Telling stories in paintings and illustrations 1

Arthur Rackham (1867–1939), Illustration for Edition of 'A Christmas Carol' (1915), pen, ink and watercolour, further details not known. Images from the British Library and others, via Wikimedia Commons.

Telling stories in paintings which stand alone, and telling them in illustrations which accompany a text, are very different. Today and tomorrow I look at how the purpose of these types of visual art determines their approach, composition and style. I do this using some examples of the finest narrative painting, and of the best illustrations of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Standalone narrative paintings are viewed without any accompanying text, or just a short excerpt to provide an explicit link to the literary narrative to which they refer. To tell their story, they need to refer back to the past, before the scene shown in the painting, and forward to the future, what happens next. For greatest visual and narrative effect, the most powerful moment is normally that of peripeteia, revelation and transformation of fortunes.

There’s no better place to start than the walls of Brancacci Chapel in Florence, Italy, where Masaccio and others told stories from the New Testament in a way which hasn’t been equalled in the nearly six centuries since.

Masaccio (1401–1428), The Tribute Money (1425-8), fresco, 247 x 597 cm, Brancacci Chapel, Florence. Wikimedia Commons.

Masaccio’s Tribute Money (1425-8) packs in three separate scenes using multiplex narrative in a non-linear arrangement. In the centre, a tax collector asks Christ for temple tax. At the far left, as directed by Christ and Peter’s arms, Peter (shown a second time) takes a coin from the mouth of a fish: the surprise. At the right, Peter (a third time) pays the tax collector (shown a second time) with that coin.

Anyone with even the vaguest recollection of the Gospel account will immediately recognise the story, identify the scenes, and flesh the full narrative out around them.

Paintings on the walls of the Brancacci Chapel. The upper half shows the left wall, the lower the right wall. Adapted from the Wikipedia entry for the Brancacci Chapel.

This is but one of a large series of paintings in the chapel, which together tell the story of the Christian ministry of Saint Peter, with a particular emphasis on healing and redemption for the poor. Although this was the chapel for a rich and powerful family, the church of Santa Maria del Carmine was situated in what was, at that time, a very poor area of Florence. The episodes in Saint Peter’s life which are included appear to offer hope for those poor, that a good Christian life would be met with rewards for the spirit, if not in material existence.

Two centuries later, Nicolas Poussin had established himself as one of the greatest narrative painters in the European canon. One of the pinnacles of his storytelling is a simple scene from a then-popular epic poem.

Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), Rinaldo and Armida (c 1630), oil on canvas, 82.2 x 109.2 cm, Dulwich Picture Gallery. Wikimedia Commons.

It took the ingenuity of post-Renaissance artists to incorporate references to multiple scenes in a single, instantaneous narrative image. Poussin’s Rinaldo and Armida from about 1630 encapsulates a lot of story and a real moment of peripeteia.

The narrative is here taken from one of Poussin’s favourite literary works, Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata (Jerusalem Delivered), published in 1581. Today, unless you’re a scholar of Italian Renaissance literature (or have read my series starting here), you’ll see the surprising image of a pretty young woman on the one hand about to murder a sleeping knight with a dagger, and on the other hand caressing his brow. It is that conflict which brings subtle surprise, implicit recognition, and reveals the twist in the plot – the peripeteia.

The sleeping knight is Rinaldo, the greatest of the Christian knights engaged in Tasso’s romanticised and largely fictional account of the First Crusade, who has stopped to rest near the ‘ford of the Orontes’. On hearing a woman singing, he goes to the river, where he catches sight of Armida swimming naked.

Armida, though, had an evil aim. She had been secretly following Rinaldo, intending to murder him with her dagger. As the ‘Saracen’ witch who is trying to destroy the crusaders’ campaign, she had singled out its greatest knight for this fate. Having revealed herself to him, she sings and lulls him into an enchanted sleep so that she can thrust her dagger home.

Just as she is about to do this, she falls in love with him instead – and this is the instant, the peripeteia, shown here. A winged amorino, lacking the bow and arrows of a true Cupid, restrains her right arm bearing her weapon. Her facial expression and left hand reveal her new intent, which is to enchant and abduct him in her chariot, so that he can become infatuated with her, and forget the Crusade altogether.

In contrast, the illustrator’s task is to support the text which their visual art represents. There is no need for backward or forward reference, as the words nearby provide the narrative context. Instead of showing the peripeteia, the illustrator is more likely to depict a key scene involving leading characters, often in physical action, or a complex event in which they can help the reader visualise what is happening.

Faithfulness to the words is absolutely essential: the standalone painter can get away with many variations in detail provided they capture the spirit; the illustrator must adhere in every detail to the words. Depicting the heroine as a dark-haired older woman would be catastrophic if the author wrote that she was a young blonde.

But above all, the illustrator doesn’t have to tell the story, which is what the words are for.

Walter Crane (1845–1915), illustration for Baby’s Own Aesop (1887), engraved by Edmund Evans, George Routledge & Sons. Wikimedia Commons.

Walter Crane’s illustration for Baby’s Own Aesop (1887), engraved by Edmund Evans, underlines many of the differences between such illustrations and narrative paintings. First, the illustration here supports the text on the page, and doesn’t stand alone from it. Look at the picture and you could hardly deduce the accompanying text, but put the two together and you can see how the picture depicts the narrative in the text.

There are other stylistic clues, such as the use of drawn outlines throughout illustrations, and plain, simple drawings, which are much more likely in illustrations than in standalone paintings, although from the late 1800s onwards these appeared increasingly in paintings. This is one of Crane’s examples of multiplex narrative in an illustration; although he makes this work wonderfully, it’s a narrative technique which is rarely used in illustrations, without dividing the image into cells like a comic.

Walter Crane (1845–1915) The Mirror, illustration for Arthur Kelly’s The Rosebud and Other Tales (1909), pen, black ink and watercolor, 20.3 × 15.3 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Crane’s watercolour and ink drawing for The Mirror, in Arthur Kelly’s The Rosebud and Other Tales (1909), is another example of an illustration which is almost impossible to read without the text to accompany it.

My next example comes from the work of the great Arthur Rackham, one of the most brilliant illustrators of the day, who I don’t think painted a single standalone narrative work.

Arthur Rackham (1867–1939), Illustration for Edition of ‘A Christmas Carol’ (1915), pen, ink and watercolour, further details not known. Images from the British Library and others, via Wikimedia Commons.

In Charles Dickens’ novella A Christmas Carol, Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his former business partner Marley, who wanders the earth shackled by chains and cashboxes after his lifetime of greed. The ghost warns Scrooge that he faces the same miserable fate as Marley did, but has one chance of redemption. He will be visited by three further spirits who will show him how. When Marley’s ghost leaves, Scrooge looks out from his window to see many more spirits, each similarly shackled.

Although Rackham’s painting is brilliant, it lacks forward or backward references, and without the accompanying text even those familiar with Dickens’ story could find it hard to identify which moment it depicts.

There are always some artists who choose a different path, which isn’t such a good fit for either model. Take William Hogarth, for example, who made several major series of images which he painted for transfer to prints, telling quite elaborate visual stories. Among his best-known is Marriage A-la-Mode (c 1743).

William Hogarth (1697–1764), Marriage A-la-Mode: 1, The Marriage Settlement (c 1743), oil on canvas, 69.9 × 90.8 cm, The National Gallery, London. Courtesy of The National Gallery London, inventory NG113.

The first painting in this series of six is The Marriage Settlement, which opens in the Earl of Squander’s bedroom, in his town house. Here the Earl and an Alderman, and their lawyers, are agreeing a contract of marriage and settlement for the Earl’s son, Viscount Squanderfield, to marry the Alderman’s daughter.

The Earl brandishes his nobility at every opportunity. At his left hand is a family pedigree tracing his ancestry back to William the Conqueror, which is almost certainly spurious. Coronets decorate many items in the room, even his crutches. He is finely dressed in a slightly old-fashioned court style, but his right foot suffers from gout. Outside, the builders of his new, more grandiose, house are idle as he has run out of money to pay them.

The Alderman is something of a social misfit, wearing plain rather than elegant clothes. He clutches the centrepiece of the painting, the document of marriage settlement, whilst he and the Earl continue to haggle over it. However, his money, in the form of bags of gold coins, is already spread in front of the Earl.

At the left, backs towards one another, are the groom and the bride. The Viscount is dressed in the latest fashion, but is clearly a foolish fop. On the left side of his neck, he already bears the black poxmark of syphilis. His bride is in intimate discussion with her father’s young lawyer, Silvertongue. She wears her wedding dress in anticipation of the settlement, but is sullen and not engaged in the matter.

In front of the couple, a dog and bitch are chained together, as the bride and groom soon will be. Behind them all, the paintings are ‘dark old masters’, including the ominous Medusa, martyrdoms of Saints Lawrence and Agnes, Cain Slaying Abel, and Judith with the Head of Holofernes. They culminate, by the window, in a huge portrait of the Earl himself. Hogarth uses paintings within his paintings extensively in this series, to add meaning from their content.

William Hogarth (1697–1764), The Third Stage of Cruelty: Cruelty in Perfection – The Murder (1751), line engraving on thick, white, smooth wove paper, 35.6 x 29.8 cm, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT (Gift of Patricia Cornwell). Courtesy of Yale Center for British Art.

As an example of prints produced by Hogarth, I show the third in his series The Four Stages of Cruelty, from 1751. These weren’t based on oil paintings, but on quite rough studies which were then engraved by Hogarth himself. They were intended to be simpler images, which conveyed his case against cruelty, particularly that toward animals, and aimed downmarket. Each bears three verses at its foot which provides a brief verbal account of the scene shown above.

It is the dead of night, 0105 by the church clock, in a graveyard. The ‘hero’ of the series Tom Nero has been apprehended by local people at the dead body of a woman, who turns out to be his pregnant partner. Her throat has been cut to the point of almost severing her neck, and she also has deep cuts at the left wrist and on the left index finger. That finger points to an open book which reads “God’s Revenge against Murder”, and next to that is the book of Common Prayer. By her body is a box of her valuables, bearing her initials “A G” for Ann Gill, and a bag containing stolen goods.

On the ground around Tom is a pistol, a couple of presumably stolen pocket watches, and one of the group of men restraining him holds a letter from the dead woman reading:
Dear Tommy
My mistress has been the best of women to me, and my conscience flies in my face as often as I think of wronging her; yet I am resolved to venture body and soul to do as you would have me, so do not fail to meet me as you said you would, for I will bring along with me all the things I can lay my hands on. So no more at present; but I remain yours till death.
Ann Gill.

Next to that letter is its open envelope, addressed to Tom Nero.

Hogarth’s series are neither standalone, in that each in the series depends on the others to establish its narrative, nor are they illustrations integral to a literary narrative. What he effectively had invented was the graphic novel, in which specialised visual techniques tell a story in a series of many images. It’s multiplex narrative unbundled into a series of images.

In tomorrow’s article, I’ll show more direct comparisons between works intended to be standalone paintings, and illustrations, from artists who mastered both forms.