Unlike his erstwhile friend Jean-Paul Sartre, Merleau-Ponty was neither a playwright nor a novelist. However, as a philosopher of perception, he would often comment on the various arts, especially poetry, painting, music and film, the artists who created them, and the experience of understanding them. Sartre had already written about the imagination as distinct from perception and expression in Imagination (1936) and The Psychology of Imagination (1940), but also in Being and Nothingness (1943). Sartre had already published his first novel Nausea (1938) and, during the war, several plays: No Exit, The Flies, Dirty Hands. Meanwhile in 1939, Merleau-Ponty completed The Structure of Behavior (1942), in which there is hardly a mention of aesthetic matters. By contrast, his Phenomenology of Perception (1945) is interfused with passing references to Cézanne and Van Gogh, to Proust, Balzac, Valéry and Stendhal, and to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and its musical performance.
In Phenomenology of Perception, appeals to painters, novelists, musical performances are all in aid of explaining how phenomenological experience – of the body, of language, of time, of vision – articulates embodied being-in-the-world. In the important Preface he remarks:
If phenomenology was a movement before becoming a doctrine or a philosophical system, this was attributable neither to accident, nor to fraudulent intent. It is as painstaking as the works of Balzac, Proust, Valéry, or Cézanne – by reason of the same kind of attentiveness and wonder, the same demand for awareness, the same will to seize the meaning of the world or of history as that meaning comes into being. In this way it merges into the general effort of modern thought. […]