Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim (1729–81)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M029-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved February 29, 2024, from

2. The comparison of painting and poetry

Comparisons between painting and poetry were a staple of eighteenth-century critical theory, and Lessing entered these debates with vigour. Fundamentally, he distinguished between the spatial properties of painting and the temporal properties of poetry. Painting and sculpture are grasped at once by visual perception. But poetry is understood sequentially. Lessing based rules about the appropriate means of imitation for each art form on this comparison. Painters and sculptors are limited to a single moment that they can capture completely. This, in turn, dictates the specific rules that give painting and sculpture access to beauty. If the Laocoon sculptors had tried to follow Virgil by depicting the distorted face of a screaming Laocoon, the viewer would have been overwhelmed with disgust by the immediate effect, and they would have failed in their attempt to show what was happening because sculpture could not hope to capture the scene’s movement and action. It is limited to a ‘pregnant moment’, and in order to capture that moment, the sculptors had to abstract from the visual scene those parts of it that would convey the ideal beauty and restraint that was their true object. Virgil, on the other hand, could show change and development. Poetry imitates action, not objects. The sequence of words corresponds to a sequence of events. Thus the scream and suffering are immediately qualified by what goes before and comes after. Instead of evoking disgust, the emotions are changed and qualified. In each case, Lessing insisted, it is the aesthetic whole that must be considered.

In spite of Lessing’s emphasis on the difference between poetry as an imitation of action and painting as a spatial presentation, and his insistence that each has a different set of rules which cannot be reduced to a common set, he did not completely separate the art forms. They have a common object, beauty, and a common effect, pleasure. Lessing’s argument is that neither can attain this common objective without restricting itself to its own rules. In principle, he granted relative equality to the different art forms. In practice, however, poetry is clearly the superior form. Painting and sculpture are limited in two ways. The doctrine of the pregnant moment limits painting and sculpture not just to certain techniques but also to certain ‘objects’. Painting has a limited number of subjects available to it. And, while painting and sculpture gain a certain immediacy from their presentational forms, that very immediacy restricts them to a concrete, visual presence that makes it difficult for them to escape the present moment. When painting becomes allegorical in order to try to enhance its significance, it violates its own spatial rules. Poetry, on the other hand, is not subject to such limitations. It appeals to the imagination, not actual vision. It can depict emotions as well as objects. And it can use its extensive, moving forms to go beyond the mundane to the significance of beauty itself. The temporal forms of poetry enhance its effects while the spatial forms of painting act as limits.

Citing this article:
Townsend, Dabney. The comparison of painting and poetry. Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim (1729–81), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M029-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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