Visual Riddles: Puzzles for the people

Christian Krohg (1852–1925), Eyewitnesses (1895), oil on canvas, 192 x 310 cm, Nasjonalgalleriet (purchased 1895), Oslo, Norway. Courtesy of Nasjonalmuseet, Oslo.

By 1895, paintings with unresolved narrative had become popular and widely discussed. Themes for these included relationships between men and women, the ‘fallen woman’, the ‘kept woman’, unhappy marriage, and redemption of the ‘fallen’. This was a time of great expansion in the sales and readership of newspapers, and the press weren’t slow to exploit this phenomenon. Over the next 10-15 years, discussion of these paintings was often featured in the more popular newspapers.

Speak! Speak! 1895 by Sir John Everett Millais, Bt 1829-1896
John Everett Millais (1829–1896), Speak! Speak! (1895), oil on canvas, 167.6 x 210.8 cm, The Tate Gallery (Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1895), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

One of Millais’ last paintings, before his death from throat cancer the following year, was Speak! Speak! (1895), which is also one of his most enigmatic. At this stage of his life, he spent much of his time in Scotland, either in his home near Bowerswell where this was painted, or in the castle and estate at Murthly in Perthshire, where he went shooting and fishing. He bought this huge four-poster bed from Perth for this painting, and had the lamp copied from one he had seen in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Millais’ son reported that this scene was intended to be in ancient Rome. The young man had spent much of the night reading through the letters of his lost love. At dawn, the curtains were parted to reveal her, dressed for her bridal night, gazing upon him with sad but loving eyes. The title of the painting is therefore the words that he said to her spectre, and must at the time, given the artist’s own terminal illness, have had personal relevance too. The woman’s figure is intentionally ambiguous, Millais himself being unsure as to whether she was real, or just a spectre.

William Frederick Yeames (1835–1918), Defendant and Counsel (1895), oil on canvas, 133.4 x 198.8 cm, Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, Bristol, England. The Athenaeum.

Yeames’ Defendant and Counsel, also from 1895, was exhibited in London, illustrated as an engraving in newspapers, and so became the first mass-market painting of this kind.

It shows an affluent married woman wearing an expensive fur coat, sat with a popular ‘tabloid’ newspaper open in front of her, as a team of three barristers and their clerk look at her intensely, presumably waiting for her to speak.

As she is the defendant, the viewer is encouraged to speculate what she is defending: a divorce claim, or a criminal charge? This also opens the thorny issue of counsel who discover that a defendant is lying, but still mount their defence in court, and may succeed in persuading the court to believe what they consider to be false. Like And when did you last see your Father? this may be an exploration of truth and the problems posed by it.

The press quickly seized on the ambiguities and oddities in Yeames’ canvas. A critic in the upper-class newspaper The Times claimed that the painting was mistitled, and should have referred to the woman not as defendant, but as the respondent in a divorce case. They also questioned why the lawyers were still wigged and gowned when so obviously outside the courtroom, an issue which the artist was forced to explain.

Yeames was besieged with inquiries from people who claimed they were unable to sleep because they couldn’t resolve the painting’s narrative. The following year, he agreed to judge the best explanation for his painting for The Golden Penny, a popular journal mainly about football, and had to wade through about seventy entries. It became clear that Yeames himself had little idea of the resolution of the story which he’d painted, and awarded the prize to an account which didn’t actually resolve the story at all.

José Uría y Uría (1861–1937), After a Strike (1895), oil on canvas, 250 x 380 cm, Museo de Bellas Artes de Asturias, Oviedo, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

While the chattering classes in Britain were puzzling over those paintings, Spanish viewers were trying to resolve José Uría y Uría’s After a Strike, again from 1895. This story revolves around a strike and its violent consequence, and I have no supporting information about the artist’s intent.

The scene is a large forge which is apparently standing idle because of a strike. At the far right is a row of mounted police (or military), and what may be lifeless bodies laid out on the ground. Inside the factory a woman, presumably a wife, kneels and embraces her child, beside what is presumably the dead body of her husband, who was a worker there. Close to his body is a large hammer, which was presumably the instrument of his death. In the distance, one of two policemen comfort another younger woman.

This appears to show the tragic consequence of the violence resulting from a strike. Was the deceased trying to work on when his colleagues had withdrawn their labour in a dispute, then came to blows with one of them, in which he was struck and killed? Although in a sense the story has a form of resolution, it’s unclear how it got there, and open to speculation on the part of the viewer.

Christian Krohg (1852–1925), Eyewitnesses (1895), oil on canvas, 192 x 310 cm, Nasjonalgalleriet (purchased 1895), Oslo, Norway. Courtesy of Nasjonalmuseet, Oslo.

Meanwhile in Norway, also in 1895, Christian Krohg painted one of his more enigmatic works: Eyewitnesses.

It is nighttime in a living room. Two fishermen stand in front of a door. Still wearing their soaked and soiled oilskins, they appear to have entered the room straight after coming ashore from the sea. One stares in shock towards the viewer, the other looks down and away. Both appear full of unease, silent and immobile.

At the right, a young woman is standing, leaning forward towards the men, as if listening to them. She looks anxious, with her hands clasped in front of her chest. Behind her an oil lamp burns brightly, there are the leaves of a large potted plant, and a couple of paintings on the wall behind a large blue settee.

One possible reading is that the men have brought news of the loss at sea of the woman’s husband, an event of which they were eyewitnesses.

John Collier (1850–1934), The Garden of Armida (1899), oil on canvas, 262 x 178 cm, Private collection. WikiArt.

The late 1890s also marks the period in which one of the best-known painters of unresolved narrative entered the field: John Collier, who was a renowned portraitist and history painter. I’ve been unable to find an image of his first ‘problem picture’ Troubled (1898), but the following year he painted a stranger work, The Garden of Armida (1899).

This was an early attempt to show a traditional historical subject, that of Rinaldo in Armida’s garden from Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered (see this article) in a contemporary setting and dress. In doing so, he posed the problem as to whether the viewer was to see some more modern narrative beyond Tasso’s original. It was not well received, and Collier decided to try more direct problem pictures instead, as I’ll show in the next article in this series.


Fletcher PM (2003) Narrating Modernity, the British Problem Picture 1895-1914, Ashgate. ISBN 978 0 754 63568 0.