Characters in Painted Stories: 11 The moment of change

Gustave Moreau (1826–1898), Oedipus and the Sphinx (detail) (1864), oil on canvas, 206.4 x 104.8 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Bequest of William H. Herriman, 1920), New York, NY. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, via Wikimedia Commons.

Christopher Booker’s analysis of literary narratives into The Seven Basic Plots follows a long tradition of analysis which goes back to Aristotle’s Poetics, which dates from around 335 BCE. Having completed my considerations of Booker’s analysis in the context of paintings, I now return to the original theory advanced by Aristotle more than two millennia ago, which places emphasis on change in fortune often referred to as peripeteia. For much of the history of narrative painting, it’s the moment in which good fortune becomes disaster, or bad fortune is transformed into success, that is the most compelling.

Aristotle also places emphasis on discovery (anagnorisis), a technique which is almost impossible to incorporate into static images such as those in conventional paintings.

To illustrate this with the stories I have been considering against Booker’s archetypal plots, I show here paintings closest to the moment of peripeteia in each.

Jacob Peter Gowy (c 1615-1661), The Fall of Icarus (1635-7), oil on canvas, 195 x 180 cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid. Wikimedia Commons.

Jacob Peter Gowy’s Fall of Icarus (1635-7) shows Icarus, his wings in tatters, plunging down through the air past Daedalus. Icarus holds both his arms up as if still trying to fly despite the loss of his wings, his mouth and eyes are wide open in shock and fear, and his body appears to be tumbling as it falls. Daedalus is still flying, his wings intact and fully functional; he looks alarmed, towards the falling body of his son. They are both high above a bay containing people and a fortified town at the edge of the sea, now named Icaria.

Paolo Veronese (1528–1588), Perseus Rescuing Andromeda (1576-78), oil on canvas, 260 × 211 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rennes, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Paolo Veronese’s Perseus Rescuing Andromeda (1576-78) encompasses both the death of Cetus the sea monster and the rescue of the princess, and shows an instant immediately before both events.

Charles-Édouard Chaise (1759-1798), Theseus, Victor over the Minotaur (c 1791), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Strasbourg, France. Image by Rama, via Wikimedia Commons.

Charles-Édouard Chaise’s painting of Theseus, Victor over the Minotaur (c 1791) shows Theseus standing in triumph over the lifeless corpse of the Minotaur, with the young Athenians whose lives he saved. This also includes the links to earlier events and the future, with Ariadne shown near the thread which she provided to enable Theseus to retrace his steps through the labyrinth.

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus (1829), oil on canvas, 132.7 × 203 cm, The National Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

JMW Turner’s Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus (1829) shows Odysseus and his crew making their escape from the clutches of the man-eating Cyclops, Polyphemus, one of the more exciting adventures of Homer’s Odyssey.

Annibale Carracci (1560–1609) (and Agostino, Ludovico Carracci), Jason and Medea (one painting from 18) (c 1583-84), fresco, dimensions not known, Palazzo Ghisilardi Fava, Bologna, Italy. Image by Sailko, via Wikimedia Commons.

This painting from the eighteen fresco panels made by the Carraccis shows Jason’s success in the trials set for him by King Aeëtes, ending in his capture of the Golden Fleece, the goal of his mission.

Ary Scheffer (1795–1858), Orpheus Mourning the Death of Eurydice (c 1814), oil on canvas, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Ary Scheffer’s moving painting of Orpheus Mourning the Death of Eurydice shows the snake which killed her at the far left, as Orpheus cradles the limp body of his new bride, and breaks down in grief. In this example, there’s no forward reference as to the future, though.

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

Lovis Corinth’s Homeric Laughter (1909) shows Venus and Mars caught together in bed, under Vulcan’s net, with the gods gathered round and laughing at the couple’s obvious embarrassment.

Philippe-Auguste Hennequin (1762–1833), The Remorse of Orestes (1800), oil on canvas, 356 x 515 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Philippe-Auguste Hennequin’s The Remorse of Orestes (1800) is complex, and uses the Furies as a tool for showing multiplex narrative. Orestes is at the left, the centre of attention, and his right arm is holding a woman, who I suspect is his sister Electra. He is under attack by a small army of Furies and spirits, including the murdered body of Clytemnestra, on the floor, and I think Agamemnon his father.

Léon Bakst (1866–1924), The Sleeping Beauty: The Prince Discovers the Princess and Wakes Her with a Kiss (1913), oil on canvas, 214.2 x 85.8 cm, Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Léon Bakst painted the moment of transformation in The Sleeping Beauty: The Prince Discovers the Princess and Wakes Her with a Kiss (1913).

In my last article, there were two superb paintings of the moment just before the change in circumstances of Oedipus and the Sphinx.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780–1867), Oedipus and the Sphinx (1808, 1827), oil on canvas, 189 x 144 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Photo courtesy of the Art Renewal Center, via Wikimedia Commons.

Both JAD Ingres (above) and Gustave Moreau (below) show the height of psychological tension immediately before Oedipus answers the Sphinx’s riddle, leading to her self-destruction, and the release of Oedipus to fulfil the prophecy in which he marries his mother and continues his path to tragedy.

Gustave Moreau (1826–1898), Oedipus and the Sphinx (1864), oil on canvas, 206.4 x 104.8 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Bequest of William H. Herriman, 1920), New York, NY. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, via Wikimedia Commons.

In accordance with the traditions of visual narrative, each of these paintings contains references to the past and the future. Without those, the image would appear static and relies on the viewer recalling those details from the literary narrative to which they refer.

Booker’s model plots generally place the moment of peripeteia at the transition from phases 4 to 5, with his preceding phases being preparatory, and the final phase establishing the situation after the change. In that sense, all Booker’s plots can be reduced to Aristotle’s poetics.

In the next and final article, I will examine peripeteia in more detail.


Christopher Booker (2004) The Seven Basic Plots. Why we tell stories, Continuum. ISBN 9 780 826 45209 2