Art imitates what?

Aristotle vs. Oscar Wilde

"But if on the other hand art imitates nature, and it is the part of the same discipline to know the form and the matter up to a point . . . ."

"Each step then in the series is for the sake of the next; and generally art partly completes what nature cannot bring to a finish, and partly imitates her."

Aristotle, Physics, Part 2 & Part 8. 350 BCE.


"Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life".

Iconoclastically expressed in his essay, Oscar Wilde wrote this remark as part of a Platonic dialogue between two characters Vivian and Cyril entitled "The Decay of Lying." 1. Oscar Wilde goes further and suggests that "Art takes life as part of her rough material, recreates it, and refashions it in fresh forms, is absolutely indifferent to fact, invents, imagines, dreams, and keeps between herself and reality the impenetrable barrier of beautiful style, of decorative or ideal treatment." Wilde satirically concludes that "Lying for the sake of the improvement of the young, which is the basis of home education, still lingers amongst us, and its advantages are so admirably set forth in the early books of Plato's Republic that it is unnecessary to dwell upon them here." He suggests that one of art's purposes is to lie, and not reveal the realism that so many artists of his time during the late nineteenth century seriously tried to convey. Such is the many fine works of Frederic E. Church.

Frederic Edwin Church, Niagara's "Horseshoe Falls," oil on canvas, 1856-57.

Experts contend "Wilde holds that anti-mimesis 2 'results not merely from Life's imitative instinct, but from the fact that the self-conscious aim of Life is to find expression, and that Art offers it certain beautiful forms through which it may realize that energy.' "

landscape of California foothillsWoodlands

Connie Smith Siegel, 3 San Geronimo Valley & Edgar Payne's Salinas Valley, two California landscapes.

So what was the point of Wilde's contradiction of Aristotle's dictum: "art partly completes what nature cannot"? What of the notion of artistic expression arising from life's many and varied vicissitudes? Wilde has his character in the dialogue say "VIVIAN: Enjoy Nature! I am glad to say that I have entirely lost that faculty." Then the discussion dwells on the merits of seeing a Constable or other landscape paintings in an art gallery.

Constable's Flatford Marsh, oil on canvas

John Constable's, Flatford Marsh, oil on canvas, 1816-17. On display at Tate Britain.

John Constable's canvas is of a navigable river in Sussex, England and is very appropriate to show in respect to Wilde's discussion because the painter Constable, himself, had decided to complete the work –according to the curators at the Tate Gallery– in the outdoors. Constable was conscientious to finish the painting in the native setting he depicted on the canvas.

Vivian tells Cyril [the two participants in Wilde's dialogue] that "My own experience is that the more we study Art, the less we care for Nature. What Art really reveals to us is Nature's lack of design, her curious crudities, her extraordinary monotony, her absolutely unfinished condition."

Some art that portrays natural settings or subjects would appear to contradict Wilde's assertion and sustain Aristotle's notion that art be didactic. That is all art must instruct the senses and the sensibilities to understand more profoundly the role of both expression and the subject expressed by artists as we hear, see, or encounter the work of art.

Wilde objected and instead asserted that:

            1. Art never expresses anything but itself
            2. All bad art comes from returning to Life and Nature, and elevating them into ideals
            3. Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life
            4. Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art

While Wilde did not specifically dwell on the subject, the art of trompe-l'oeil, or painting of optical illusions, does move in the direction that Wilde argued fine, well-crafted art should manifest.

autumnal field

Another contemporary artist Diana Beltran Herrara disagrees in some part with the arguments raised in Wilde's dialogue. She insists that her "realization a couple of years ago." began with an emotional recognition. “I started to feel closer to nature, but more, I recognized that I was in nature living at the same time as others, and I wasn’t any more special than any other element,” says the Colombian artist. A bit conflicted, she says, “I had this knowledge of things living around me, but did I really know about them? I decided that it was time to play again, to rediscover the place where I was living.” 4



1, Wilde, Oscar. The Decay of Lying in Intentions (1891).

2, mimesis refers to the "representation or imitation of the real world in art, poetry, drama, and literature."

3, The Artist's statement

"I began to work outside in the mid-sixties, finding a renewed meaning in life walking and drawing in the winter fields of Colorado.... Waking up in this last decade (1990s) to the vulnerability of the earth, I adapted my work for use in the peace and environmental community. The urgent concern for the earth remains, but under all and most enduring is the deep satisfaction I feel simply being in natural places."

Connie Smith Siegel (1990)

Diana Beltran Herrara, "Birds of Florida"

4, Read more: 
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5, Martin Kemp. Visualization, The nature book of Art and Science. Berkeley, Ca.: U.C. Press, 2000) pp, 12-13. Visualization_Mona's-laws.html

6, Nature, guide to discussions on this site of related topics.

Art topics:

Edward Hopper – Gas, 1940.

Edward Hopper – Night Hawks, 1942.

Joseph Mallord William Turner – Rain, Speed and Steam, 1844.

Frederic Edwin Church – paintings, 1845-1900.

Thomas Cole – paintings, 1824-1840.

Visual Arts archive.

Perspective in painting & drawing.