Tropes Exemplified in Works of Art 5: Litotes

by Mark Staff Brandl

This week, I am continuing my short series of fine artworks exemplifying major tropes. This is the fifth entry.

The list of major tropes I am referring to I published on this website a while ago, “A List of the Most Important Tropes and Their Definitions;” here is the link:

As I said in parts 1, 2, 3, and 4 over the next several weeks, I will take each trope from the list and link it to a major work of art. This will include artworks from a large variety of time periods and in many different media, if I am successful. Generally, I will be looking for artworks that embody the trope under consideration within their formal elements, clearly showing a trope in visual use. I have discussed metaphor and metonymy. This week, Number 5:


A trope consisting of an understatement in which an affirmative is expressed by negating its opposite. “He is no vulcano.” (for: He is too placid.) (By the way, litotes is singular; it just happens to end with an ‘s’ due to its Greek origin. The plural is identical to the singular.)

An obvious choice for an artwork displaying sophisticated use of litotes would be the famous and influential painting by René Magritte, La trahison des images, 1928–29, often translated as The Treachery of Images. (Link:

This is clearly litotic. The phrase on the painting includes a negative (n’est pas; ne pas) and it states a clear truth: it is a painting of a pipe, not an actual pipe, yet a truth that insinuates many other potential readings. This being the reason why it is the father of so much Conceptual Art.

However, I would like to find a more purely visual litotes, one in a painting without words. I have nothing against paintings with words; in fact, I rather enjoy them and have done a whole series for years of my own works based on showcard lettering and comic covers, one which I title as a group “Covers.” However, our purpose in this series of articles on Metaphor and Art is to see how these terms originally only applied to literature can enlighten our understanding of visual art.

My choice is a superb self-portrait by one of the female artists in art history who deserves to be much more well known: Judith Leyster. It is her Self Portrait, circa 1630–1635, Link:

There are many self-portraits by artists where they depict themselves painting, often hiding the work-within-the-work by showing us only the back of the canvas, its stretcher bars. There are others where the artists show themselves painting themselves, an always enjoyable double referencing. Leyster’s is enjoyable for its metaphoric complexity, among other qualities. Something she seems to reflect in the slight smile on her face, not at all common in self portraits in her time. It is both metaphoric and litotic.

As an aside, Leyster was well-known during her lifetime and esteemed by her contemporaries, however she and her work became largely forgotten after her death. Leyster’s rediscovery began in 1893, but still should be carried on and expanded today.

Lester’s painting which we are looking at closely is very intriguing. She apparently did many paintings of musicians, and here she is clearly identifying with both a musician and her paintings of them. At first glance one notices that it is a self-portrait of herself painting a musician and that there is much similarity between her image and that of the musician. They both are merry, indeed the musician is laughing. Both heads are tipped in similar angles, she to her right, he to his left. Her brush is much like his bow and her palette somewhat like his violin. therefore these elements can all be described as metaphors, or even more so as similes. In fact, I believe similes and metaphors are often identical in the visual arts, as we have no clear equivalent to the additional “like” or “as” which makes a simile in literature. Yet, because they are not identical, there is more of a simile to these details: a painter is like a musician.

More important to my eye, and this short article, nevertheless is that there are so many patent divergences between the images of the painter and her subject. Most importantly, she is a woman, he is a man. She is not a man. This was a very socially important distinction in the Baroque. Furthermore, the brush is obviously not a bow. And most imperative, the painting she is painting is not the self-portrait before us. And yet it is, as it is the object before us. I see this all as very sophisticated visual playfulness. Litotes in abundance — merged with inverted similes. This is something almost only visual art can achieve, not writing. Lester does it with a lightness and painterly dexterity that is mischievous and simultaneously socially evocative and critical. This makes Lester’s painting for me one of the most delightfully charged self-portraits in art history.

Next time: Hyperbole