Art and literature are two of the most closely intertwined creative forms. As Leonardo da Vinci once said: “Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen.”
As such, it’s little surprise that many of the world’s greatest artists have incorporated literary references into their artwork. From Pre-Raphaelites such as John Everett Millais to pop artists like Peter Blake, figures across a variety of artistic movements have turned to poetry and prose to spark their own creations. Here are five of the most famous examples of great works of art inspired by literature.
“Well, this is grand!” said Alice, Peter Blake
Printed in London, 1970, Peter Blake’s work depicts the moment Alice is crowned queen in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. The work was originally commissioned to illustrate a proposed new edition of Carroll’s classic children’s book, but the project was ultimately not realised. This prompted Blake to release his eight rich watercolour illustrations as limited edition screenprints.
The painter and printer used young artist Celia Wanless as his model for Alice, and accompanied the piece with words from Carroll’s novel—”Well, this is grand!” said Alice. “I never suspected I should be a Queen so soon”. Like much of Peter Blake’s art, this reflects his nostalgia and affection towards the popular culture of his childhood.
Ophelia, Sir John Everett Millais
This masterpiece by Sir John Everett Millais received a mixed reception when it was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1852, with a review by The Times likening his subject to a “dairymaid in a frolic.” However, it has since received great admiration for its beauty, and its depiction of nature, and is now rightly considered one of the most vital works of the mid-nineteenth century.
Millais re-imagines Ophelia, the doomed lover Hamlet in William Shakespeare’s play, singing before she drowns in a Danish river. While the flowers floating on the river match Shakespeare’s description of her garland, Millais added a single red poppy amongst the floating fauna to symbolise sleep and death. Though Ophelia’s pose echoes the traditional portrayals of martyrs and saints, some critics believe her open arms and upwards gaze has erotic connotations.
Don Quixote, Pablo Picasso
Though Pablo Picasso is best known for his Cubist creations, his sketch based on the novel by Miguel de Cervantes is beloved for its striking effect and energetic nature. The drawing captures Don Quixote de la Mancha sitting on his horse Rocinante, and his squire Sanco Panza atop his donkey Dapple. While Picasso’s penstrokes appear free and effortless, he has thoughtfully considered Don Quixote’s physical appearance. Comparatively, Panza’s body is vague and round, which helps convey the status of each character. Even without detailed faces, it is clear that Panza is looking up at Don Quixote, who is gazing straight ahead.
The sketch, which was supposedly conceived in just a few minutes, appeared in the August 18–24 issue of the French weekly journal Les Lettres Françaises in 1955, celebrating the 350th anniversary of the first part of the Spanish book. Though Picasso’s graphic is typically depicted in black-and-white, Georgian art critics believed they found the original version in Tbilisi in 2010. This Don Quixote was painted in blue-green, encouraging various interpretations of the new colouring and shading. However, this allegedly original painting has still yet to be verified.
Oedipus and the Sphinx, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres
Oedipus and the Sphinx has hung in the Louvre since 1878 and depicts the titular character of Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus Rex explaining the riddle of the Sphinx. In Greek legend, the Sphinx devoured all travelers who failed to answer the riddle, and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ painting includes human remains to show the fate of previous travelers.
Ingres contrasted light and shade to emphasise the centralised illuminated body of Oedipus and the shadow surrounding the Sphinx. This foreshadows the darkness to come in the story—after the Sphinx kills herself, Oedipus receives the throne of Thebes, and unwittingly marries his mother, the widowed queen Jocasta.
The Lady of Shalott, John William Waterhouse
John William Waterhouse’s famous painting represents the end of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s 1832 poem of the same name. Based on medieval Arthurian legend, Tennyson’s version determined that the Lady of Shalott was isolated in a tower, only able to gaze at the outside world through a mirror. However, when she looks directly at Sir Lancelot, she triggers a deadly curse over her own life.
Waterhouse depicts the Lady of Shalott sailing towards Camelot, and her certain death. The vibrant colours and precise detail associated with the Pre-Raphaelites are displayed in the painting, particularly in the tapestry the subject is sat on. As well as the beauty and the realist nature of the work, Waterhouse incorporates metaphorical details, such as the three candles at the front of the boat. As a representation of life, the fact that two are blown out signifies that The Lady Shalott’s death is soon to come.
Through the looking glass – fair use – CCA Galleries
Ophelia – Wikimedia public domain
Don Quixote – Courtesy of www.PabloPicasso.org
Oedipus and the Sphinx – Wikimedia public domain
The Lady of Shalott – Wikimedia public domain
Guest Author Bio
A myth-busting zeitgeist chaser & part-time polemicist with a background as a freelance humourist and journalist. Follow @samlhargreave for more #wittyinsights.
Blog / Website: Sam Lewis Hargreave
Please Share Your Thoughts - Leave A Comment!