What is visual rhetoric ? | Analysing Art

Writing about Art: concepts of visual rhetoric and visual literacy.

By Yolanda Silva, from online course Analysing Art.

Visual Rhetoric

Writing about art forces us to observe with double or even triple the attention the work that is before us and what it may awaken in us (and therefore what it might reflect of our own selves, as an individual or society).

Thus, writing or commenting on a particular work or artistic production of an author as a whole can sometimes seem intimidating.

(…(Above all, what strikes us is that not all messages are clear – Heidegger told us:

“The work is a symbol.”

This symbol was created by the artist, it has its own language, a rhetoric that seeks to convince us of an idea; that persuades or seduces us.

Rhetoric, the art of discourse, becomes visual to show us through figures of speech (such as metaphors, analogies, etc., but now visual) what the artist wants to communicate.

Visual Rhetoric
Adapted from http://thevisualcommunicationguy.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2014/02/VisualRhetoric_Infographic.jpg

So, we can define visual rhetoric as the how or the why of the communication of meaning through visual representations.

It goes beyond design concepts and aesthetics to enter the field of how culture and meaning are reflected, communicated or modified by the images that the artist chose to use.

The figures of speech used in the visual rhetoric  vary according to the purpose of the artist.

This language is very present in advertising and graphic design. In art we can find, for example, popular allegories likeJustice:

Alegoria da Justiça

Allegory of Justice, Gaetano Gandolfi (oil on canvas; 1760s).

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Allegory_of_Justice_-_Gaetano_Gandolfi_-_Louvre_RF_1983-58#/media/File:Gandolfi_-_Allegory_of_Justice.jpg

In the cartoon below, we can see a picture of an ugly figure with gross features, crown and sceptre. He imposes fashion changes from the early 20th century.

For example, in the centre, we read: «You should have small hips to be in style. GET BUSY!»

1913-Dictates-of-Fashion-Calvert-Life-cartoonweb

Visual Literacy

On the other hand, writing about art also involves processes of knowledge and response to the visual image – i.e. visual literacy.

The simplest definition we can give for visual literacy is the ability to understand an image.

But visual literacy not only involves the process of assimilating and understanding the message of the work of art.

It is the process of thinking that may be involved in the construction and/or manipulation of an image. Therefore, it has to do also with being able to discuss about the work of art: the production of a discourse on the representations.


The verbalization of an image involves the transformation of something visual into words that are understood by others and thus creating a coherent discourse using the articulation of established knowledge (related to the piece, creative process, expressiveness, historical and cultural context, iconography …).

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