It’s unusual for paintings to contain words beyond the artist’s signature. In terms of popular neuro-psychology, we’d suppose that when reading a painting our brains are in ‘image’ rather than ‘verbal’ mode, although that doesn’t seem to work with fully integrated text and images such as comics and graphic novels. Nevertheless, the great majority of painters – until the twentieth century – paint the image of a guitar rather than the word, when depicting someone playing the instrument.
In these three articles, I’m going to look at exceptions, where artists have incorporated significant text content into a painting. This first article shows some examples of paintings of stories in which the words play an important part. The second looks at words used to extend the references of the image, and the third shows some unusual examples of signatures and dedications.
Stories in which written text plays a key role are quite common in literature, but few are regularly painted. Perhaps the most popular is the story of Belshazzar’s Feast, and its greatest telling is that of Rembrandt, painted around 1635-1638.
This is one of Rembrandt’s most beautiful paintings, in which he has captured the exquisite detail of the jewels and decorations on Belshazzar, and its rich, golden light shines across the room.
Belshazzar is stood, taken aback to the point where his eyes appear to be popping out, as he watches the disembodied hand trace out the foreign letters on the wall behind him. His right hand is steadying him against a salver on the table, having knocked one of the Temple vessels over, and his left hand is held up in amazement, as if to push the vision away from him. On Belshazzar’s left, a woman in a bright red robe is also transfixed by the writing on the wall, sufficient that she has tipped the contents of the goblet in her right hand onto the floor.
There is, unfortunately, a problem with the Hebrew writing on the wall. Rembrandt is believed to have been advised by a friend who was a learned Rabbi, but one of the characters is incorrect, and they are arranged inappropriately in columns, rather than horizontally from right to left.
Contrast that with the British painter John Martin, best known for his apocalyptic visions expressed onto vast canvases. The version shown here is half the size of the original, which was even too large for the National Gallery to accept.
Martin chooses a different moment in the story, and the other end of the scale as far as its pictorial scope. The thousand lords are shown feasting in vast open-roofed halls. Above them are the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon, with the Tower of Babel in the distance, and a ziggurat slightly closer. The writing on the wall burns bright at the far left, but its characters have been carefully made illegible (detail below).
Less well known is the myth of Paris and Oenone, told in Ovid’s Heroides.
Oenone was an Oread on Mount Ida, where Paris, son of the King of Troy, was a shepherd. They fell in love, and Paris carved her name on the trunk of many trees as a mark of his love. Jacob de Wit’s Paris and Oenone of 1737 shows the lovers suitably accompanied by a couple of amorini and their flock of sheep, as they recline by a trunk so inscribed (detail below).
Even in classical times, it was apparently common practice for lovers to carve the name of their partner into the bark of a tree trunk to mark their love. It is quite possible that accounts of Paris doing this ensured that the practice was propagated through the Middle Ages, and into the Renaissance.
Other short inscriptions play important roles in the identification of scenes, figures and stories.
In the upper distance of Tintoretto’s Ascent to Calvary are banners declaring the oversight of the Roman authorities, in their inscriptions of SPQR. Also commonly featured in paintings of the crucifixion are the letters INRI, for Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum – Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. This follows a tradition established in classical Greek pottery, where the figures involved in their narratives are often named, so there’s no doubt in the mind of the viewer.
William Blake’s genius extended to the illustration of his own writings and those of others, in which he frequently incorporated text with images, often in whole books. I show here one example, taken from his late illustrations to accompany Dante’s Inferno.
According to Dante’s verse, inscribed above the gate of Hell is a forbidding series of lines which leave the traveller in no doubt as to where they are going: to everlasting pain and tortured souls. This culminates in the most famous line of the whole of the Divine Comedy:
Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate
traditionally translated as Abandon hope all ye who enter here, but perhaps more faithfully as Leave behind all hope, you who enter.
At this stage of Blake’s preparations for engraving, his watercolour has the words roughed in using script.
Many of Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s paintings are strongly literary in their allusions. One interesting example is that of Sappho and Alcaeus from 1881. Although now associated popularly with lesbian love, in fact very little is known about Sappho’s life, and she may have fallen in love with Alcaeus, a contemporary poet.
Alma-Tadema shows Sappho resting on a lectern and staring intently at Alcaeus, who is playing a lyre. She is supported by her ‘school of girls’, one of whom rests her arm on Sappho’s back. The artist’s hints at a lesbian interpretation are subtle: the marble benches bear the names of some of her (female) lovers.
The inclusion of textual content was also common in the trompe l’oeil, which became popular during the Dutch Golden Age and periodically ever since. Cornelis Norbertus Gysbrechts specialised in painting novel still lifes, such as his Board Partition with Letter Rack and Music Book from 1668. He manages not just to incorporate fragments of text, but music too.
Tomorrow I will show examples of paintings in which words are not so much an integral part of their story, but literary references which the educated viewer will cherish.