Ekphrastic Writing

Les Raboteurs by Gustave Caillebotte, 1875

Ekphrasis: the use of detailed description of a work of visual art as a literary device.

Usually, ekphrastic poems or stories are written about a painting, but they can also be based on a sculpture, an object, or even architecture. One of the earliest examples is in the Iliad, when Homer describes Achilles’ shield. Another famous example is John Keats’ poem “Ode to a Grecian Urn.”

I’m not sure if I should admit to having favourites, but I do! I regard Against the Grain (click to read it) with great affection as it was one of my earliest stories and I spent a long time with it. Published by Ekphrastic Review in December 2019 (and again in July 2021), it was inspired by the painting Les RaboteursThe Floor Scrapers – by Gustave Caillebotte. The online journal Ekphrastic Review regularly provides picture prompts for poetry and prose submissions, and many other competitions make use of an unusual photograph or image as a starting point.

The first draft of Against the Grain was written in 2015 during my MA course on Radio Drama, at the University of Essex, taught by Professor Elizabeth Kuti, and written in the form of a monologue for radio. I chose one of the workmen as narrator, giving him an imagined name and home life, weaving a story around him and the artist Gustave Caillebotte. I used known facts where possible and invented what else I felt the story needed. In 2019, I revisited it, rewriting it in story form while keeping it as monologue, as I felt that first person narrator suited the intimacy I wanted to convey.

I was intrigued by Caillebotte’s wealthy background (unusual in an artist) and also admired the realism in his painting, one of the first artists to depict the urban working class – considered a ‘vulgar’ subject choice by the French Academy of the day, who turned it down. The rejection propelled Caillebotte to join the Impressionist group (and, being wealthy, he became their patron). Unsurprisingly, given his detailed and precise brushwork, he also had a deep interest in early photography, and his work became much admired in time.

In fact, it’s not necessary to have any knowledge of either artist or subject in order to use images as prompts. Knowledge can be a distraction from story-making. Using a historical picture as a starting point does not necessitate writing historical fiction. The image doesn’t need to be high art either – I’ve used personal photos, newspaper and magazine pictures, abstract art – anything which can prompt a memory or stimulate an idea is fair game. I very much enjoyed writing the microfiction Pushing the Boat Out (longlisted in the Blinkpot 2021 Award) set in modern times, but inspired by the 1912 painting A Woman’s Work, by John Sloan. It was the idea of sheets billowing on a washing line which gave me a starting point rather than the specific painting.

An image involving people gives us the opportunity to ask: Who are they? How are they connected? Do they know each other? What are they saying? Is one of them keeping a secret? How did they get here? Where would they rather be?

An image of a place can provide an unusual setting where something is about to happen, or has just happened…

But enough talk – browsing through my photos for this post has given me an idea to play around with…

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