Sonnet 24: Mine eye hath played a painter

Lena Levin. Sonnet 24: Mine eye hath played a painter

Sonnet 24: Mine eye hath played a painter. 20″x20″. Oil on linen. 2012

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 24

Mine eye hath played the painter and hath steeled,
Thy beauty’s form in table of my heart;
My body is the frame wherein ’tis held,
And perspective that is best painter’s art.

For through the painter must you see his skill,
To find where your true image pictured lies,
Which in my bosom’s shop is hanging still,
That hath his windows glazed with thine eyes.

Now see what good turns eyes for eyes have done:
Mine eyes have drawn thy shape, and thine for me
Are windows to my breast, where-through the sun
Delights to peep, to gaze therein on thee;

Yet eyes this cunning want to grace their art,
They draw but what they see, know not the heart.

Prasanna Puwanarajah reading this sonnet.

This translation goes directly to the all-too familiar image, accessible when one gets through all syntactic twists and turns of perspective in the sonnet: two lovers looking into into one another’s eyes, to gaze therein on themselves – reflected in the other person’s eye, of course, but also, hopefully, steeled in table of their heart.

I wanted the plane surrounding the eye-painter in my painting to be both distinctly representational, reminiscent of a human face, but also, abstractly and geometrically, mirroring twists, turns, and fluid metaphors with which Shakespeare both creates and partly hides this image.

For a time, I was tempted by the idea of painting a visible reflection of the other person in the eye, but then decided against this all too straightforward approach, for two reasons. First, the power of a lyric poem lies in the ability of the reader to identify both with the speaker, by actually speaking the words, and with the addressee, by listening to them. Leaving the suggested reflection vague, indistinct allows the viewer to identify with the person looking into the eye, recalling their own moments like this and imagining their own reflection there. But more importantly, the invisibility of reflection is linked to the open question of the couplet: what’s in the heart?  We know not – we don’t see it.

Sonnet 21: A couplement of proud compare


Lena Levin. Sonnet 21. A couplement of proud compare

Sonnet 21: A couplement of proud compare. 20″x20″. Oil on linen. 2012.

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 21

So is it not with me as with that Muse
Stirred by a painted beauty to his verse,
Who heaven itself for ornament doth use
And every fair with his fair doth rehearse,

Making a couplement of proud compare,
With sun and moon, with earth and sea’s rich gems,
With April’s first-born flowers, and all things rare
That heaven’s air in this huge rondure hems.

O let me, true in love, but truly write,
And then believe me, my love is as fair
As any mother’s child, though not so bright
As those gold candles fixed in heaven’s air:

Let them say more that like of hearsay well;
I will not praise that purpose not to sell.

Tunji Kasim reading this sonnet

This is a sonnet about poetry, and so my painting is about painting.

The sonnet contrasts two kinds of poetry, the true and authentic poetry inspired by love, vs. the false and exaggerated poetry based on hearsay. True to himself, Shakespeare enacts poetry of the latter kind within the sonnet and then “corrects” it; this juxtaposition is highlighted by repetition of rhyme-words and rhyme-sounds of poem-within-poem in the “real” poem (in violation of general rules of Italian sonnet righting [Vendler 1997: 131]). So the overall concept of this translation into painting was rather straightforward: there had to be a contrast between the painting and a painting-within-painting.

Lena Levin. Unbearable strangeness.

Lena Levin. Unbearable strangeness. 12″x12″. Oil on linen panel. 2012

My first approach to this idea involved a juxtaposition of three stylistic versions of approximately the same still-life set up (with a nearly hidden internal reference to a painting of Adriaen Coorte’s. This sketch (now called “Unbearable strangeness) is shown on the left. It didn’t quite work.

To begin with, while concentrating on the contrast between how things are compared by different Muses, I’ve lost the contrast between what they are compared with, essential in the sonnet: the false poetry compares love and beloved with every fair and rare thing on earth and in heaven, the true poetry remains on the earthly level of humanity (any mother’s child). Secondly, I have lost the key (word) of heaven (repeated in every quatrain of the sonnet) as the ultimate standard of comparison, both in the colour harmony and in the (lack of) vertical movement within the “real” areas of the picture plane. It also turned out that repeating the same set-up in a painting-within-painting creates an ambiguity between a painting and a mirror, which doesn’t align with the poem’s meaning.

Therefore, the final painting approaches the same idea in a different way. Most importantly, there is now heaven with gold candles in its air instead of one of still-life versions: it opens up this “chamber” painting into a larger universe and defines both the vertical dimension of the painting and its overall color harmony.

Willem Kalf. Still life with Silver Jug.

Willem Kalf. Still life with silver jug. 73,8 x 65,2 cm. Oil on canvas. 1655-57

Secondly, the subject matter of the “real” still life and of the painting-within-painting is now different: the real one, with bread and onions is decidedly more earthly, the “painted” one, with its lemons, silver and china, more exotic and “fine” (rare and fair). I did, however, retain one common element, the wine glass, for the sake of purely stylistic contrast and to acknowledge the repetition of rhymes in the sonnet.

There is another important difference as well: in the first study above, all three versions of the still life were done from life; here, the painting-within-painting is borrowed from several still life paintings of the Dutch Golden Age (I show here the one most explicitly referred to in my work, by Willem Kalf). This introduces the visual counterpart of “hearsay” in the poem: the rival poets don’t invent their hyperbolic comparisons themselves, but borrow them from others (stirred by a painted beauty).

There are two other, purely visual, contrasts between the two still life areas:

  • Geometrically, the painting-within-painting is a vertical plane (corresponding to “vertical” metaphors condemned in the sonnet), whereas the “real life” set-up is horizontal, earth-bound, almost falling out of the picture plane towards the viewer;
  • Colour-wise, the painting-within-painting borrows its colour harmony from the heaven area and intensifies it as far as possible, that is, heaven itself for ornament doth use. In contrast to this, the real-life area of the painting is saturated with earthly reds and ochres.

All in all, it turned out that a humble still life can offer ample opportunities for creating visual counterparts for a poetic commentary on poetry.

Helen Vendler. The Art of Shakespeare Sonnets. Cambridge, Massachusetts &ndahs; London, England. 1997.

Sonnet 17: Stretched metre of an antique song

Lena Levin. Sonnet 17: Stretched metre of an antique song

Sonnet 17: Stretched metre of an antique song. 20″x20″ (50.8 x 50.8 cm). Oil on linen.


William Shakespeare. Sonnet 17

Who will believe my verse in time to come,
If it were filled with your most high deserts?
Though yet heaven knows it is but as a tomb
Which hides your life, and shows not half your parts.
If I could write the beauty of your eyes,
And in fresh numbers number all your graces,
The age to come would say ‘This poet lies;
Such heavenly touches ne’er touched earthly faces.’
So should my papers, yellowed with their age,
Be scorned, like old men of less truth than tongue,
And your true rights be termed a poet’s rage
And stretched metre of an antique song:

But were some child of yours alive that time,
You should live twice, in it, and in my rhyme.


Diana Quick reading this sonnet.

Domenico Ghirlandaio. Piero di Lorenzo de Medici.

Domenico Ghirlandaio. Piero di Lorenzo de Medici.

For this work, I needed an “antique” painting to stand for the antique song of the sonnet: something not quite believable and somewhat stretched technically, and maybe even yellowed with age.

Since the Early Renaissance would certainly be somewhat “antique” for the future envisioned by Shakespeare, this painting loosely references Domenico Ghirlandaio’s portrait of Piero, the eldest son of Lorenzo de Medici. On the one hand, we don’t quite believe this depiction: the son of Lorenzo the Magnificent had in all probability been somewhat idealized by the artist, albeit for reasons quite different from Shakespeare’s. On the other hand, this portrait has that exact mixture of realism with the stylistic imprint of its time that I needed for a translation of this sonnet: it’s straightforward and somewhat naive colour harmony, elongated face with visible stylistic residues of the Florentine tradition to insert portraits of patrons into religious paintings.

In many ways, these qualities are exaggerated in my work, which adds to the young man’s face more of those heavenly touches we are not supposed to believe. I have wiped away Piero’s arrogance and his (realistic) heavy chin and enlarged the eyes to an unrealistic degree, making them more “in-your-face” beautiful and considerably more romantic and hard to believe.

The right vertical golden rectangle of my square design is supposed to stand for the depiction of the past surviving into the future, with its flatter and smoother colour areas and straightforward contrast of primary colours and black. The left third of the square, where the colours split into a chaotic vertical movement of brushstrokes, stands for the envisioned future with its doubts and scorn. The portrait of the young man, however, doesn’t quite fit into the past, but comes out from the painting-within-painting into the “future”, which allows the future’s split colours and untamed brushstrokes to burst into his perfect hair-do. Is it the future’s scorn? Or repercussions of Shakespeare’s success in his quest to make the young man immortal with his verse? Who knows…

Sonnet 16: The lines of life

Lena Levin. Sonnet 16. The lines of life

Sonnet 16: The lines of life. 20″x20″ (50.8 x 50.8 cm). Oil on linen. 2012.


William Shakespeare. Sonnet 16

But wherefore do not you a mightier way
Make war upon this bloody tyrant, Time?
And fortify yourself in your decay
With means more blessed than my barren rhyme?
Now stand you on the top of happy hours,
And many maiden gardens yet unset
With virtuous wish would bear your living flowers,
Much liker than your painted counterfeit:
So should the lines of life that life repair,
Which this Time’s pencil or my pupil pen,
Neither in inward worth nor outward fair,
Can make you live yourself in eyes of men.

To give away yourself keeps yourself still,
And you must live drawn by your own sweet skill.

Fiona Shaw reads this sonnet in the Touchpress edition.

In the dramatic plot of the sonnet sequence, we find ourselves at the crossing of three motives:

  • Procreation as salvation, or Erasmian abjurations to marry. By all appearances, the speaker returns to this motive in this sonnet, yet it is about to dry out completely, to be replaced by
  • Prohibited romantic love, with its mild craziness and enraptured adoration, supported and reinforced by
  • Immortalizing power of art, from the poet’s cosmic view of earthly affairs – we have just been there in Sonnet 15 (to which this one is directly linked with the initial but of the first line), but now the speaker appears to have doubts about his power to make the young man live “in the eyes of men”.

Although this sonnet seems to return to the procreation motive, we are just a breath away from (temporarily) forgetting mortality and different strategies of overcoming it and losing ourselves completely in the enchanted garden of romantic love. Even if the sonnet doesn’t mention romantic love explicitly, it is already filled to the brim with its sweetness and adoration. This is one reason why my painting picks the central visual image of the sonnet – maiden gardens yet unset (vaguely referencing Vincent Van Gogh’s orchard paintings, but without (visible) flowers).

Here, however, the speaker still pretends to discuss the relative merits of immortalizing strategies. The major contrast is between art and procreation, with a sub-contrast between poetry and painting (by the way, it’s the first time that the speaker identifies himself as a poet, referring to his barren rhyme). The contrast is played out in two “linguistic” games.

The first game entertains the opposition and affinity between pencil (meaning painter’s brush) and the speaker’s own pen, creating a pun on penis (as the context suggests, that must be the instrument of the young man’s own sweet skill mentioned in the couplet). Just as the explicit mention of barren rhyme and maiden gardens create the empty place for the listener to fill in with fertile bride, so the explicit mention of inadequate “artistic” instruments of immortality, pen and pencil, suggest the only (yet shyly unnamed) adequate one, helped along by the phonetic similarity.

The second linguistic game is based on the multiple meanings of line:

  • lines drawn by a (visual) artist, and
  • lines of a poem, and, finally,
  • the lines of life (i.e. genealogical lines).

This is the game I try to pick up and continue in the painting – stressing the linear qualities of organic branches (standing for lines of life) and attempting to match the magnificent rhythm of the third quatrain with the upward rhythmical movements of my lines.