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Narrative Painting: Definition, Artists & Examples

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever painted a picture that told a story? That's what narrative art does. In this lesson, learn about narrative painting and explore some artists and examples.

What Is Narrative Painting?

Artists create art with many materials, including paints like oils, acrylics or watercolors. Many painters create images that convey stories. Such works are known as narrative painting.

Narrative painting is painting that tells a story. It often depicts images from religion, mythology, history, literature, or everyday life. The works might be small canvases or large wall-size images. They might have precise brushstrokes or large swirls of paint. Narrative painting isn't about a painting style, but rather the image's content. Whatever the subject, narrative paintings contain elements of realism, with things recognizable as structures or figures in the natural world.

Some people argue that not all representational art is narrative. For example, a portrait of an individual sitting serenely against a backdrop isn't a compelling narrative. Think about it this way. When considering whether or not something is narrative, ask yourself this question: what's going to happen next? Does the image hint at a sequence of events? Perhaps look for what happened before the scene unfolded before you, or suggestions of what might happen after the moment visible on the canvas.

History Of Narrative Painting

Humans have created art for millennia. For most of that time, the images have been narrative in nature. Only in the 20th century do we get works that are abstract, which means they don't contain anything that resembles figures or objects from the real world. Early 20th century artists rebelled against realism and narrative. Movements like Cubism, which broke forms into geometric shards; and Abstract Expressionism, which explored feelings and emotions through color and brushstroke, moved away from narrative. Many types of Modern art were not narrative.

But people are geared to telling stories and preserving tales of battles, love and epic adventures. Narrative painting never completely disappeared. Today, artists work in many styles, including abstract and narrative art.

Narrative Art: Artists and Examples

Now let's look at three paintings from different time periods to explore narrative in art.

Raphael

The first image is by Raphael (1483 - 1520) who painted during the Italian Renaissance. After studying with a more experienced artist, Raphael moved to Florence and then Rome. He became successful with commissions for religious works. At this period in Europe, most art was done for the church or for religious purposes.

The Expulsion of Heliodorus From the Temple by Raphael
Heliodorus

Raphael painted The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple between 1511 and 1512. It's a fresco, a painting created on a wall by working directly in wet plaster. The scene is full of commotion and activity. It conveys an incident from the Bible's Old Testament, where young men chase a man named Helidorus from a Jewish temple. Helidorus had been sent by the king to take money. At left, crowds watch and people point. At right, a rider on horseback forces Helidorus to the ground. What will happen next? Will he be trampled? We don't know. Of course, as a Bible story, the ending would have been known, and this fresco's location, on the walls of a papal apartment (living quarters for the Pope), hinted at the story's moral, which is: don't steal from the church.

Henry Fuseli

Henry Fuseli (1741 - 1825) was a Swiss-born painter who often created images based on theater and literature subjects. Among his favorite themes were works by William Shakespeare. Fuseli's images are dark and mysterious, and different from those painted by Raphael. Fuseli was interested in dream-like states, including nightmares.

Falstaff in the Laundry Basket by Henri Fuseli
Falstaff

Fuseli painted Falstaff in the Laundry Basket in 1792. It's a scene from Shakespeare's play The Merry Wives of Windsor. Women have just convinced a character named Falstaff to hide in a basket of dirty laundry. Fuseli's captured the moment when he falls in. Falstaff sprawls among the clothes as the women enthusiastically cover him with more. Another person's face peaks around the corner, and one of the woman smiles at him. Is Falstaff in trouble? We know this isn't the end of the story. In fact, the basket of dirty laundry then gets dumped into the dirty river. It's narrative art with a comic twist.

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