Journal of Illustration Studies – Home page

December 2007 || Articles

Interarts and Illustration: Some Historical Antecedents, Theoretical Issues, and Methodological Orientations.

by Paola Spinozzi

I. Leonardo’s Preference

Among the advocates of the supreme power of painting as a form of representation, Leonardo da Vinci still stands out for its formidable affirmation:

[…] la tua penna sarà consumata innanzi che tu descriva appieno quel che immediate il pittore ti rappresenta con la sua scienza. E la tua lingua sarà impedita dalla sete, ed il corpo dal sonno e dalla fame, prima che tu con parole dimostri quello che in un istante il pittore ti dimostra.1 

After the predominance of image over word was declared with such authority in 1498, the Paragone delle Arti has been reconsidered, revised and reformulated innumerable times throughout the centuries.

Expanding on Leonardo’s argument, illustration can be regarded as evidence that painters can condense in images what writers articulate through words. However, illustration not only employs the visual code to establish relations with a text or, more precisely, with the text it aims to visualize, but also to exist and produce signification in its own terms. Visual representations of verbal representations appear as a privileged interart typology for enquiring into the issue of superiority or autonomy of different expressive codes. Indeed, statements of subservience, independence, or interdependence have marked the evolution of verbal and visual art throughout the centuries.

II. Ut pictura poësis: the Pictorialist / Anti-Pictorialist contest

Unity and indivisibility of Art, or uniqueness and autonomy of each art form? It is an ancient question, which becomes a riddle when one thinks of polymorphous artworks: in them the coexistence of various expressive codes engenders a multiplicity of signs which can be neither clearly identifiable nor discrete. Explorations of the unity and multiplicity of Art date back to antiquity. For centuries the quest for principles that could unify all the arts has entailed successive conceptualisations of interart categories and opened up innumerable hermeneutical paths.2 

The topos of ut pictura poësis has left deep marks in western culture3  and gained momentum in the second half of the eighteenth century. In England it intersected pictorialist and anti-pictorialist conceptions of language founded on the enquiries of the Empiricists into natural images, impressions re-elaborated by imagination, and the function of language.

Hobbes begins Leviathan by proclaiming that ‘there is no conception in a man’s mind which hath not at first, totally, or by parts, been begotten upon the organs of sense’,4  and then establishes a cause/effect nexus between the perception of things and imagination: ‘imagination being only of those things which have been formerly perceived by sense, either all at once, or by parts at several times’.5  The assumption that an idea encloses an impression perceived through the senses leads Hobbes to maintain that the primary function of language is to achieve vivid verbal transposition of sensorial impressions.

Locke shows a mocking attitude towards those who are unable to distinguish between objective data and subjective perception:

[T]hey see the Light infused into their Understandings, and cannot be mistaken; ’tis clear and visible there, like the Light of bright Sunshine; shews it self, and needs no other Proof but its own Evidence […]. Thus they support themselves, and are sure Reason hath nothing to do with what they see and feel in themselves: what they have a sensible Experience of, admits no doubt, needs no probation.6  

Furthermore, Locke argues that the use of metaphors to describe the acts of hearing and seeing reveals that perception cannot be completely objectified, because it encloses personal connotations.7 

Hume investigates the referential function of language and focuses on the possible causes of gaps between words, in particular philosophical terms, which enact complex processes of signification, and the ideas they aim to convey. Such disjunctions may well be caused by the nature of the impression which generates the idea: ‘When we entertain […] any suspicion that a philosophical term is employed without any meaning or idea […], we need but inquire, from what impression is that supposed idea derived?’8 

Pictorialist theories of language argue that verbal images can be exceedingly pictorial. Perception of natural images engenders impressions that painters and sculptors endeavour to render through painted images, poets and writers through images in words. When writing pursues pictorialism, it competes with painting and even surpasses its capacity; indeed, the visual effects created by verbal language can be more intense than the ones produced by the brush and the choice of pigments on the canvas.

Not only direct observation – Joseph Addison claims in The Pleasures of the Imagination (1712) – but also memory of objects, or their representation in sculpture, painting, verbal description and music, stimulate imagination. Sculpture, the most mimetic form of art, produces visual as well as tactile values by creating lines, contours, volumes and surface. Painting flattens volumes, but bears visual resemblance to things, because it produces forms that pursue analogy with real ones. Descriptions carefully select words that conjure up reality in all its vividness. More arbitrary are the relationships between music, the less mimetic among the arts, and its objects of representation. Addison believes that the most intense pleasures of the imagination are produced neither by direct vision of things, nor by the images that sight perceives and creative faculties make manifest in visual artworks, but by descriptions, because verbal creativity can achieve marvellous pictorial qualities. Indeed, pictorialist writing conjures up images that overcome the vibrancy of natural images:

Words, when well chosen, have so great a Force in them, that a Description often gives us more lively Ideas than the Sight of Things themselves. The Reader finds a Scene drawn in Stronger Colours, and painted more to the Life in his Imagination, by the help of Words, than by an actual Survey of the Scene which they describe. In this Case the poet seems to get the better of Nature; he takes, indeed, the Landskip after her, but gives it more vigorous Touches, heightens its Beauty, and so enlivens the whole Piece, that the Images which flow from the Objects themselves appear weak and faint, in Comparison of those that come from the Expressions.9 

Pictorialist views of language between 1600 and 1700 regard metaphors and rhetorical figures as superfluous decorative elements, typical of an old-fashioned form of ornate language.10  Figures of speech are artifices that engross the reader’s attention and produce confusion, while verbal images that adhere to sensorial reality can render with clarity and vividness the interaction between original impression and elaboration of the idea.

According to Addison, observation of nature, a natural moment which the artist would like to faithfully reproduce, is followed by a psychological moment, in which external reality is mediated by the act of perception.11  The shift of emphasis from the thing observed to the thing perceived takes in the importance which the Empiricists attributed to the psychology of perception, and marks eighteenth-century developments in the notion of representation.

Fundamental pictorialist assumptions, according to which the observer is always stimulated by something that exists and activates sensorial perception, are further articulated by Addison, who notes that personality affects reality. While observing it, each writer receives specific stimuli12  and communicates them by means of verbal expressions which, while evoking the images observed, enhance their vividness. Thus, writers can augment the aesthetic quality of the object and elicit empathy from readers.

Empathic feeling generated by art is a crucial issue in A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756) by Edmund Burke. Empiricist premises, according to which imagination can produce nothing new, but only rework the disposition of the ideas perceived through the senses,13  are the foundation of Burke’s anti-pictorialist theories.

Description does not intensify the vivacity of what it represents – nature’s vivacity – because it can but convey a partial idea of it. When writing pursues a description of the object in its entirety, it fails, but reveals its versatility. Unable to signify the wholeness of the thing, verbal language is perfectly suited to render the emotions produced by the thing. Writing can overcome its limits by searching for words that suggest, impress, and evoke:

[…] the most lively and spirited verbal description I can give raises a very obscure and imperfect idea of such objects; but then it is in my power to raise a stronger emotion by the description than I could do by the best painting. This experience constantly evinces. The proper manner of conveying the affections of the mind from one to another is by words; there is a great insufficiency in all other methods of communication; and so far is a clearness of imagery from being absolutely necessary to an influence upon the passions (i, 111)

In contrast with Addison, who maintains that images of the thing evoked in the mind by means of writing can achieve greater vividness than the ones observed directly, and can generate a pleasure more intense than vision itself, Burke believes that verbal language can only convey images characterised by approximation, vagueness, and imprecision. It is the very obscurity produced by what is intrinsically unutterable in an idea that activates imaginative processes: description can represent thoughts and perceptions only partially, but arouses intense emotions. Verbal language is thus the most suited to render ‘the affections of the mind’:

So that poetry, with all its obscurity, has a more general as well as a more powerful dominion over the passions than the other art [painting]. And I think there are reasons in nature why the obscure idea, when properly conveyed, should be more affecting than the clear. It is our ignorance of things that […] chiefly excites our passions. […] The images raised by poetry are always of this obscure kind. […] But painting […] can only affect simply by the images it presents; and even in painting, a judicious obscurity in some things contributes to the effect of the picture, because the images in painting are exactly similar to those in nature; and in nature dark, confused uncertain images have a greater power on the fancy. […] When painters have attempted to give us clear representations of these very fanciful and terrible ideas, they have, I think, almost always failed. […] In all these subjects poetry is very happy. Its apparitions, its chimeras, its harpies, its allegorical figures, are grand and affecting (i, 112, 113, 114).

While enclosing what cannot be verbalised, poetic images present degrees of opaqueness, of dimness, which enable the reader to experience the sublime.

The picturesque connection is not demanded, because no real picture is formed, nor is the effect of the description at all the less upon this account. […] In reality, poetry and rhetoric do not succeed in exact description so well as painting does; their business is to affect rather by sympathy than imitation; to display rather the effect of things on the mind of the speaker, or of others, than to present a clear idea of the things themselves (i, 213, 214, 215).

Real image and visual rendition of the image are related by resemblance. Instead, verbal description is ontologically less similar to its object of representation; incapable of producing likeness to the real image, words are more inclined to render perceptions and impressions that generate empathy and produce pathos. Bifurcation between mimetic painting and empathic poetry allows Burke to define the specificity of verbal and visual modes of expression.

Painting cannot engender disquieting emotions, it rather discloses the object as it is made manifest in the world. Indeed, imitation is a distinctive human act and functional to learning, but, though pleasant, it does not stir up strong emotional response.14  Conversely, owing to its intrinsic opaqueness, even obscurity, poetry can never be enjoyed as a soothing experience; it is not pictorial, and must not tend towards pictorialism, if it wants to express the sublime. Being unable to achieve the ‘transparency’ of visuality, poetry arouses inwardly what painting can show on the surface of the canvas. Verbal language has greater expressive potentialities; because it cannot be mimetic, it fills referential gaps with evocative and suggestive components, and generates the sublime. Burke’s definition of the arts in relation to the pursuit of the sublime marks the overcoming of pictorialist poetics developed by Neoclassicism and heralds Romanticism.

The paragone of the arts reached its apogee in the eighteenth-century aesthetic debate. Pictorialist theories of language developed the idea that writing should be moulded to produce pictorial prose and poetry, in which verbal images can exceed the vividness of painting, and even of nature. Anti-pictorialist conceptions sustained the belief that poetry must not, and cannot, imitate painting: images are the outcome of the poet’s imagination and subjectivity, they generate pathos and affections.

The evolution of ut pictura poësis reveals how the autonomy of literature and painting, or the subservience of one to the other, are inextricably connected with successive historical mutations of the status attributed to word and image. The development of pictorialism and anti-pictorialism in the eighteenth century is fundamental for comprehending why the terms of comparison for literature and the visual arts have entailed verbocentric assumptions which have gained recognition throughout the centuries.

III. The Quest for Organic Art and Interart Osmosis

Of the Decorative Illustration of Books Old and New (1896) by Walter Crane commands attention not only as a richly documented historical study of illustration, but also as a late Romantic defence of the organic view of the arts. Books, conceived of as forms of graphic expression, must be related to the hieroglyphics of ancient Egypt, pictography, and also prehistoric engraving, with which they share the dual act of writing and painting, of reading and seeing. While developing more and more complex relationships with ideas, letters lost their iconic component and became abstract and arbitrary signs. Because the iconicity of the alphabet has been impaired by the proliferation of meaning, and is thus no longer recognisable, the nexus between words and things can only be identified through complex processes of interpretation. Illustration and decoration, instead, elicit immediate response and intense aesthetic enjoyment:

We know that the letters of our alphabet were once pictures, symbols, or abstract signs of entities and actions, and grew more and more abstract until they became arbitrary marks – the familiar characters that we know. Letters formed into words; words increased and multiplied with ideas and their interchange; ideas and words growing more and more abstract until the point is reached when the jaded intellect would fain return again to picture-writing, and welcomes the decorator and the illustrator to relieve the desert wastes of words marshalled in interminable columns on the printed page.

In a journey through a book it is pleasant to reach the oasis of a picture or an ornament, to sit awhile under the palms, to let our thoughts unburned stray, to drink of other intellectual waters, and to see the ideas we have been pursuing, perchance, reflected in them. Thus we end as we begin, with images.15 

While decoding the meaning of verbal signs, the reader can take a break and carefully look at the images; such conceptual shift, or detour, produces visual pleasure as well as leading to evaluate how the ideas expressed through words can be expressed in visual form.

The interplay of imitation and imagination was particularly fertile in the sixteenth-century emblem, a genre which for Crane proves how allegory and symbolism can intertwine in an artwork constituted by verbal and visual signs. By emphasising how the Renaissance testifies to an amalgamation of didactic and symbolic components, Crane conceives of language as a system in which natural and mimetic signs coexist with conventional and arbitrary ones. Such arguments are founded on the idea that some sounds in oral language signify per se, and some relationships between signifier and signified in written language are not arbitrary. And yet, Crane is aware that language is not transparent. His views on illustration can be regarded as a late nineteenth-century endeavour to demonstrate that verbal representation of reality is founded on motivated signs, but also foregrounds crucial issues of the twentieth-century debate on the arbitrariness and conventionality of words.

Two decades after the publication of Crane’s volume, the notion of language as a mode of rendition, not reproduction, of the object appears to have been assimilated. In 1921 Edmund J. Sullivan clarifies how the verbal medium renders the object not as it is, but as it is perceived. ‘Words do not “reproduce” things, but “represent” ideas of them – and to represent or reproduce implies first production and presentation. Words are symbols, and not things or ideas – in a sense that sounds alone are not – and so are forms.’16  Thus, language is not only aimed at referentiality, but also at construction of meaning. Crane’s and Sullivan’s standpoints mark the passage from the belief that illustration can ‘illuminate’ words, because it visualizes what they express in verbal terms, to the awareness that verbal transpositions of visual artworks multiply signification.

Crane also tackles the specificity of the media and advocates knowledge of the technical processes required to produce an illustration. Illustrators must possess ‘a sense of necessary relationship between design, material, and method of production – of art and craft, in fact – which cannot be lost, and has had its effect in many ways.’17  Enquiries into the degree of representability that any medium can achieve are crucial for the evolution of the mutual illumination of the arts in the twentieth century. Exploring the peculiarities of the media is fundamental for comprehending whether the transformation of artistic creativity into artistic creation is predetermined by the medium employed.

John Ruskin provides lucid arguments both on the genealogical link and the conflicting interaction between word and image. As J. Hillis Miller explains, in Ariadne Florentina. Six Lectures on Wood and Metal Engraving (1872) the reader is led ‘through a maze of images and citations all making the distinction between picture and work problematic. Ruskin makes the distinction problematic by relating both words and pictures to the primordial material act of scratching a surface to make it sign.’18  More precisely, writing includes an element of painting, while creating images means writing with a tool different from the pen. However, Ruskin is acutely aware that illustration and text are different, as he proclaims when assessing the illustrations produced by John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti for Alfred Tennyson’s poems, to be published by Edward Moxon.

Many of the plates are very noble things, though not, it seems to me, illustrations of your poems. I believe, in fact, that good pictures never can be; they are always another poem, subordinate but wholly different, from the poet’s conception, and serve chiefly to show the reader how variously the same verses may affect various minds. But these woodcuts will be of much use in making people think and puzzle a little; art was getting quite a matter of form in book-illustrations, and it does not so much matter whether any given vignette is right or not, as whether it contains thought or not; still more, whether it contains any kind of plain facts.19 

Illustration is intriguing precisely because it solicits a dual assessment, which aims not only at appreciating the illustrated page for the aesthetic quality it possesses per se, but also at evaluating it as an artwork to be related to another artwork, which constitutes its source of inspiration. Being aware that illustrations enclose the thought of visual artists on verbal artworks, Ruskin realizes that judging whether they ‘reproduce’ the text is much less relevant than understanding why the illustrator has chosen to create them to signify what he thinks of the text. Thus, the aesthetic value of the Moxon Tennyson (1857) is to be found in the very variety and originality of the artists’ styles.

The dialectical relationship between the Pre-Raphaelite artists and Tennyson exemplifies not only the will of the illustrator to interpret verbal representation, and to mould interpretation into a visual medium, but also, and more challengingly, to elude the presence of the author. Millais, Hunt and Rossetti offer different responses to what can be defined as the dilemma of representability, which forces all illustrators to choose whether to focus their attention on narrative components of the verbal artwork – be it prose or verse – or on more allusive aspects of textuality, which allow for more autonomous, even radical, acts of interpretation and creation. Pre-Raphaelite illustrations reveal the awareness that transposition of verbal artworks engenders dissemination of meanings, and that the visual artist can choose to curb or to enhance them.

The Illustration of Books (1951) by David Bland testifies to a dual perspective on illustration, in which proximity with and distinction from verbal expression coexist. He begins by arguing that interart dynamics allow for a deeper understanding of the nature of humankind. While drawing attention to primeval connections between the arts, as proved by prehistoric sources like cave inscriptions, he emphasises the inter-changeability of the term ‘illustration’ in verbal and visual art:

And you who wish to represent by words the form of man and all the aspects of his membrification, relinquish that idea. For the more minutely you describe the more you will confine the mind of the reader, and the more you will keep him from the knowledge of the thing described. And so it is necessary to draw and to describe. […] Drawing and writing have in fact developed simultaneously from a common origin. Even today we can use the word ‘illustration’ indiscriminately of a graphic or of a verbal description. Each began as a means of communication and by degree alphabets were built up of certain images. The process may be studied in the Palaeolithic where the artist, wishing to show a herd of reindeer would draw only the first and the last animals, indicating the rest by a few lines. So stylization came and with it the ideogram.20 

Words and letters themselves are seen visually before they are comprehended mentally, and their shape and size and general appearance must contribute more than we think to what we call their meaning. Many of their overtones and associations must come in this way (13).

Bland insists on the iconic component of words. By stating that, like images, written words must be seen in order to be decoded, he contends that they have retained elements of iconicity. Thus, illustration is not only an interart genre, but an expressive mode that encompasses all literature: ‘all art is illustrative and in that sense illustration preceded literature’ (16).

However, Bland clearly points out that the relationship between writer and illustrator is characterised by inequality and competition. Maintaining one’s own artistic identity is a shared desire, but the illustrator must face a choice: ‘Either he may strive to efface himself behind his author or else he may assert himself at the expense of the author’ (15).

At the end of the nineteenth century the topos of the Sister Arts is still claimed to sustain interart cooperation, but also undergoes substantial revision. While the belief in the correspondence of the arts is deeply connected with the conception of organic art, the idea of specificity is essential to advocate the autonomy of each art. The claim that words and images can be mutually transcoded and illustration can shed light on the text it visualizes does not lack support; however, the awareness that verbal and visual interactions are dialectical, and even conflicting, acquires relevance.

IV. The Claims of Verbocentrism

Words are perfectly suited to render emotions and states of mind; figurative painting excels in visualising objects that exist in the world. It is a truism, of course, but one with significant implications. As J. D. Merriman suggestively explains:

In relation to the visibilia of the world, the medium of literature, language, is in short inherently arbitrary or imprecise. […] Birds may have pecked Zeuxi’s picture of grapes to bits, but no literary description can ever run a similar risk.

The ability to imitate – even to the point of illusionism – is, of course, an ability shared by literature, painting, and sculpture, yet the objects of such imitation are very different. The illusions of painting and sculpture are to be found in such marvels as flesh translucent to strong light, the sheen of silk, the full curve of a thigh, the depth of receding planes. The illusionistic thrill in literature is felt in other things – in dialogues that sounds like living speech, in the notation of emotional states that seem to match the ebb and flow of actual human passions, in the crackling sequence of ‘if,’ ‘then,’ ‘but,’ ‘still,’ and ‘thus’ that registers the rapid shifts of real thought – in short, precisely in those things where the medium is most inherently connected with the phenomena imitated.21 

That viewers are not reliably accurate in their reconstructions of such sequences unless provided with a great deal of non-pictorial verbal assistance, such as titles, epigraphs, and the like, is only further evidence of the inefficiency of painting in terms of narrative.22 

The capacity of literature and the visual arts to achieve the highest verisimilitude by representing different objects testifies to a diversity on which a hierarchical power relationship has been established. The verbal medium can render the multi-facetedness of interior life, the visual medium can show the world in all its exterior manifestations. One art reaches the infinite depths of the human mind and spirit, the other stays at surface, and reproduces the realms of the visible.

The contention that the power of verbal discourse is qualitatively superior to that of images is legitimated by the enormous meta-medial potentialities that no other medium possesses. The verbal code can speak of itself through itself, and is the only one which can also speak of other codes. As W. J. T. Mitchell argues, ‘visual representation cannot represent itself; it must be represented by discourse’.23  Unlike visual language, verbal language is vehicular and thus always necessary. Interart dynamics, even when they are generated by non-verbal arts, presuppose that we speak and write of them.

Clearly enough, arguing that visual art necessitates words means that it can be entirely accessible only via verbalisation; its distinctiveness can only be made intelligible by verbal explanation. Michel Butor’s remarks about the pervasive, overwhelming use of ‘pictorial pedagogy’ as an aid to the understanding of figurative representation sound as cogent now as they did more than three decades ago:

Toute notre expérience de la peinture comporte en fait une considérable partie verbale. Nous ne voyons jamais les tableaux seuls, notre vision n’est jamais pure vision. Nous entendons parler des œuvres, nous lisons de la critique d’art, notre regard est tout entouré, tout préparé par un halo de commentaires […]. De tels procédés de pédagogie picturale se répandent de plus en plus, et aucun musée aujourd’hui ne peut se considérer comme moderne, s’il ne propose à ses clients des audio-guides.24 

Reading visual artefacts is a cultural practice deeply embedded in verbocentric assumptions: images engender a hermeneutic impasse which only words can overcome thanks to their meta-artistic power. Verbal meaning attributed to visual art is thus legitimated by the bias that images cannot be wholly comprehended without verbal aid. Interpretation of figurative artefacts demands linguistic mediation.

Other verbocentric notions impinge on the distinctions between visual and verbal works of art. The former unfolds one, and one only, representation and requires that the observer apprehends it within the boundaries of a surface – canvas, screen, photographic print – while reception of the latter evades strict spatial confinement. Furthermore, the emphasis on literature as a system of representation more cerebral, composite and layered than painting is intricately connected with the notion that ultimately visual expression is appealing not per se, but because it nourishes verbal expression; it is a source of creativity for writing.

Until a few decades ago literature and textuality have been the main focus of comparative studies. As H. P. H. Teesing boldly stated in 1963, ‘by comparing the arts we shall learn much about the characteristics of what concerns us most: the art of literature.’25  That literature was regarded by comparatists as the pre-eminent discipline can be further confirmed by reminding that the first conference on Literature and the Other Arts, held in 1979, was organized by the International Comparative Literature Association. In a groundbreaking paper aimed at defining methods for comparing literature and the visual arts, Ulrich Weisstein did not conceal his preference for the verbal code. The identification of typologies founded on specific interactions between word and image was founded on the basic assumption that ‘Literature must be at the heart of what we do, whether it be as an equal partner and shareholder in a multimedia Verbund or whether it be the emittent or receiver of influences involving one or several of its siblings.'26 

Such assumptions are no longer tenable. Interarts studies today cannot be literary-oriented. They can only thrive on metabolization of critical theories and methods pertaining to different disciplines and forms of knowledge. The primacy of literature, and the subservience of other arts to it, is constantly questioned by modes of interfacing aimed at the construction of interdisciplinary or, even more challengingly, transdisciplinary frameworks.

V. Doppelbegabung, or, Further Complications

It would be rewarding to state that, when the artist is gifted with double talent, the interaction of two expressive codes produces harmony. Indeed, Walter Crane believed that William Blake should be regarded as an exceptional artist who excels in such a rare capacity:

In writing with his own hand and in his own character the text of his poems, he [Blake] gained the great advantage which has been spoken of – of harmony between text and illustration. They become a harmonious whole, in complete relation.27 

The idea that Doppelbegabung can overcome the differences between the arts and produce a perfect correspondence gained momentum during the first decades of the twentieth century, when comparative arts developed as a discipline and comparatists concerned themselves with the elaboration of sound theoretical frameworks.

Kurt Wais maintained that the artist strives to achieve a total work of art, but human faculties, though versatile, only allow for the creation of fragments of beauty.

The primary and most difficult act of creation is the decision to shatter the original symbiosis of all arts, the (often unconscious) choice to paint (malen, make a mark, fix), to write (dichten, dictare, set down), or to compose (put together). Some never find the strength for this decision, but, like the young Hoffmann, consume themselves with crippling uncertainty, wondering whether they are meant to be painters or composers. A certain memory of the original unity affects nearly all of them.

These enduring ultimate bonds among the arts betray themselves in numerous cases of multiple talent in artists […]. Countless musicians were also poets on the side (Schumann, Weber, Cornelius, Dame Ethel Smith, Pfitzner), just as many poets also tried musical composition (Rousseau, Schubart, Grillparzer) or the figurative arts (Heinrich Seuse, Wickram, Jan Luyken, Boileau, Gessner, Lemercier, Chénier, Whitman, Gobineau, Strindberg, Pierre Loti, Dauthendey, Timmermans, Cocteau). There are also artists who achieved equal mastery of two different art forms: the early troubadours and minnesingers, Michelangelo, Niklaus Manuel, ‘Maler Müller,’ William Blake, Hoffmann, Wagner, Rossetti, William Morris, Jacobus van Loy.28 

Wholeness clashes with human limits: the creative process fuels strife between the primeval unity of the arts and the individuality of the artist who, though doomed to fail, desires to re-create an imagined totality. Wais’ arguments still sound fascinating. And questionable, of course. Above all, the idea of equal mastery raises perplexities. The talent can be double, but can it also be of equal power? In their seminal essay on ‘Literature and the other Arts’ (1949) René Wellek and Austin Warren strongly objected to equality in double talent.

[…] a comparison of the poetry and paintings of Blake, or of Rossetti, will show that the character – not merely the technical quality – of their painting is very different, even divergent. A grotesque little animal is supposed to illustrate ‘Tyger! Tyger! Burning bright.’ Thackeray illustrated Vanity Fair himself, but his smirky caricature of Becky Sharp has hardly anything to do with the complex character in the novel. In structure and quality there is little comparison between Michelangelo’s Sonnets and his sculpture and paintings, though we can find the same Neo-Platonic ideas in all and may discover some psychological similarities. This shows that the ‘medium’ of a work of art (an unfortunate question-begging term) is not merely a technical obstacle to be overcome by the artist in order to express his personality, but a factor pre-formed by tradition and having a powerful determining character which shapes and modifies the approach and expression of the individual artist. The artist does not conceive in general mental terms but in terms of concrete material; and the concrete medium has its own history, frequently very different from that of any other medium.29 

Interestingly enough, double talent usually reveals different qualitative standards and requires different critical tools. The same artist produces two artworks, which possess different aesthetic values and disclose distinct hermeneutical paths.

VI. The Unsteady Status of Illustration in Interarts Studies 

Ulrich Weisstein’s preference for literature unbalances his otherwise still valuable classification, firstly presented in 1979 and then revised in 1982. Literature is placed at the vertex of a hierarchal system of the arts that encompasses eight verbal/visual typologies; verbal metamorphoses of the visual arts appear to be of secondary interest, and only include illustration and the emblem.

1. Works of art which depict and interpret a story, rather than merely illustrating a text;


7. Synoptic genres (emblem);30 

The definition of illustration calls for closer inspection: it is expounded in the first typology but sounds ambiguous, because it is based on an unclear reference to artworks that interpret a story, besides illustrating it. In fact, illustration always involves interpretation: the images that are supposed to ‘illustrate’ a literary text, and are displayed next to it, create meaning. Or, more exactly, other meaning. Thus, signification produced by illustrators is not only ‘more’ than, but also ‘other’ from the one conveyed by writers.

In Interrelations of Literature (1982) Weisstein reworks the definition of visual artworks inspired by verbal artworks, and, while defining sixteen interart typologies, provides further qualifications for illustration.

14. Book illustration proper.

15. Paintings, drawings, and so on, that hark back to literary antecedents or exist in a literary context without being outright illustrations. Here the literary critic or historian, using the iconological method outlined by Panofsky, may benefit from the pictorial evidence of one or several literary texts.

16. A rather special case is that constituted by the multiple talent (Doppelbegabung).31 

A clear distinction is drawn between illustrations that appear in books and visual artworks connected with specific literary sources. His taxonomy is remarkable, because it testifies to the overcoming of Geistesgeschichte, which produced repertories of analogies and differences too easily associated with certain historical periods. Quellenforschung, Stoffgeschichte or thématologie are useful as long as the purposes and achievements of their research are problematised, rather than described in minute detail: the occurrence and frequency of a certain theme, topos or motif and their circulation in various arts acquire significance in so far as they provide an insight into the evolution of aesthetics, and reveal connections between art, the cultural context, and its prevailing ideologies. Weisstein’s classification marks the passage between the quest for all-encompassing systems of the arts, which originated from purely theoretical speculations and acquired a high critical status in the first half of the twentieth century, and the increase of investigations extending their focus to both art theory and art production.

The identification of typologies that Weisstein defines as ‘kinds of cohabitation and interpenetration that are manifest to the “naked eye”’32  is interesting, because it shows that any possible classification, even though extremely elaborate, must be malleable and modifiable in order to incorporate new elaborations. Metamorphoses of literature are clearly Weisstein’s main concern. However, the inclusion of two visual forms of art connected with verbal art has provided ground for developing specific enquiries into illustration.

After two and a half decades, a critical discourse on illustration remains a fundamental goal to be pursued. And one worth pursuing, because it provides tools for shunning facile verbal/visual parallelisms as well as for disclosing specific interart orientations:

Many problems in the interrelationships of the arts tend to be frustrating because the relationships are so tenuous, the media are so different, and the technical terms needed are so inadequate that everything remains in the state of loose analogy, mere guesswork, or, even, sometimes pretentious humbug. Such a problem, for example, would be the relationship between perspective in painting and in literature […].

There are, however, topics in the interrelationships of the arts which are clearly circumscribed, clearly definable, and amenable to reasonably brief and concise treatment.33 

Calvin S. Brown pointed out that crucial objects of word/image study should be the relations between form and content, structure and context. W. J. T. Mitchell continues to call attention to ideological issues.34  It thus seems fair to state that verbal works of art re-figured in, and as, paintings or illustrations direct our concern towards the aesthetic and ideological issues involved in visual transmutations of verbal works of art. Conceptualising and identifying illustration necessitates, first and foremost, a statement about the complexity of its status. An artwork that illustrates a text does interpret it. Certainly, its dependence on, or escape from, the verbal source, its connection with, or disconnection from, words that come before, and testify to another form of art, problematize its autonomy. However, though ontologically derivative, illustration aims at visually signifying far more than verbal signification. Besides, the visual medium can seize components of literariness that can be highlighted, enhanced, and metamorphosed by means of visual figuring. While being originally stimulated by another medium, illustration realizes itself through a specific medium and pursues a specific telos, a purely visual aim. While exploring aesthetic dynamics enacted by painters and illustrators who address, and elude, textuality, the study of illustration hosts enquiries into verbocentrism, aesthetic autonomy, and the interplay of subservience and originality.

Discussing the nature of illustration, today, also means re-considering long-standing interart issues and questioning whether it is possible to reconcile the pictorialist tradition, founded on the belief that writing can aim at pictorial effects in order to render the vividness of reality, and anti-pictorialist theories originally pursued by the Romantics, according to which expressive modes characterised by vagueness of the verbal image arouses intense poetic responses.

In What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images (2004) W. J. T. Mitchell points to a necessity: ‘We need to reckon with images not just as inert objects that convey meaning but as animated beings with desires, needs, appetites, demands, and drives of their own.’35  In Cultivating Picturacy. Visual Art and Verbal Interventions (2006) James Heffernan points to another necessity: ‘The capacity to interpret pictures must be cultivated and deserves a name: picturacy.’36  Such demands, so powerfully voiced, are worth responding. And illustration provides ample, and visually alluring, ground for responses.

Enquiring into the most controversial and challenging issues which have constituted the paragone of word and image throughout the centuries – pictorialism, organic art, interart osmosis, verbocentrism – has been intended to devise methodological orientations aimed at evaluating the legacy of historical antecedents. Illustration can only be comprehended by showing that it has been, and still is, complicated, and that there are complex reasons for its being so. Indeed, it is a multi-layered artistic manifestation bearing witness to the entwinement of aesthetics and ideology. Visual culture is a highly recognised field of research, today: contributing to the study of illustration means taking part in the understanding of its nature and interrelations not only in a culture of visuality, but also in culture, viewed in its polysemous expressions.


1 Leonardo Da Vinci, Trattato della pittura, Edizione integrale (Catania: Brancato, 1990), p. 19: ‘[…] your pen will be worn out before you can fully describe what the painter can represent forthwith by the aid of his science. And your tongue will be parched with thirst and your body overcome by sleep and hunger before you can demonstrate with words what a painter is able to demonstrate to you in an instant’ (my translation). A valuable English edition of Leonard’s Trattato is Paragone: A Comparison of the Arts by Leonardo da Vinci, trans. by Irma A. Richter (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1949).

2 Outstanding comparative theories of the arts, such as Jean-Baptiste Du Bos, Réflexions critiques sur la poësie et sur la peinture (1719), James Harris, Three Treatises. The First Concerning Art. The Second Concerning Music, Painting and Poetry. The Third Concerning Happiness (1744), Abbé Batteaux, Les Beaux-Arts reduits à un même principe (1746), and Denis Diderot, Lettre sur les sourds et mouets (1751), were the output of the aesthetic debate in the eighteenth century, when taxonomies were a major pursuit.

3 For the evolution of ut pictura poësis between 1550 and 1650 see R.W. Lee, ‘Ut pictura poesis: The Humanistic Theory of Painting’, Art Bulletin 22 (1940), 197-269. For a fine survey of pictorial effects in literature from antiquity to Neoclassicism see Jean Hagstrum, The Sister Arts: The Tradition of Literary Pictorialism and English Poetry from Dryden to Gray (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958).

4 Thomas Hobbes, ‘Of Sense’, Leviathan [1651], ed. by J. C. A. Gaskin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 9.

5 ‘Of Imagination’, Leviathan, p. 12.

6 John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. by Peter H. Nidditch (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975; repr. 1990), Book iv, Chapter xviii, p. 700.

7 Locke, Essay, Book iv, Chapter xix, p. 700.

8 David Hume, An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding [1748], ed. by C. W. Hendel (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1955), p. 30.

9 Joseph Addison, The Pleasures of the Imagination, Spectator 416 (27 June 1712), in Addison, Steele, and others, The Spectator, 4 vols, ed. by G. Smith (London: Dent & Sons Ltd., 1945, first published 1907), iii, p. 292.

10 Compare. W. J. T. Mitchell, ‘What is an Image?’, in Iconology. Image, Text, Ideology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 7-46 (pp. 23-24).

11 Hagstrum, The Sister Arts, pp. 129-150.

12 Addison, The Pleasures of the Imagination, p. 293: ‘The Fancy must be warm, to retain the Print of those Images it hath received from outward Objects; and the Judgement discerning, to know what Expressions are most proper to cloath and adorn them to the best Advantage.’

13 Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful: with an Introductory Discourse Concerning Taste, and Several Other Additions [1756], in The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, 2 vols (London, New York and Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1906), I, p. 71.

14 Burke, Philosophical Inquiry, i, pp. 101-102.

15 Walter Crane, Of the Decorative Illustration of Books Old and New (London: Bell & Sons, 1896), pp. 16-17.

16 E. J. Sullivan, The Art of Illustration (London: Chapman and Hall, 1921), p. 12.

17 Sullivan, p. 120.

18 J. Hillis Miller, Illustration (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), pp. 75-79, 88-95, discussing John Ruskin, Ariadne Florentina. Six Lectures on Wood and Metal Engraving; With Appendix. Given Before the University of Oxford in Michaelmas Term, 1872, in The Complete Works of John Ruskin, ed. by E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, 39 vols (London: George Allen, 1903-1912), xxii, pp. 320-453.

19 John Ruskin to Alfred Tennyson (24 July 1857), in Works, xxxvi, pp. 264-265.

20 David Bland, The Illustration of Books (London: Faber and Faber, 1958), p. 15.

21 J. D. Merriman, ‘The Parallel of the Arts. (Part One)’, New Literary History 31 (Winter 1972), 153-164 (pp. 162-163).

22 J. D. Merriman, ‘The Parallel of the Arts: Some Misgivings and a Faint Affirmation. (Part Two)’, New Literary History 31 (Spring 1973), 309-321 (p. 310).

23 W. J. T. Mitchell, ‘Ekphrasis and the Other’, in Picture Theory (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994), p. 157.

24 Michel Butor, Les mots dans la peinture (Genève: Skira, 1969), pp. 8, 9: ‘Actually, all our experience of painting involves a considerable verbal component. We never see just paintings, our vision is never a pure vision. We hear about artworks, we read art criticism, our eyes are surrounded, trained by a halo of commentaries [...] Such pictorial pedagogy is becoming more and more current, and nowadays no museum would be considered modern if it did not offer audio-guides to its visitors’ (my translation).

25 H. P. H. Teesing, ‘Literature and the Other Arts: Some Remarks’, Yearbook of Comparative and General Literature (1963): 27-35 (p. 34).

26 Ulrich Weisstein, ‘Comparing Literature and Art: Current Trends and Prospects in Critical Theory and Methodology’, in Literature and the Other Arts. Proceedings of the IXth Congress of the International Comparative Literature Association, ed. by Zoran Konstantinovic, Ulrich Weisstein, Steven P. Scher (Innsbruck: G. Grasl, 1981), 19-30 (pp. 20-21).

27 Crane, Of the Decorative Illustration of Books, p. 113.

28 Kurt Wais, ‘The Symbiosis of the Arts’, Address to the Second International Congress of Modern Literary History (Amsterdam: September, 1935), translated by Gregg A. Richardson, Yearbook of Comparative and General Literature 31 (1982): 78-95 (p. 85). The paper was originally published in German as Symbiose der Künste, Forschungsgrundlagen zur Wechselsberührung zwischen Dichtung, Bild- und Tonkunst, Schriften und Vorträge der Württembergischen Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften, 1 (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1936), and then as ‘Vom Gleichlauf der Künste’, Bulletin of the International Committee of the Historical Sciences, No. 37 (1937), pp. 295-304.

29 René Wellek and Austin Warren, ‘Literature and the Other Arts’, in Theory of Literature (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1963, first published 1942), p. 128.

30 Weisstein, ‘Comparing Literature and Art’, p. 23.

31 Ulrich Weisstein, ‘Literature and the Arts’, in Interrelations of Literature, ed. by Jean-Pierre Barricelli and Joseph Gibaldi (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1982), 251-277 (pp. 259-261).

32 Weisstein, ‘Literature and the Arts’, p. 259.

33 Calvin S. Brown, ‘Theme and Variations as a Literary Form’, Lilly Conference, 2-4 March 1978, Yearbook of Comparative and General Literature, 27 (1978), 35-43 (p. 43).

34 See Iconology. Image, Text Ideology (1986) and Picture Theory (1994).

35 W.J.T. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005),, accessed 1 October 2007.

36 James A.W. Heffernan, Cultivating Picturacy. Visual Art and Verbal Interventions (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2006),, accessed 1 October 2007.

Citing this article:
Spinozzi, Paola. “Interarts and Illustration: Some Historical Antecedents, Theoretical Issues, and Methodological Orientations..” Journal of Illustration Studies (December 2007). 19 Dec 2018. <>