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Hisham Matar: The Writer Who Sees Art in Full Color

In the realm of literature, Hisham Matar stands as a beacon of artistry, a storyteller whose words paint vivid pictures and transport readers to worlds both familiar and foreign. Yet, beyond his literary prowess lies a lesser-known facet of Matar’s character: his profound connection with visual art. Among his friends, it is an open secret that Matar possesses an extraordinary ability to engage with paintings, spending hours in their presence, absorbing their essence, and extracting profound insights. This article delves into Matar’s unique relationship with art, exploring how it informs his writing and shapes his perspective on the world.

A Habit Born from Grief

Matar’s fascination with art has its roots in a period of immense personal grief. During his early years living in London, he sought solace in the galleries and museums of the city, finding in the works of great masters a sanctuary from his sorrow. It was during this time that he developed his distinctive habit of selecting a single painting and dedicating himself to its study, often spending hours each week in its presence.

Sustained Attention and Immersive Engagement

Unlike many who flit from one artwork to another, Matar immerses himself in a chosen painting, allowing its colors, forms, and textures to wash over him. He takes lunch breaks at the National Gallery, seeking communion with the likes of Velázquez, Duccio, and the Lorenzetti brothers. This sustained attention, lasting months at a time, allows Matar to penetrate the surface of the artwork and uncover hidden layers of meaning.

The Transformative Power of Looking

Matar’s friends attest to the transformative power of looking at art with him. They describe how his presence alters the very atmosphere, creating a sense of timelessness and heightened perception. It is as if Matar possesses the ability to see artworks in a way that others cannot, perceiving them in their full vibrancy and depth.

Art as Inspiration and Muse

Matar’s profound engagement with art extends beyond mere observation. He draws inspiration from the paintings he studies, allowing them to seep into his writing and inform his narrative style. The colors, textures, and emotions captured in a work of art can spark ideas, shape characters, and create a rich tapestry of imagery in his prose.

Walking Through the City as an Art Form

Matar’s heightened awareness of visual details extends beyond the confines of galleries and museums. He walks through cities as if they were vast, open-air art galleries, observing the interplay of light and shadow, the textures of buildings, and the ebb and flow of human activity. This keen observation informs his writing, lending his descriptions a vividness and authenticity that transports readers to the very heart of the places he depicts.

The Art of Seeing and the Art of Writing

Ultimately, Matar’s passion for art is inextricably linked to his craft as a writer. Both endeavors demand a deep engagement with the world, a willingness to observe, absorb, and interpret the myriad details that shape our surroundings. In Matar’s case, his ability to see art in full color extends to his writing, imbuing his prose with a richness of imagery and a depth of insight that few can match.


Hisham Matar’s relationship with art is a testament to the transformative power of visual expression. His ability to engage with paintings on such a profound level not only enriches his own life but also elevates his writing, creating a body of work that resonates with readers on a deep and lasting level. His journey serves as a reminder that art and literature are inextricably intertwined, each enhancing the other in a beautiful and profound dance of creativity.