will well forth or burst forth and find for itself a channel in which to run or in which to rush. There are many channels along which this tide of genius may flow: Poetry and Painting, Architecture, Sculpture and Music are some of them. Each one of these possesses some special characteristic of expression, and it is for the artist to discover in which of these forms he can best cast his thought. … There have been quite a number of painters who have sought the aid of the poetic muse to relieve them of the burden of their thoughts. In some cases it has happened that the verses of the painter have not been good poetry, but, for the most part, they have been sincere and worthy.
An artist may employ words or pigments to express his thought and produce a work of art, but for this work to be great, it is necessary that he should be both a poet and a painter, to use the words somewhat loosely. The two arts are so closely knit, that in all great work in either it is impossible to separate them. In every picture there should be the conception of the idea worked out poetically, and every poem should exhibit the painter’s eye – that is, his power of selection, if the poem contains description; it should also exhibit its author’s power of word-painting. In all the best poetry written by painters this selective process may be traced. In such poems the vividness of the word-pictures enables the reader to call up a vision of the scene, or of the personage described in the poem. And in the case of pictures by poets, a correspondence may be noted in the fact that all or most of such pictures contain a higher intellectual value than many a one which, in execution, may be far superior to them. The greatest pictures have not been painted by poets, and th greatest poems have not been written by painters, but of all the works of the painter-poets, both plastic and poetic, there is a degree of thoughtfulness and intellectual beauty, while some of them approach within very short distance of the highest art.

The art of poetry and the art of painting correspond in many important respects, proving themselves to be not merely sisters but twin-sisters of the arts. We have historical pictures and historical poems, pictures which depict a fair landscape, and poems which describe in words of colour as fair a scene. Allegories in painting and allegories in poetry are common; portraits painted in pigments we have, and we have also elegies and odes which are really portrait memorials … And again, there is the great subject picture, mythological mayhap, but still full of humanity, and this is matched in poetry by the epic; and, once more, we have the painting of the great incident, of which the the canvas gives a vivid representation, which is all life, motion, and feeling, and this too is done in poetry, in the drama, in which life is condensed into great episodes and situation crowds on situation, and all is stir and rapid action!

In all these things the two arts correspond; and in that each appeals to the mind, one through the eye, the other through the intellect, do they correspond also. Each, too, has its limits, and painting can accomplish many things out of reach of the poem, and the poem can express much which the picture cannot attempt.

A picture represents one point of time, and should therefore possess repose. In this one of the restrictions of painting is found, and in this it differs from poetry; for poetry may record any number of impressions, as it is progressive and passes from one incident to the next with rapidity, and can represent an indefinite period of time. … A painting is, however, more vivid than a poem; it is more concentrated, and the whole interest is crowded into a space which can be seen by the eye at a glance, and which requires no progress or development for its understanding. In verse the interest is suspended, the story has to be followed from stage to stage, and the vivid and powerful impression of the painting is entirely lost. A picture is, much more than a sonnet, “A moment’s monument;” for although a sonnet is almost the shortest of recognised forms of verse, it is still unable to produce with its fourteen lines the instantaneous impression to be obtained form one look at the story told in colour.

The poet is filled with thoughts and feelings to which he must give expression, and he therefore proceeds to reproduce them in the medium of words; while the painter, having similar thoughts and feelings, produces things which give expression to them in the form of visible presentments of his ideas. In this respect the poet is an abstract and the painter a concrete artist.


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