The Story in Paintings: Impressionist issues

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), Diana the Huntress (1867), oil on canvas, 197 x 132 cm, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

Even without a manifesto or coherent philosophy, one of the few consistent features of the Impressionists was their total abstinence from narrative genres such as history, mythological, and religious painting. For those genres signified the classical Salon tradition, which they united in fighting.

That said, their immediate precursors, including Corot and Manet, did paint narrative works, and in their own pre-Impressionist careers, several of them did venture into narrative. This article looks at how far they went, and what they made of narrative paintings.

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875)

As one of the major influences on the Impressionists, through his landscape paintings, Corot did paint occasional narrative works, particularly during the middle and later part of his career. I have chosen as an example one of his landscapes in which he has set a narrative from mythology.

Orpheus Leading Eurydice from the Underworld (1861)

The classic version of this myth was recorded by Virgil in his Georgics, although Ovid wrote a slightly different account in his Metamorphoses.

Orpheus was the son of Apollo, who was the most entrancing player of the lyre. He fell in love with the uniquely beautiful Euridyce, whom he married. However when Hymen blessed their marriage, he fortold that their love would not last. Soon afterwards, she was wandering in a forest with her nymphs, when she met a shepherd, Aristaeus, who fell in love with her. When he was chasing her in the wood, she was bitten by a snake and died.

Orpheus was stricken with grief; his father Apollo advised him to go to Hades to see his dead wife, and provided divine protection for this. He eventually reached Hades, the god of the underworld, and charmed him with his music. Hades agreed to let him take Euridyce with him, provided that he did not look at her until he had left the caves of the underworld. Inevitably, when just a few feet from safety, Orpheus turned to look at Euridyce, who was taken back into the underworld.

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Orpheus Leading Eurydice from the Underworld (1861), oil on canvas, 44 x 54 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston TX. WikiArt.
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875), Orpheus Leading Eurydice from the Underworld (1861), oil on canvas, 44 x 54 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston TX. WikiArt.

Corot shows the couple, Orpheus leading Euridyce, as they near the light at the exit of the underworld. Orpheus is instantly recognisable by his lyre, held high in front of him, and both are clearly moving towards the right edge of the painting, and the edge of the dark wood. Although they are too small for facial expressions to be significant elements, their body language is clear, with Orpheus looking straight ahead, holding Euridyce’s left arm with his trailing right hand.

Rather than use an abstract form to represent the underworld, Corot has used a wood, with a pool in the middle distance. Behind that are spirits of the dead, some still grieving their death. Although this setting is unconventional, Corot has followed standard practice in most respects, and the narrative is clear, well-cued, and coherent with the text version.

Édouard Manet (1832–1883)

Manet, who did not exhibit with the Impressionists, was another major influence on their approach and painting. He painted several strongly narrative works through his career, from which I have chosen three.

The Battle of the Kearsarge and the Alabama (1864)

The US Navy warship USS Kearsarge and a Confederate States Navy warship CSS Alabama fought the Battle of Cherbourg, off the French coast near Cherbourg, in June 1864. The Alabama had been pursued for two years by the Kearsage at that time, and was in the neutral port of Cherbourg undergoing repairs.

With nowhere else to go, the Alabama left harbour on 19 June, and the two vessels engaged in combat in clear sight of the French coast. The Kearsarge got the upper hand, and the Alabama was holed below the waterline and started to sink. The Alabama was abandoned and sank, most of her survivors being rescued by the Kearsarge.

Édouard Manet (1832–1883), The Battle of the Kearsarge and the Alabama (1864), oil on canvas, 134 x 127 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA. Wikimedia Commons.

Manet shows the sinking Alabama in the middle of the canvas, flying a white flag of surrender. The Kearsarge appears to be behind and to the left of her, in the midst of smoke from her own guns. Two other vessels are on hand: a small local pilot cutter in the foreground (French according to its flag), and in the distance at the right is the British yacht the Deerhound, which rescued some of the survivors. One survivor in seen swimming from right to left, towards the cutter.

Alberti’s rules can hardly apply to warships in such marines, but Manet appears to have painted a scene which is largely consistent with contemporary accounts, on which he had to rely. However the position of the swimming survivor is odd and out of kilter with that of the Alabama. This is an odd narrative for a painter who was not a marine specialist.

The Execution of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico (1868)

Maximilian became Emperor of Mexico in 1864, although he was the son of Archduke Franz Karl of Austria and Princess Sophie of Bavaria, and had served in the Austrian Navy. He installed himself as Emperor with the support of Napoleon III, who had intervened in Mexico.

However he was strongly opposed by forces who remained loyal to Mexico’s deposed president, and when Napoleon withdrew French troops in 1866, Maximilian’s rule collapsed. He was captured the following year, court-martialled, and executed by firing squad with two of his generals on 19 June 1867. The firing squad did not kill the men at their first attempt, and a coup de grace was needed to ensure their deaths.

Édouard Manet (1832–1883), The Execution of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico (1868), oil on canvas, 252 x 305 cm, Kunsthalle Mannheim, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Manet painted three similar versions, of which the earliest was cut up (probably by the artist), and a third, incomplete painting remains intact. There is also a much smaller study.

He decided to show the moment of execution, with a disorganised firing squad at almost point-blank range of their victims. In this painting, Manet puts them in field dress which could easily be interpreted as being French. Their faces are turned away from the viewer, only their body language and actions being clear. At the back of the squad (right of the painting) their commander is fiddling with his rifle, and disinterested in the execution.

Maximilian appears to be an old man, although he was only 35 at the time. The nearer of his generals assumes the expression of horror, and appears in his posture to have been hit by bullets. Maximilian’s face is oddly neutral, and he appears to be holding the hand of the general on each side of him. The other, distant, general appears almost detached from the group, with an odd expression and little body language.

Behind the scene of execution is a small group of people peering over the top of a wall, watching what is going on in apparent detachment.

Although the narrative is clearly portrayed and appears faithful to history, it is not clear why Manet did not make better use of facial expression and body language, in the way that Goya had previously in his The Third of May 1808 (1814).

The Barricade (Civil War) (1871)

The Paris Commune rose up from frictions arising from the end of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, effectively providing Paris with its own radical socialist revolutionary government from March to May 1871. At the end of this, during ‘Bloody Week’, there were numerous battles between the French Army and the Communards, many of which were fought over barricades which the latter had built in the streets. These culminated in a massacre at the Père-Lachaise Cemetry on 27-28 May.

Édouard Manet (1832–1883), The Barricade (Civil War) (1871), ink, wash and watercolour on paper, 46.2 x 32.5 cm, Szepmuveseti Muzeum, Budapest, Hungary. Wikimedia Commons.

In this sketch, Manet uses a similar composition and elements to The Execution of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico above, of a firing squad shooting at very close range a couple of Communards. Facial expressions are either not visible or not shown, although the situation and body language are clear.

Edgar Degas (1834–1917)

One of the pivotal figures in the Impressionist movement, Degas was also one of its few artists who had undergone full formal training in classical painting, and one who seldom painted ‘Impressions’. As would have been expected of a painter after such training, in his early career he painted several narrative works. I have selected two to discuss here.

Dante and Virgil at the Entrance to Hell (1857-8)

In Dante Alighieri’s epic poem Inferno (14th century), Dante, the author, becomes lost in a dark wood, and is assailed by three beasts. He is at last rescued by the great Roman poet Virgil, and the pair embark on a journey to visit hell. Undergoing a fearful crossing of the River Styx, which is heaving with the tormented dead, the two arrive at the entrance to hell, where the gate bears an inscription ending with “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate”, traditionally translated as “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”. The remainder of the poem details the various parts of hell.

A popular subject for narrative paintings, one of its most famous versions was Eugène Delacroix’s first major painting, The Barque of Dante (1822).

Edgar Degas (1834–1917), Dante and Virgil at the Entrance to Hell (1857-8), oil on paper laid on canvas, 32 x 22.3 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum, via Wikimedia Commons.

Degas’ sketch shows two figures, their hands clasped, and looking at one another. Neither has a face developed sufficient to discern any expression, and being cloaked, all other body language is absent. There is no inscription visible, and without knowing the name of the painting, it would not be recognised as being narrative at all.

Degas also made sketches for other narrative paintings which are as difficult to read and relate to their narrative, such as David and Goliath (c 1864), which I cannot illustrate here for copyright reasons.

Interior (‘The Rape’) (1868-9)

Degas painted his Interior later, included much more detail, but it is even more mystifying than his early history paintings.

Edgar Degas (1834–1917), Interior (‘The Rape’) (1868-9), oil on canvas, 81.3 x 114.3 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA. Wikimedia Commons.

A man and a woman are in a bedroom together. The woman is at the left, partly kneeling down, and facing to the left. Her hair is cropped short, she wears a white shift which has dropped off her left shoulder, and her face is obscured in the dark. Her left forearm rests on a small stool or chair, over which is draped a dark brown cloak or coat. Her right hand rests on a wooden cabinet which is in front of her. She appears to be staring down towards the floor, off the left of the canvas.

The man stands at the far right, leaning on the inside of the bedroom door, and staring at the woman. He is quite well-dressed, with a black jacket, black waistcoat and mid-brown trousers. Both his hands are thrust into his trouser pockets, and his feet are apart. His top hat rests, upside down, on top of the cabinet in front of the woman.

Between them, just behind the woman, is a small occasional table, on which there is a table-lamp and a small open suitcase. Some of the contents of the suitcase rest over its edge. In front of it, on the table top, is a small pair of scissors and other items which appear to be from a small clothes repair kit (‘housewife’).

The single bed is made up, and its cover is not ruffled, but it may possibly bear a bloodstain at the foot. At the foot of the bed, on its large arched frame, another item apparently of the woman’s clothing (perhaps a coat) is loosely hung. On that end of the bed is a woman’s dark hat with ribbons.

Although so theatrical as to imply narrative reference, all attempts to attach a text narrative to it have so far failed. One of the most detailed and plausible readings was that of Theodore Reff, who claimed that it depicts a scene from Zola’s novel Thérèse Raquin, whose heroine discovers on her wedding night that her marriage is poisoned by guilt.

The biggest problem with that attribution is that the bed shown is only a single, and other more minor discrepancies have been pointed out. It has also been suggested that it is based on a lithograph showing a prostitute with a client. The mystery remains.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919)

Best known for his portraits and curvaceous female nudes, Renoir was far more accomplished, being a fine landscape painter and in his early years as an Impressionist was innovating as rapidly as Monet.

Diana the Huntress (1867)

The Roman goddess Diana has been popular as a motif for paintings, and is typically shown as a huntress, armed with a bow and arrows, and associated with the hunting of deer. Although there are narratives involving Actaeon, in particular, these are quite different from what is shown in Renoir’s painting.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), Diana the Huntress (1867), oil on canvas, 197 x 132 cm, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

Renoir shows Diana looking down at the deer which she has just killed using her bow and arrow. Her face appears expressionless. Her hands grasp the top of her bow, to her right, and the deer lies at her feet.

This appears to be a static portrait of a female nude cast into the role of Diana, rather than any mythological narrative.

The Judgement of Paris (study) (c 1908)

This is the study for the following painting in oils.

There are various accounts of what is now known as the Judgement of Paris. A common core to them is that three of the most beautiful women were brought to Alexander (or Paris), the son of King Priam of Troy, for him to determine which was the most beautiful. The women were Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. The prize was to be a golden apple from the Garden of the Hesperides, donated by Eris, goddess of discord. Athena’s rage at losing caused to her join the Greeks in the war against Troy.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), The Judgement of Paris (c 1908), black, red and white chalk on off-white, medium-weight, medium-texture paper, 19.3 x 24.5 cm, The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

Renoir’s sketch appears to have been made primarily for compositional purposes, and therefore contains just the thee nude women with Paris presenting the golden apple to the middle of the three.

The Judgment of Paris (c 1908-10)

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), The Judgment of Paris (c 1908-10), oil on canvas, 73 x 92.5 cm, Hiroshima Museum of Art, Hiroshima, Japan. Wikimedia Commons.

The finished painting adheres reasonably closely to the sketch, and to the original myth, although Renoir has added Hermes (Mercury), who is recognisable by his caduceus, winged helmet, and winged sandals.

Each of the faces is expressionless, and body language appears expansive but not particularly informative. It is almost certain that, as many painters before him, Renoir used the framework of the myth as an opportunity to paint three beautiful female nudes, rather than to engage in any real narrative.

Paul Cézanne (1839–1906)

Paul Cézanne was an early associate of the Impressionists, who during the 1870s learned Impressionist landscape painting from Pissarro in the region around Pontoise. In his early years as a painter, he made several dark canvases using the palette knife, in his ‘dark period’ of couillarde (‘ballsy’) works, with disturbing narratives of violence, rape, and murder.

The Judgment of Paris (1862-4)

Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), The Judgment of Paris (1862-4), oil on canvas, 15 x 21 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Cézanne is one of the few artists who does not seem to have turned this myth into an excuse for three nudes, but has shown quite a mature approach to its narrative. Priam, seated at the right, appears to be handing the golden apple to Aphrodite, second from left, whilst Hera modestly keeps her back turned towards him, and Athena is trying to seduce him and take the apple.

Unfortunately this appears to be quite a rough sketch, and there is no useful (or readable) facial detail. But body language and cues such as Hera’s thin veil are sufficient to connect details with the original text narrative.

Afternoon in Naples (c 1875)

Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), Afternoon in Naples (c 1875), oil on canvas, 37 x 45 cm, National Gallery of Australia, Parkes, ACT, Australia. Wikimedia Commons.

Here, though, Cézanne has become as mysterious as Degas. A naked woman is seen reclining and making love to a naked man, on a bed. The man is prone, his back uppermost. A black servant has just entered the room, bearing a tray with a pot of tea and cups. The servant is clad only in a bright orange skirt or loincloth, and has a bright yellow hat. All the three faces are obscured.

This could be a proper narrative, although its origin appears obscure. Or it could, as others have suggested, merely be an erotic fantasy set in Italy as a place of sensual freedom. It may allude to Manet’s Olympia, and sketches include a black cat, which is omitted from this final oil version. It may also allude to paintings by Courbet and Delacroix. It remains a mystery.

The Temptation of Saint Anthony (c 1875)

Saint Anthony was born in 251 CE to wealthy parents in Lower Egypt. When he was 18, his parents died, and he became an evangelical Christian. He gave his inheritance away, and followed an ascetic life. For fifteen years he lived as a hermit. During this time the devil fought with him, afflicting him with boredom, laziness, and dreams of lustful women. Then the devil beat him unconscious.

Friends found him and brought him back to health, so he went back into the desert for another twenty years. This time the devil afflicted him with visions of wild beasts, snakes, scorpions, etc., but again he fought back. He eventually emerged serene and healthy. He went to Alexandria during the persecution of Christians there, to comfort those in prison. He returned to the desert, where he built a monastic system with his followers.

Cézanne appears to have been aware of a contemporary version of the story by Gustave Flaubert which expands considerably on the original accounts, and provides great details of the succession of temptations, which includes the Queen of Sheba with a retinue of (negro) boys, personifying the deadly sin of lust.

Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), The Temptation of Saint Anthony (c 1875), oil on canvas, 47 x 56 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Cézanne shows the shadowy figure of Saint Anthony slumped against a bush at the left, his arms held out to shield himself from the temptations. The devil is shown, in stereotypical form, wearing red robes, with an animal head and horns, behind Saint Anthony. In front of them is the naked (rather than clothed) Queen of Sheba, her right arm held high to accentuate her form. Around her are naked (but not black) children. In front of Saint Anthony is a black bag presumably containing money, and a book.

None of the faces is sufficiently detailed to show any expression. Their body language is theatrical, though, and cues in strongly to the original narrative and its reworking by Flaubert. Although quite crudely executed, the narrative does work.


The 1800s was a century of crisis for narrative painting, and that crisis is reflected in the paintings discussed above. The simple answer, adopted by most Impressionists from about 1870, was to ignore the genres which brought narrative, and to paint landscapes.

Where pre-Impressionists and Impressionists (during the early part of their career) did attempt narrative painting, in their efforts to avoid Alberti’s ‘rules’ they tended to produce difficult or obscure paintings, whose narrative connections were weak, or possibly absent. Despite his classical training, Degas seemed to have great difficulty in expressing narrative, in contrast to the largely self-taught Cézanne, who – during his Impressionist period – painted the clearest narrative of all.

They also paved the way for narrative painting in the early twentieth century, which ignored Alberti and so often posed the viewer puzzles, rather than told stories.