Ut pictura poesis

This page represents an overlap with Dr. Robert Baldwin, whose essay “Intellect, Class, and Gender in Allegories of Painting, Poetry, and Music” will be available on Hoyt Sherman Place's website. A link will be provided here after posting.


The painting's description on Page 5 states, “In an interior setting, three full-length figures are represented. Apollo stands on the left while Venus is positioned in the center. Her son Cupid is placed to her right. The scene also includes five still lifes. From left to right they depict a collection of jewelry, a basket of fruit with cut flowers, a sprig of roses, a bowl of oysters, and, in the lower-right corner, a small table with brushes and painting supplies.”

Otto van Veen "Apollo and Venus" ca. 1595
Hoyt Sherman Place
Des Moines, Iowa

In contrast to the above, a description in symbolic terms offers an introduction to the painting's underlying theme: In a studio setting, three full-length figures are represented. Apollo, the Roman god of poetry and music, stands on the left holding his identifying lyre in his right hand while gesturing with his left. He is clothed in a red tunic and wears a laurel wreath. A naked, seated figure of Venus, the Roman goddess of love, beauty, and fertility, is positioned in the center. Represented as a painter, she holds a palette in her left hand and is shown painting a landscape that includes Pegasus and a waterfall. The waterfall references the Hippocrene Spring. According to classical Greek legend, Pegasus stamped his hoof on Mt. Helicon and created a miraculous stream that brought divine inspiration to all poets who drank from its waters. Venus's son Cupid, the Roman god of desire, affection, and erotic love, is placed to her right. Cupid's inclusion identifies the female figure as Venus.

The scene also portrays four still lifes referencing Venus's beauty and fertility. From left to right they include a collection of jewelry, a basket of fruit with cut flowers, a sprig of roses, and a bowl of oysters commonly thought to have aphrodisiac capabilities. A fifth still life depicts her painting supplies on a small table in the lower-right corner.

 Ut pictura poesis

While the above symbolic description of the Hoyt's Apollo and Venus offers a review of what has been painted, it does not address why. What were van Veen's motivations? An understanding of the composition's underlying theme begins with the Roman poet Horace (65 BC-8 BC).

Ars Poetica,” or “The Art of Poetry,” is a poem written by Horace in which he counsels writers on the art of poetry and drama. It consists of 476 lines containing nearly 30 maxims offering advice on proper subject matter, form, diction, meter, and purpose. Its influence on literary theory and criticism cannot be overestimated. Toward the end of the poem, on line 361, Horace includes the phrase, “ut pictura poesis,” or “as is painting, so is poetry,” by which he proffered that painting merited the same intellectual status that was reserved for poetry. (31)

In Medieval society, painting was defined as a “mechanical art” grounded in menial labor and the lower realm of the body, similar to carpentry and metalsmithing. As with other craftsmen, painters worked within the structure of a guild. Largely uneducated, they were seen as humble, anonymous servants far below those working in the written “liberal arts” with its focus on lofty ideas and the mind. Even the most successful court artists of the late Middle Ages, like Jan van Eyck, were seen as skilled craftsmen, not thinkers, authors, or creators.

All this began to change when Italian Renaissance artists and writers redefined painting as a “noble” or “godlike” liberal art grounded in the realm of the mind and comparable to a wide spectrum of intellectual pursuits including poetry, rhetoric, music, math, science, and philosophy. With the new practice of “drawing after nature,” Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo endowed Renaissance art with a foundation in the natural sciences. Eager to be seen as “authors,” artists began signing their works. When Michelangelo secretly unveiled his Pietà in Rome, people thought it had come from heaven or was by another artist, thereby inspiring the “rightful artist” to sign his name on the sash running along Mary's chest. This proud display of personal artistic accomplishment had been unheard of in Medieval art.

Pietà Signature, 1499
(Michelangelo Buonarroti, Florentine, made this)

In the 1530s, artists and writers invented the emblem book, a new object combining image and word. Most significantly, emblem books allowed Renaissance artists to reverse the traditional hierarchy of word over image. The word was now subordinated as commentary to the all-important image, with the image appearing as a form of “visual literature.” Bonasone's Apollo and Venus engraving (ca. 1576) was included in his emblem book “Amorosi diletti degli dei” (“The Loves of the Gods”). Van Veen must have seen its preparatory drawing during the five years he spent in Italy from 1575 to 1580.

Giulio Bonasone "Allegory of Painting" ca. 1576
From "Amorosi diletti degli dei"
Metropolitan Museum of Art
New York, New York

In Bonasone's engraving, the inscription is used to elevate Painting above Poetry:

Voglio far questo bracio a modo mio
Tu fa li versi tuoi come ti pare
Apollo sei la pitura sono io
che l'uno el altra a modo suo po fare.

I want to make this arm in my own way
You make your verses as you wish
You are Apollo and I am Painting
Therefore one as well as the other can do things in his own way. (32)

If one looks at the image through the broader lens of the inscription, one sees how the Renaissance artist tried to define Painting's unique qualities and powers distinct from and superlative to her sister art, Poetry. Speaking out loud as an allegorical representation of Painting, Venus brushes off the guidance of Apollo and insists she is in charge. The inscription voices the proud independence of Painting, and by implication, that of Bonasone himself.

Van Veen's Interpretation

Van Veen's composition endowed Painting with even greater importance than she enjoyed in Bonasone's engraving. In the latter, a naked Apollo stood to the side, almost equal in physical presence and no less beautiful than Venus. Van Veen altered this dynamic by clothing Apollo/Poetry and moving him farther into the background behind Venus/Painting. Physical beauty was now reserved for Venus alone.

The relative power of Painting increases in van Veen's composition when we note that Pegasus and the Hippocrene Spring are invented and brought to life by the artist in the painting, Venus. The flowing waters of artistic inspiration emerge from her brush. Apollo/Poetry is reduced to the lesser role of spectator and becomes more of a distant observer. Reinforcing this artistic hierarchy, van Veen cleverly overlapped Apollo's lyre with Venus's palette.

Otto van Veen "Apollo and Venus" ca. 1595
Hoyt Sherman Place
Des Moines, Iowa

Apollo still rules in the sphere of music and musical language/poetry, but he takes a secondary role in van Veen's interpretation of ut pictura poesis. It is this elevated position of Painting over her sister art Poetry that motivated van Veen to instill in his Venus the symbolic power to create artistic inspiration--and it is inspiration that “Waters the Entire World” with divine genius.

Page 10--Final Thoughts/PBS Video

Page 1--Introduction,   Page 2--History of Hoyt Sherman Place,   Page 3--Adopt a Painting/First Discovery,
Page 4--Provenance,  Page 5--Examination,   Page 6--Treatment,   Page 7--The Letters/Second Discovery,
Page 8--Attribution/Third Discovery
Page 9--Ut pictura poesisPage 10--Final Thoughts/PBS Video


31. Information on Ars Poetica taken from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ars_Poetica_(Horace). Accessed 7/2/17.
32. Translation provided by Dr. Martina Gula 5/1/17.



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