This article analyses a paradox in three art novels: Honoré de Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece ( 1831), Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray ( 1890), and Siegfried Lenz’s The German Lesson (1968): the narrative of each of these literary texts revolves around artworks that are partly or completely invisible to the reader and to most of the protagonists, yet they have been considered a reflection of aesthetic debates of their time, and have inspired artists to strongly identify with their main characters. At the crossroads between literature studies and art history, Paul Cézanne claimed a kinship with the fictional painter of Balzac’s Unknown Masterpiece, noting: ‘I am Frenhofer’, while in German post-war culture, the expressionist Emil Nolde was associated with his fictional alter ego Max Ludwig Nansen, as portrayed in The German Lesson. These will be treated as examples of literature which impact on the scholarly and popular reception of the artist, to the point of ‘painting over’ a reality. In a palimpsestuous reading of these texts, the poetic act of naming and describing art substitutes itself for ekphrases made impossible by the absence of referent. This substitution, as an alternative way to ascertain and produce several simultaneous layers of meaning, reveals itself in the gradual layering of age on Dorian Gray’s portrait in Wilde’s eponymous novel, while Master Frenhofer’s final cry of ‘Nothing on my canvas!’ points to a dichotomy of absence and presence coexisting in the painting in its textual form. The mental process triggered by these ekphrases thus becomes the verbal representation of an impossible visual representation, and trains the mind to envisage the possibility of the verbal representation, or at least the formulation of visual abstraction, in future encounters with forms of art disconnected from the real.