Visual Riddles: Summary and contents

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.

Over the last couple of months, I have been tracing the history of paintings which show enigmatic stories, narrative which isn’t resolved, what are often referred to as problem pictures. This article summarises the series through its highlights, and links its individual articles.

Telling a story in a single instantaneous image is normally only feasible when the viewer is already familiar with the sequence of events, and can use elements within the image to link to those events, reminding them of the whole narrative. In the nineteenth century, storytelling in literature changed. New genres such as detective and ‘mystery’ novels started to challenge conventions of narrative closure. Readers of Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin tales from 1841 onwards, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels towards the end of the century, developed a taste for something different.

Narrative painters responded by composing images which provided clues as to their underlying narrative, but which didn’t themselves bring about its resolution. The viewer was therefore invited to imagine their own version of the narrative, and to speculate rather than reiterate a known story.

The Awakening Conscience 1853 by William Holman Hunt 1827-1910
William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), The Awakening Conscience (1851-53), oil on canvas, 76.2 x 55.9 cm, The Tate Gallery (Presented by Sir Colin and Lady Anderson through the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1976), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

One of the earliest major paintings lacking narrative closure is William Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience, which he painted during the period 1851-53. The viewer of the day was expected to notice small clues such as the absence of a wedding band on the ring finger of the woman’s left hand, which told them that this is an extra-marital relationship. Other clues are more symbolic: the cat under the table has caught a bird with a broken wing. The cat implies that she is a ‘kept woman’ who needs its company, and the bird represents her moral plight.

The couple have been singing together when she appears to have undergone some revelatory experience, causing her to rise. For Hunt this is associated with a verse from the Old Testament book of Proverbs: “As he that taketh away a garment in cold weather, so is he that singeth songs to an heavy heart.” He leads us to imagine that this kept mistress has had a religious moment, seeing the route to her redemption as her conscience is awakened. The image brings hope, but without resolution.

For the contemporary viewer, Hunt’s narrative was probably more obvious, and the whole painting less of an enigma. Just three years later, Philip Hermogenes Calderon painted what must be one of the first true problem pictures.

Broken Vows 1856 by Philip Hermogenes Calderon 1833-1898
Philip Hermogenes Calderon (1833–1898), Broken Vows (1856), oil on canvas, 91.4 x 67.9 cm, The Tate Gallery (Purchased 1947), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

The young woman seen in Calderon’s Broken Vows (1856) is clearly married, and having trouble with ‘affairs of the heart’. On the far side of the fence, a young man holds a small red flower in front of his forehead, which a young woman is trying to grasp with her right hand.

Calderon introduces great ambiguity. The eyes of the shorter person behind the fence are carefully occluded, leaving their gender open to speculation. Most viewers are likely to conclude that the taller figure behind the fence is the unfaithful husband of the woman in front, but that requires making assumptions which aren’t supported by visual clues. Whose vows are being broken? Calderon leaves us to speculate.

Article: Beginnings 1850-60

Although these enigmatic narratives were most popular in Britain, they also appeared throughout Europe and North America. In 1868 Émile Gaboriau’s serialised detective story Monsieur Lecoq shot to fame throughout France, and Edgar Degas started work on his own detective story on canvas.

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.

Although known at the time as Interior (1868-9), some read it as nothing short of The Rape.

From the plethora of small clues, just like a detective story, the viewer can postulate that the woman arrived in the room before the man, removed her outer clothing, and at some stage started to undress further, halting when she was down to her chemise. Alternatively, she may have undressed completely, and at this moment have dressed again as far as her chemise. The suitcase belongs to the woman; when she arrived, she placed it on the table, and opened it, indicating that she was expecting to stay in the bedroom overnight, and had brought a change of clothing and travelling kit.

The man is obstructing the door, the only visible exit to the room. Although he looks as if he may have come no further across the room, his top hat says otherwise. The man and woman appear to be a couple, who have met in that room to engage in a clandestine sexual relationship. However, the bed is only a single, and shows no sign of having been used, nor has the bedding been disturbed in any way.

None of Degas’ clues points clearly to a resolution, and the viewer can discuss and debate its narrative endlessly – as has been done for the last 150 years.

Article: Across continents

In 1874, the Prussian artist Berthold Woltze moved on from earlier letter-based narratives to paint one of the finest non-British problem pictures.

Berthold Woltze (1829–1896), Der lästige Kavalier (The Annoying Bloke) (1874), oil on canvas, 75 x 57 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Woltze’s Der lästige Kavalier (1874), best rendered into English as The Annoying Bloke, is set in a railway carriage, where there are two men, and a young woman who appears to have suffered a recent bereavement. Leaning over the back of her seat leering at her is a middle-aged dandy who is trying to chat her up, quite inappropriately, and very much against her wishes.

Woltze was well known, and many of his works were engraved for and published in the illustrated weekly newspaper Die Gartenlaube, where they probably reached a readership of two to five million, making it one of the most widely read publications in the world at the time.

Article: Fame

These paintings are problem pictures in more than one sense. Not only do they pose the viewer the problem of reading their story, but their theme is invariably a social problem of the day, normally centred on problems in the relationship between men and women. One of those was the unhappy marriage and its consequences.

William Quiller Orchardson (1832-1910), The First Cloud (1887), oil on canvas, 134.8 x 193.7 cm, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia. Wikimedia Commons.

William Quiller Orchardson painted a series of three works about unhappy marriage, of which the last, The First Cloud from 1887, continues the thread of a young, pretty bride who marries an older man for his wealth. With their faces largely concealed, the narrative relies on their body language and physical distance. When it was first exhibited, the following lines from Tennyson were quoted:
It is the little rift within the lute
That by-and-by will make the music mute.

Unresolved narrative was also becoming prevalent in the Nordic countries.

Hans Andersen Brendekilde (1857–1942), Cowed (1887), media not known, 126 x 152.3 cm, Fyns Kunstmuseum, Odense, Denmark. Wikimedia Commons.

Superficially, Hans Andersen Brendekilde’s Cowed from 1887 shows gleaners at work in a field after the harvest. The family group in front of us consists of three generations: mother is hard at work gleaning while her husband takes a short break. Stood looking at him is their daughter, engaged in a serious conversation with her father, as her young child plays on the ground.

The daughter is finely dressed under her coarse apron, and wears a hat more appropriate to someone ‘in service’ as a maid in a rich household in the nearby town. She is anxious and flushed, an unmarried mother, who has been abandoned by her young child’s father. It is surely she who is oppressed or ‘cowed’.

Article: Refinement

By 1895, paintings with unresolved narrative had become popular and widely discussed. 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. A good example is William Frederick Yeames’ Defendant and Counsel, from 1895, which was illustrated as an engraving in newspapers of the day.

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.

It shows an affluent married woman wearing an expensive fur coat, as a team of three barristers and their clerk look at her intensely, 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?

The press quickly seized on the ambiguities and oddities in the painting. 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. Yeames was besieged with inquiries from people who claimed they were unable to sleep because they couldn’t resolve this narrative. The following year, he agreed to judge the best explanation for his painting, and it became clear that Yeames himself had little idea of the resolution of the story which he’d painted.

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

That same year in Norway, Christian Krohg painted one of his more enigmatic works: Eyewitnesses. In comparison with previous themes in these modern unresolved narratives, it is novel in tackling life and death.

Two fishermen still wearing their soaked and soiled oilskins have entered a woman’s living room straight after coming ashore from the sea. One stares in shock towards the viewer. At the right, a young woman stands listening anxiously to them. Have the men brought news of the loss at sea of the woman’s husband, an event of which they were eyewitnesses?

Article: Puzzles for the people

The great master of this sub-genre, John Collier, entered the field quite late, and his first couple of paintings weren’t particularly successful.

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

In 1903, Collier exhibited The Prodigal Daughter, which remains one of his best-known works. An elderly middle-class couple are surprised in their parlour one evening when their prodigal daughter turns up out of the blue, in her low-cut gown with floral motifs and scarlet accessories.

This immediately sparked debate over the role of women in the modern world, the nature and scope of their family responsibilities, and changing class boundaries. The daughter was seen as a ‘fallen woman’, although she stands tall, proud, and wears a rich dress.

John Collier (1850–1934), Mariage de Convenance (1907), oil on canvas, 124 x 165 cm, Cyfarthfa Castle Museum & Art Gallery, Merthyr Tydfil, Wales. The Athenaeum.

Collier’s Mariage de Convenance from 1907 contrasts with Orchardson’s early simplistic treatment of marriages of convenience by posing a more complex problem.

The mother stands haughty as her daughter cowers on the floor in obvious distress. Laid out on the bed is the daughter’s wedding dress. Perhaps the daughter is to be married into money to bring financial security to the family, now that the father is dead? Collier himself offered a simpler version when tackled by the press, omitting reference to any father’s death. This in turn raised debate over how and why the young woman’s mother should appear so haughty and unfeeling, particularly when wearing such a low-cut dress. This led to her condemnation as a ‘bad mother’, and comparisons with other contemporary paintings showing ‘good’ mothers embracing and comforting their daughters.

John Collier’s ‘problem pictures’ had now become an annual event within the yearly exhibition of the Royal Academy, and press and public were not disappointed in his painting the following year, which remains the pinnacle of his achievement.

Article: Collier’s controversies

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.

The Sentence of Death (1908) tackles the same theme as Krohg, this time in the context of contemporary advances in medicine and hospitals and their limited impact on major killers such as tuberculosis. A young middle-aged man stares blankly at the viewer, having just been told by his doctor that he is dying. The doctor appears disengaged, and is reading from a book, looking only generally in the direction of his doomed patient.

Not only did this problem picture tackle the great Victorian obsession with death and mortality, but it did so with an adult male patient, assumed by society to keep a ‘stiff upper lip’ and not to be emotional. This led to speculation as to the expected male response to such news, and questions as to what condition might be bringing about his death. There was even public debate about interpretations of the doctor-patient relationship.

Soon after this, the world changed irrevocably when it dissolved into the Great War. Problem pictures didn’t entirely disappear, but viewers had other things on their mind.

Article: Decline and fall


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