Until the nineteenth century, pretty well every narrative painting relied on the viewer already being familiar with the original story, and its purpose was to show a part which would elicit those memories as vividly as possible. Although this could be achieved using a view of a single moment from the story, to be truly narrative, the painting needed to tell its own story by referring to at least two moments in time. After all, that’s what narrative is, the conjunction of two or more events.
Classical teaching was to pick the moment of change or transformation, and to include references both to the past and the future, while showing the present. Various techniques developed to achieve this, but none was more effective that Nicolas Poussin’s approach.
Poussin’s Rinaldo and Armida from about 1630 draws its narrative from one of his favourite literary works, a then-popular epic poem by Torquato Tasso (1544-1595) titled Gerusalemme Liberata (Jerusalem Delivered), and published in 1581. I have written a series of fourteen articles showing paintings and telling its story, which start here. This particular episode is detailed here.
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, has an evil aim. She has been secretly following Rinaldo, intending to murder him with her dagger. As the ‘Saracen’ witch who is trying to destroy the crusaders’ campaign, she has 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 twist or peripeteia (to use Aristotle’s term), 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.
This is a single moment in time, in which Poussin has ingeniously incorporated references to the past and future. Provided that you’re familiar with Tasso’s story, it’s a superb example of instantaneous narrative, which has been practised throughout the history of painting across all continents and cultures. It still relies on the underlying story to bring narrative closure, though, as an image of a single moment, however ingeniously composed, can only suggest the resolution or outcome.
Curiously, about five years later, Poussin painted a very different version of Rinaldo and Armida (c 1635), which appears to omit almost all the narrative tricks which he used so effectively in that earlier painting. It does though add Armida’s chariot to the background, in preparation for the next event in the narrative, Rinaldo’s abduction.
Compare those with a more modern painting which alludes only gently to this story, in a portrait of Armida.
Marie Spartali Stillman’s A Rose in Armida’s Garden (1894) has essentially no narrative, being more of an Aesthetic portrait. There is more here than just her beauty, though, as some of the petals fall symbolically off her roses.
The big limitation with such narrative paintings is their inability to tell any story with which the viewer isn’t familiar. I explained that one to you for the purposes of example. Try to explain this next story before reading my account below.
In the late nineteenth century, Viktor Mikhailovich Vasnetsov painted scenes from the story of Ivan Tsarevich, of which the Firebird and the Grey Wolf is perhaps the best-known. This tale was first collected by the pioneer ethnographer Alexander Afanasyev in the middle of the nineteenth century, but is very different from the plot of Stravinsky’s 1910 ballet The Firebird.
Each night, one of the golden apples on the king’s tree was stolen, reportedly by the Firebird. The king offered his two oldest sons half his kingdom if one of them caught it, but both fell asleep. The youngest son, Ivan Tsarevich, asked if he could try, and managed to capture one of its feathers. This made the king want the bird even more.
The older brothers set out in pursuit of the Firebird, but confronted with a crossroads they didn’t know which of the arduous roads to choose, so gave up and became idle. Ivan begged to go, and chose the second road, which a nearby stone promised would let him live but his horse would die. Sure enough, as he pressed on down the road, a large grey wolf killed and ate his horse. Ivan carried on walking with the wolf, which eventually offered to carry him.
The wolf brought Ivan to a garden, where the Firebird was kept in a golden cage. The wolf told him to capture the Firebird without touching the cage. When Ivan tried to take the cage as well, bells rang and he was captured. He was told that he could have the Firebird only if he brought back the Horse with the Golden Mane.
The Grey Wolf carried Ivan to the stables where that horse was kept, but warned him not to touch its golden bridle. Once again, Ivan gave way to temptation and touched the bridle, causing alarms to ring and his capture. Now his challenge was to bring Helen the Beautiful back to be the wife of the second king, who kept the horse with the Golden Mane.
Vasnetsov’s first painting of the tale of Ivan Tsarevich shows him riding on a Flying Carpet (1880), together with the Firebird in its golden cage. This was also influenced by stories of flying carpets from the Thousand and One Nights.
If narrative painting is constrained to retelling viewers stories they already know, it’s hardly a good narrative medium. Tomorrow I’ll show some examples of paintings which attempt to tell stories which not only aren’t already familiar, but which are open-ended and encourage speculation.