Artist as Poet

One of several themes running through art concerns the artist's relationship with a great poet. He or she not only considers the poet a muse but identifies with him as well, aspiring to become as great in visual art as the poet is in literature. Michelangelo's widely acknowledged identification with Dante is the best known. Auguste Rodin thought similarly when he placed the well-known figure of The Thinker above his Gates of Hell. Rodin in calling the sculpture The Poet thought of it as a representation of both himself and Dante, two-artists-in-one thinking about (and thus creating) his own masterpiece which was inspired, of course, by Dante's own Inferno.

An artist’s identification with a poet was even essential to the birth of illusionistic portraiture. In the first portrait of a woman not in profile, Leonardo da Vinci’s Ginevra de’ Benci, the sitter was a celebrated poet. Mary Garrard has argued that Ginevra’s identity as both poet and woman was crucial to Leonardo and correctly argued that he thought of women as symbols of creativity even as she dismissed the theory of another scholar that the portrait is an ode to painting.1 Both are right, of course (see Ginevra de’ Benci), and even the Mona Lisa addresses the same issues. Besides, Martin Kemp has argued that Leonardo was yet another admirer of Dante whose work we see reflected in his drawings.2

1. Mary Garrard, “Leonardo da Vinci and Creative Female Nature” in Peggy Zeglin Brand and Carolyn Korsmeyer (eds.), Feminism and Tradition in Aesthetics (Pennsylvania State University Press) 1995, pp. 326-53

2. Martin Kemp, “Leonardo da Vinci: Science and the Poetic Impulse”, Journal of the Royal Society of the Arts 133, 1985, pp. 196-214.

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