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Lessons in ekphrasis: writing and analysis.


The literary representation of visual art, ekphrasis, is proposed as a vantage point from which to teach literature and creative writing. Brief historical and theoretical overviews are provided as well as practical exercises and activities, adaptable to multiple academic levels, exploring and practicing ekphrasis. Examples of literature inspired by art that could be included in a course or unit on ekphrasis are provided.


A dynamic conversation between the visual and verbal arts has subsisted for over two-thousand-five-hundred years. While Roman poet Horace famously declared "ut pictora poesis" (as in painting, so is poetry) in his Ars Poetica (c. 13 BC), the first proclamation of the inter-relatedness of painting and poetry is attributed to Greek poet Simonides of Ceos (c.556-468 BC) who stated "poema picture loquens, picture poems silens" (poetry is a speaking picture, painting a silent poet) (Heffernan, 1993). In the 11th and 12th Centuries, the Chinese school of Literati Painting found the art and craft of poetry intertwined and inseparable from painting; in the 14th Century, the tradition of Persian miniature painting was greatly influenced by Shahnama (the epic poem by Abu'l Qasim Firdausi); and in the 15th Century, Leonardo da Vinci wrote in his journal about the similarities and differences of painting and poetry ultimately trumpeting painting as the superior art form (Chadwick, 2005). Literary scholar Richard Altick (1985) estimated that between the 18th and 19th Centuries 2,300 paintings were created based or/Shakespearean plays. John Keat's classic 1820 poem Ode on a Grecian Urn is in essence a classic rumination on an art object. Writers in the 20th Century, including poets W.H. Auden, William Carlos Williams, Robert Lowell, Billy Collins and Mary Leader have found inspiration in works of fine art. Poet Wallace Stevens (1951) devoted an entire chapter of his book on poetics to "The Relations between Poetry and Painting." On the cusp of the 21st Century, Tracy Chevalier's critically acclaimed 1999 novel Girl with a Pearl Earring was based on a Vermeer's painting of the same name.

Today the literary representation of visual art is called "ekphrasis" (Hefferman, 1993) and the study of the relationship between the visual and verbal arts has appeared in major museum exhibitions [1] and scholarly publications. With this rich, historical tradition and expansive body of literature, it seems quite natural to teach literature and creative writing from this vantage point; however, it is not often done so. Exercises and activities, adaptable to multiple academic levels, exploring and practicing ekphrasis are provided here to encourage and inspire teaching from this vantage point.

Theoretical Foundations

A symbol system is "a unique orientation for making meaning" (Noden & Moss, 1995, p. 1). Both art and writing are symbol systems containing specific individual elements that contribute to the overall meaning of a work. For example, adding one additional brushstroke or slightly changing the hue of a color in a painting can significantly alter the overall feel or meaning of the work just as adding one additional word or punctuation to a poem can affect the overall chemistry and meaning of the work (Goodman, 1976; Koch, 1998). Educator Christopher Davis, in Saving Pictures from the Flood: Using Visual Art in Creative Writing Workshops, writes of the semblance between the imagery of writing and the imagery of painting:
 The interplay between objectivity and artistic expression is nearly
 the same in the imagery of poetry and in the imagery of painting.
 Whereas the painter personalizes the image by painterly brush
 strokes, unexpected color combinations, shadow and form, the poet
 uses tone, timing, syntactic surprise and diction ... (1993, p. 327)

Every difference makes a difference in both poetry and painting. Furthermore, painting and creative writing are active processes involving multiple revisions before completion.

Meaning is constructed in an active relationship between an art object and the viewer (Rice, 1995). This is also true for the analysis of literature which requires a student to think critically and closely examine a text. Activities in which a student responds to art using creative writing helps the student understand the object while also practicing the craft of writing. Responding to art with creative writing is an intrinsically motivated activity in which students ask: How does art pertain to me? How does my knowledge of art relate to other people, cultures, and larger concepts? Students encouraged to investigate these questions, by creating something of their own, will not soon forget the knowledge obtained through the art experience. Conversely, if a student's interaction with an artwork is not intrinsically rewarding, her attention will not remain focused on the work long enough for substantial emotional or intellectual development. Working with both the visual and language arts can create a continuum of meaning in the classroom in which students become creative learners crossing disciplinary boundaries in pursuit of a holistic understanding of the humanities.

After students have formulated their own responses to art, they may explore other people's theories about art and gauge them against their own defined beliefs and experiences. Students will thus learn not only from their own experience and creation but also from historically accepted theories. This actively integrates academia and experience learning. The Art Institute of Chicago has a program were students are taught to do this. The workshops begin with students responding to art with their own perceptions and emotions expressed in creative writing. Their exploration is encouraged next with information on historical and critical interpretations of the paintings. (Tillet, 1996) This model can also be followed for the teaching of literature; students first give personal responses and then explore scholarly critical analysis.

Student Learning Objectives

There are many ways students can benefit from a course or unit on creative writing in response to art and by reading literature inspired by artworks. Students today live in an image saturated culture and can significantly benefit from strengthening their visual literacy. Taking time to study one image and carefully analyze it will help students negotiate their visually stimulated surroundings. Carefully examining an art object or a literary text based on an art object requires students pay close attention to details. Examining artwork and making interpretations or evaluating other's interpretations, teaches students how to formulate and support an argument. Students can also learn to make their own writing more specific and interesting by examining the work of others.

When students are called upon to respond to recognized and celebrated art objects, they are invited to participate in a long-standing cultural discussion. This activity validates students' thoughts and works. It can encourage students to make further contributions beyond the classroom and participate in a historical literary tradition. The study of literature inspired by art and writing from art also promotes art for art's sake. The activities suggested here will give students a heightened awareness and appreciation of fine art as well as encourage the continued production of creative, artistic activity.

Resources for Designing a Course or Unit of Study

As indicated earlier, the teaching of ekphrastic literature and creative writing inspired by art can be adapted to multiple academic levels. The following sections of this article provide useful resources to design a unit or course of study adaptable to varying levels. First, examples of literature inspired by artworks are listed. The paintings or artworks that inspired the literature are listed as well. Please note, this is just a small sampling from a wide body of literature.


* Musee des Beaux Arts Bosch by W.H. Auden inspired by Pieter Brueghel's The Fall of Icarus

* Musee des Beaux Arts Revisited by Billy Collins inspired by Pieter Brueghel's The Fall of Icarus

* Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by William Carlos Williams inspired by Pieter Brueghel's The Fall of Icarus

* Pictures from Brueghel by William Carlos Williams inspired by Pieter Brueghel's The Fall of Icarus

* Monet's Lilies Shuddering by Lawrence Ferlinghetti inspired by Claude Monet's Lilies

* The Wounded Wilderness of Morris Graves by Lawrence Ferlinghetti inspired by Morris Graves's Bird in the Spirit

* Nude Descending a Staircase by X. J. Kennedy inspired by Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase

* The Starry Night by Anne Sexton inspired by Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night

* Man with Blue Guitar by Wallace Stevens inspired by Pablo Picasso's Old Guitarist

* The Bachelor by William Meredith inspired by Goya's The Duchess of Alba

* Girl Powdering Her Neck by Cathy Song inspired by Kitagawa Utamaro's Girl Powdering Her Neck

* The Lady of Shallot by Alfred Tennyson inspired by John Waterhouse's The Lady of Shallot

* Mona Lisa by Edith Wharton inspired by Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa

Short Stories:

* The Smile by Ray Bradbury inspired by Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa

* Christ in the House of Martha and Mary by A. S. Byatt inspired by Diego Valazquez's Christ in the House of Martha and Mary

* The Matisse Stories by A.S. Byatt inspired by various Henri Matisse paintings

* Death of an Advocate by Rose Tremain inspired by James Tissot's Holyday

* The Silence by Adam Thorpe inspired by Carel Weight's The Silence


* Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevlier inspired by Johannes Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring

* Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper by Harriet Chessman inspired by Mary Cassatt paintings of Cassatt's older sister Lydia

* Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland inspired by Johannes Vermeer's Girl in Hyacinth Blue

Upon reading and studying the literature, students should consider the following questions: Does the piece of literature visually describe the artwork? Do you find the description accurate? Does the literature draw conclusions or make interpretations of the artwork? Could you reconstruct the artwork from the literature without ever seeing it? Does the author focus on some aspects of the artwork but ignore other parts? The questions can be used in class discussions, journal entries, group presentations or other traditional classroom activities as an introductory analysis. Assignments requiring more in-depth research and analysis are listed below:

* Read a poem based on an artwork and agree or disagree with the interpretation of the speaker of the poem. Is the poet misreading the painting?

* Have students research an art historian's analysis of a painting then compare it to a poem based on the same painting. Discuss how the two are similar and how are they different?

* Compare and contrast two different poems inspired by the same painting (for example the poems Musee des Beaux Arts Bosch by W.H. Auden and Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by William Carlos Williams inspired by Pieter Brueghel's painting The Fall of Icarus).

* Before reading the novel Girl with a Pear Earring by Tracy Chevlier, examine Johannes Vermeer's painting and predict what the story will be about.

* Read one of A.S. Byatt's Matisse Stories then look through a book of Henri Matisse's paintings. Try to match up the short story with the painting. Describe why you think the author would write the story based on the painting you chose.

* Read the poem The Starry Night by Anne Sexton inspired by Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night and listen to the song Vincent (Starry, Starry Night) by Don McLean. In an essay, discuss the tone of the poem and of the song. Do you think the poet or the songwriter better captures the feeling and mood of the painting?

* Research Leonardo da Vinci's journal writing comparing poetry to painting. Do you agree with da Vinci that painting is the superior art form? Why or why not?

* Examine an artwork for which you can find multiple sketches. For example, Picasso's Guernica. Write a story in which each paragraph is based on one of the sketches or write a poem in which each stanza represents a sketch.

* Compare museum signage next to a painting to a poem based on the same painting. What information is contained in both and what information is excluded in either the poem or signage?

* Turn a classroom or studio space into a museum where poems or short stories are placed on placards next to artwork instead of museum signage.

While many writers simply find looking at an artwork inspirational enough to start a piece of writing, many student writers will need writing prompts or exercises to begin. The following list provides a wide range of prompts and activities for student writers of varying levels and abilities:

* Write a dialogue between characters in a painting.

* Make up a story about the history of a painting. Who was the painting made for and why?

* Use a painting or sculpture featuring multiple people. Ask students to imagine that someone is missing from the painting. Have students write about who is missing in the painting and why.

* Descriptive writing exercise: describe the situation/colors/images in the art object.

* Synesthesia exercises: describe how a painting would taste or what is would sound like, etc.

* Ask: How was the artist feeling on the day he made this? What was he doing before he started this painting?

* Listing: list everything you see in the painting

* What would happen if the artwork was left in the rain? What would it look like? Would it get ruined? Would someone be sad or angry or regretful?

* How would you describe the artwork to someone who cannot see?

* Imagine the artwork is a girl. Who is it for? Who is it from? What is the occasion? How is it received?

* Find a painting that represents you and explain why you think it embodies your personality, thoughts or emotions.

* Find a painting in which you would like to live or the painting in which I would never want to live. Explain why you choose this painting.

* Find a painting you would give to someone else. What would the painting say to that person about your relationship.

* Have students describe the smallest object in a painting.

* Students must begin a flee writing exercise by completing the line: "If I were the artist, I would change ..."

* In groups, have students look at an artwork for a couple of minutes then take it away. Students must then write down as many details as they can remember. This list can then be turned in a piece of creative writing.


Literate students today are expected to negotiate a complex world of visual and verbal images. The language arts classroom must adapt to meet the needs of students. Teaching students text inspired by visual images and encouraging writing from images, will help meet this need as well as encourage participation in the long cultural tradition of ekphrasis.


Altick, R.D. (1985). Paintings from Books: Art and Literature in Britain, 1760-1900. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.

Chadwick, G. (2005). The Long Conversation Between Painting and Poetry. Retrieved November 18, 2005 from Ars Poetica website: ~chadwick15/_wsn/Conversation.html

Davis, C. (1993). Saving pictures from the flood: Using visual art in creative writing workshops. Visible Language, 27, 322-333

Goodman, N. (1976). Languages of Art. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. Heffeman, James A. W. Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from

Homer to Ashbery. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1993.191. Koch, K. (1998). Making Your Own Days: The Pleasures of Reading and Writing poetry. New York: Scribner.

McClatchy, J.D., editor. Poets on Painters: Essays on the Art of Painting by Twentieth-Century Poets. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Noden, H., & Moss, B. (1995). Nurturing Artistic Images in Student Reading and Writing. The Reading Teacher, 48, 532-537.

Rice, D. (1995). Museum Education Embracing Uncertainty. The Art Bulletin, 77, 1525.

Tillet, S. (1996). Evaluation Report: Looking to Write, Writing to See. Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago.

Wallace, S. (1951). The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination. New York: Vintage.

Cynthia Demetriou, Adelphi University, NY


[1] Dreams, Literature and Art, Goethe-Institut, London, United Kingdom 2005

The Poetry of Truth: Alfred William Hunt and the Art of Landscape, The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, United Kingdom 2005

A Throw of the Dice: Artists Inspired By a Visual Text, University of California, Irving, California 2005

Visual Poetry: Contemporary Art from Italy, The Haggerty Museum of Art, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 2005

Matisse. The Images of Mallarme, The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Russia 2004

Poetry in Painting, Mingei International Museum, San Diego, California 2004

CutBank 60: A Celebration of Art in Literature, Missoula Art Museum, Missoula, Montana 2003

Love By the Book: Painting and Poetry in India, Philadelphi Museum of Art, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 2003

The Theme of Poetry and Literature in Chinese Art, National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan 2001

Frank O'Hara: Poetry and Painting, The Panfish Art Museum, Southhampton, New York 2000

Painting in Poetry/Poetry in Painting: Wallace Stevens and Modern Art, Baruch College, New York, New York 1995

Cynthia Demetriou is Coordinator of Academic Services at Adelphi University
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Author:Demetriou, Cynthia
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2006
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