Surprise, surprise: Paintings with a twist 3

Louis Béroud (1852-1930), The Joys of the Flood (in the Medici Gallery) (1910), oil on canvas, 254 x 197.8 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

In the second article of this series, I looked at the depiction of surprise in narrative painting during the nineteenth century, when it seems to have flourished. Even relatively minor narrative artists painted some fine examples.

Félix-Henri Giacomotti (1828-1909), Forbidden Literature (1886), oil on canvas, 53 x 75 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Félix-Henri Giacomotti, a friend of William Bouguereau, painted this satirical scene of Forbidden Literature in 1886, with two interrelated surprises. Five young women have found their way into a private library containing ‘forbidden literature’, and are showing various signs of surprise and shock at what they have discovered and read there. They have then been surprised by the entry of an older woman, possibly their mother, who clearly wasn’t expecting to find them swooning over explicit content.

Surprise became such a popular theme of paintings at the end of the century that at least one artist, Gaetano Chierici (1838-1920), almost made it his speciality.

Gaetano Chierici (1838-1920), The Mask Prank (date not known), oil on canvas, 71 x 97 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

In Chierici’s undated The Mask Prank, a young boy is still laughing as his mother scolds him for surprising and upsetting his younger sister, who is now crying at her mother’s skirts. As in Rembrandt’s Belshazzar’s Feast, the young girl has dropped her spoon, and mother may have dropped and broken something too.

Gaetano Chierici (1838-1920), A Scary State of Affairs (date not known), oil, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Chierici’s undated A Scary State of Affairs shows another childhood surprise, when an infant has been left with a bowl on their lap, and that room is invaded first by chickens, then by large and aggressive geese. The child’s eyes are wide open, their mouth at full stretch in a scream, their arms raised, and their legs are trying to fend the geese off.

In Britain, a new sub-genre appeared, in which surprise was often key: the problem picture. Among its most successful exponents was John Collier (1850–1934).

John Collier (1850–1934), The Prodigal Daughter (1903), oil on canvas, 166 x 217 cm, Usher Gallery, Lincoln, England. WikiArt.

In Collier’s The Prodigal Daughter (1903), an elderly middle-class couple are seen in their parlour in the evening in their sober black clothes and sombre surroundings. They are surprised when their prodigal daughter turns up out of the blue, in her low-cut gown with floral motifs and scarlet accessories.

Father is still sitting, backlit by a table lamp to heighten the drama. Mother has risen from her chair and is visibly taken aback. Daughter stands, her back against the door and her hand still holding its handle, as if ready to run away again should the need arise. Collier also uses ingenious shadow play, a device which became popular in the nineteenth century perhaps with the advent of optical projectors: here the mother’s cast shadow makes her appear much larger than the daughter’s, like an ogre bearing down on a child.

John Collier (1850–1934), The Sentence of Death (1908), colour photogravure after oil on canvas original, original 132 x 162.5 cm, original in Wolverhampton Art Gallery, Wolverhampton, England. By courtesy of Wellcome Images, The Wellcome Library.

Facial expression is even more vital in Collier’s The Sentence of Death (1908), where a medical practitioner has just told a man of his fatal condition. The patient stares at the viewer, in complete shock, while the doctor looks instead at a large book on his desk, detached from his damning message. The viewer is left to decide the nature of the man’s illness.

There were light-hearted paintings of surprise too.

Louis Béroud (1852-1930), The Joys of the Flood (in the Medici Gallery) (1910), oil on canvas, 254 x 197.8 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

In Louis Béroud’s The Joys of the Flood (in the Medici Gallery) (1910), Rubens’ huge painting of The Disembarkation of Marie de’ Medici at Marseilles (1621-25) has burst into life, as its water starts to flood the Louvre and its three nudes step out onto the floor. The painter shown painting this painting is, of course, Béroud himself, adding another wry twist to what must be his finest work.

In spite of all claims and fears, narrative painting did not die in the twentieth century, although there were times when it might have.

Lovis Corinth (1858–1925), Homeric Laughter (1909), oil on canvas, 98 × 120 cm, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich. Wikimedia Commons.

Lovis Corinth continued to paint classical myths, including this famous scene of surprise, in Homeric Laughter (1909). It shows a story from Book 8 of Homer’s Odyssey, where the hero is being entertained by King Alcinous of the Phaeacians. The bard Demodocus tells the well-known tale of the illicit affair between Ares/Mars, god of war, and Aphrodite/Venus, god of love and wife of Hephaistos/Vulcan.

When Hephaistos surprises his wife Aphrodite making love with Ares in their marriage bed, instead of being angry, he forges a very fine but unbreakable net, throws it over the couple to prevent their escape, and summons the other gods, who come to laugh at the ensnared couple.

As Ares tries to disentangle his body from that of Aphrodite, in her nudity she only seems to care about covering her eyes (like Gérôme’s Phryne). Other masters had painted this story before, but no other artist quite captures the surprise or the ribald humour.

Lovis Corinth (1858–1925), Ariadne on Naxos (1913), oil on canvas, 116 × 147 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Corinth was not afraid to return to the use of multiplex narrative either, in his painting of two surprises in Ariadne on Naxos (1913). Theseus (left) had promised Ariadne (naked on his thigh) that he would marry her after she helped him kill the Minotaur on Crete, but surprises her when he abandons her on the island of Naxos. Ariadne is then surprised by the arrival of Bacchus in his chariot, who surprises himself by falling in love with and marrying her.

Surprise in narrative painting has still, today, refused to die. My final example comes from one of our finest modern painters, Stuart Pearson Wright.

Stuart Pearson Wright (b 1975), Woman Surprised by a Werewolf (2008), oil on linen, 200 x 315 cm. Courtesy of and © Stuart Pearson Wright.

Although inspired by the movie An American Werewolf in London, and an episode in the artist’s life, Wright’s Woman Surprised by a Werewolf (2008) is unusual among narrative paintings in not relying on the viewer’s knowledge of extraneous sources. A naked, buxom young woman is running away from a werewolf which is baring its teeth and sexually aroused. She has clearly been caught by surprise, her mouth is wide open as if screaming, but her face shows an odd combination of fear and lust.

For the viewer, perhaps the greatest surprise is of seeing a naked woman and werewolf together in a barren wood in the dead of the night.

There are many more well-known paintings which have been made between 1300 and the present which depict surprise in a narrative context. I have in this short series shown a selection which illustrate some of the techniques which have been developed to show surprise in the figures in a painting, and to surprise the viewer.

Most consistent among these are the traditional elements of facial expression and body language, which were prescribed by Alberti as rules. Innovative artists have extended these to include composition, lighting, the use of colour, actions such as tipping of drinks and dropping objects, incongruities and contradictions, direction of gaze, large or small size of the object of surprise, backward and forward reference in narrative, nudity, skin tone, style, and more.

Depicting such an abstract concept as surprise, and telling stories with surprise, may at first sight appear a tough challenge. It is one to which narrative painters have risen, to the point where some have told new stories successfully, for which the viewer doesn’t already know the story. That really is a mark of success.


Vera Tobin (2018) Elements of Surprise, Our Mental Limits and the Satisfactions of Plot, Harvard UP. ISBN 978 0 674 98020 4.