Switching Mediums: From the Page to Paint

When we hear the words ‘adapted from,’ we mostly think about a book-to-movie conversion. The film industry is bubbling over with such examples – Ridley Scott’s recent masterpiece – The Martian, is just one example from among a plethora of film adaptations made. However, the world of art is complex and beautiful and often, this practice can be seen occurring within other mediums as well. Here, we talk about the relationship between two art forms that are equally powerful – painting and poetry – and how, because each medium possess creative devices and techniques that are unique to its form, adapting a work from one art form to the other can prove to be an intensely challenging, but immensely rewarding.

Firstly, let’s look at why adapting poems into paintings, and vice versa, is a very doable experiment. Both art forms seek to explore, communicate and evoke emotions. While the former does so through the use of words, the latter relies on colors. The artist and the painter, both use their respective ‘tools of expression’ to communicate feelings, thoughts and observations that move them. The poet carefully constructs his sentence, paying close attention to the words he chooses, the rhyme scheme he applies and figures of speech he plays with in order to communicate the exact emotions running through his consciousness. That’s why, on reading a well-written poem, we often find ourselves mirroring the emotions expressed in it. We feel deeply the apathy of a dying man, the passion of a new romance or the pain of unrequited love.

The painter on the other hand, makes use of colors to bring to life his feelings. He manipulates shades and canvas textures; he perfects every stroke and point, to the extent that a painting can look as realistic as the subject seated in front of it. Or then he does the opposite, he exaggerates and distorts parts, uses colors that are startling in their boldness, creates a piece so distant from reality that the viewer is filled with a sense of uneasiness! But, it’s all done for a purpose; it’s all done to evoke a certain reaction from the audience, and this, is where painting and poetry joins hands.

Let’s look at a poem that has been immortalized in the form of a beautiful painting

Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem ‘Lady of Shallot’ tells an Arthurian tale of the fair Elaine of Astolat, who plagued by a strange curse that forbids her from looking out of her window, has to spend her life weaving on her loom and spying at the world through the reflections cast on her mirror. However, once, on seeing the reflection of brave Sir Camelot, she is unable to stop herself from peeking out of her window and taking a look at him. Her disobedience costs her her life and the poem ends on a tragic note.

Lady of shallot - William holman hunt


Image courtesy: wikipedia

William Holman Hunt created a wonderful painting that depicts the Lady’s sad fate. In his painting, he depicts the threads of the loom entwined around Lady of Shallots feet suggesting that she is tied to not just the inside of the room, but also to her unfortunate fate.

She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces thro’ the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She look’d down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack’d from side to side;
“The curse is come upon me,” cried
The Lady of Shalott.

 Here’s an example of a painting that has a poem written after it

Vincent Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ is a painting that is famous for several reasons. Apart from the fact that it was painted during his time at the asylum, this painting has also grabbed eyeballs because of its powerful visual imagery. The sky is a picture of angst and turbulence with strong, swirling strokes covering the canvas. Bright glowing stars seem to overpower the sky and at the left hand side one solitary tree seems to rise up from the expanse, reaching upwards, as if seeking to commune with the sky.

Starry night


Image courtesy: wikipedia

Anne Sexton’s poem ‘Starry Starry Night’ beautifully describes this scene. In her poem, a strong wish is expressed. Just like the tree, there is a desire to attain something higher, something far more powerful and greater than existence – the peacefulness of death.

The town does not exist

except where one black-haired tree slips

up like a drowned woman into the hot sky.

The town is silent. The night boils with eleven stars.   

Oh starry starry night! This is how

I want to die.


It moves. They are all alive.

Even the moon bulges in its orange irons   

to push children, like a god, from its eye.

The old unseen serpent swallows up the stars.   

Oh starry starry night! This is how   

I want to die:


into that rushing beast of the night,   

sucked up by that great dragon, to split   

from my life with no flag,

no belly,

no cry.

Well, we hope this article has sparked your interest in poems and paintings. Do go ahead and read up on other famous poems that have intrigued artists and interesting paintings that have enchanted poets.