Characters in Painted Stories: 13 Telling a new story

Gaetano Chierici (1838-1920), The Mask Prank (date not known), oil on canvas, 71 x 97 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

In the nineteenth century, storytelling in literature changed. New genres such as detective and ‘mystery’ novels started to challenge the convention of narrative closure. Readers of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories in the first half of the century, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels towards the end of the century, developed a taste for something rather different.

While those narrative painters who catered for conservative tastes of events like the Salon in Paris stuck to their traditional approach, as seen in winning entries for the Prix de Rome, the more innovative tried new approaches. Among them was the visual equivalent of Poe’s short stories, or a sophisticated riddle, later known as the problem picture, which left the viewer speculating. In their heyday, between about 1895 and 1914, such unresolved narrative paintings became so popular that they frequently featured in the press.

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),

As far as I can discover, one of the earliest major paintings which intentionally lacks narrative closure is William Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience, which he painted during the period 1851-53. As with most masterly narrative paintings, its story is assembled from a multitude of clues which are to be found in the image.

It shows a fashionable young man seated at a piano in a small if not cramped house in the leafy suburbs of London, in reality Saint John’s Wood. Half-risen from the man’s lap is a young woman who stares absently into the distance. They’re clearly a couple in an intimate relationship, but conspicuous by its absence is any wedding ring on the fourth finger of the woman’s left hand, which is at the focal point of the painting. This is, therefore, extra-marital.

Around them are signs that she is a kept mistress with time on her hands. Her companion, a cat, is under the table, where it has caught a bird with a broken wing, a symbol of her plight. At the right edge is a tapestry with which she whiles away the hours, and her wools below form a tangled web in which she is entwined. On top of the gaudy upright piano is a clock. By the hem of her dress is her lover’s discarded glove, symbolising her ultimate fate when he discards her into prostitution. The room itself is decorated as gaudily as the piano, in poor taste.

The couple have been singing together from Thomas Moore’s Oft in the Stilly Night 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.” Ironically, his model was his girlfriend at the time, Annie Miller, an uneducated barmaid who was only sixteen herself.

Hunt 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 provides detailed references to her past, but leads to no conclusion about her future. It brings hope without any resolution, and doesn’t even commit itself to being a moment of change. For all the painting tells us, the woman could continue down the slippery slope to prostitution: we’re encouraged to speculate and debate, and people did on a surprising scale.

Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin tales became very popular across Europe when they were published from 1841 onwards, and in 1868 Émile Gaboriau’s serialised detective story Monsieur Lecoq shot to fame throughout France. That same year, Edgar Degas started work on his own detective story.

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.

Degas’ Interior (1868-9), also known as The Interior and even The Rape, appears strongly narrative, but has so far defied all attempts to produce a reading consistent with its details.

A man and a woman are in a bedroom together. The woman is at the left, partly kneeling down, and facing away from the man. Her hair is cropped short, she wears a white shift which has dropped off her left shoulder, and her face is obscured in the dark. Her left forearm rests on a small stool or chair, over which is draped a dark brown cloak or coat. Her right hand rests against a wooden cabinet which is in front of her. She appears to be staring down towards the floor, off the left of the canvas.

The man stands at the far right, leaning against the inside of the bedroom door, and staring at the woman. He is quite well dressed, with a black jacket, black waistcoat and mid-brown trousers. Both his hands are thrust into his trouser pockets, and his feet are apart. His top hat rests, upside down, on top of the cabinet on the other side of the room, just in front of the woman.

Between them, just behind the woman, is a small occasional table, on which there is a table-lamp and a small open suitcase. Some of the contents of the suitcase rest over its edge. In front of it, on the table top, is a pair of scissors and other items which appear to be from a clothes repair kit (‘housewife’).

The single bed is made up, and its cover isn’t ruffled, but it may possibly bear a bloodstain at the foot. At the foot of the bed, on its large arched frame, another item apparently of the woman’s clothing (perhaps a coat) hangs loosely. On that end of the bed is a woman’s dark hat with ribbons, and her corset has been dropped on the floor by the foot of the bed.

She clearly 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 shift or chemise. Alternatively, she may have undressed completely, and at this moment have dressed again as far as her chemise.

The suitcase appears to belong to the woman; when she arrived, she placed it on the table, and opened it. This indicates that she was expecting to stay in the bedroom overnight, and brought a change of clothing and travelling kit including the housewife.

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 a single not a double, and shows no sign of having been used, nor has the bedding been disturbed in any way. There is a mature fire burning in the fireplace behind the woman and the lamp.

There are four paintings or similar objects hanging on the walls, of which only one appears to be decipherable. This is the large rounded rectangular one above the fireplace. Although that appears to be a mirror, the image shown in it doesn’t resemble a reflection of the room’s interior, but looks to be a painting. This might show a bright figure, resembling the woman, in front of some shrubs, behind which are classical buildings. This doesn’t resemble any of Degas’ paintings, nor any well-known work.

Degas provides a lot of small details, just as in a detective story, none of which points clearly to a resolution. You can discuss and debate its narrative endlessly, as has been done for the last 150 years.

William Quiller Orchardson (1832-1910), Hard Hit (1879), oil on canvas, 84 x 122 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

William Quiller Orchardson’s Hard Hit from 1879 isn’t as difficult to resolve. The fashionably dressed young man about to open the door on the left is walking away from a group of older villains, who have stopped at nothing, probably including cheating, to beat him repeatedly at cards, and have relieved him of his wealth.

Although we have limited insight into the intentions of Hunt and Degas, in this case more is known about the origin of Orchardson’s story. It was apparently the artist’s model who provided the inspiration, when he arrived dejected at the studio one day and revealed that he had been ‘hard hit’ himself the previous night. This problem picture is thus an example of a painting telling a real story which was previously unknown to the viewer.

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

John Collier was one of the most popular of the artists who painted problem pictures. The Prodigal Daughter (1903) proved highly successful, and remains one of Collier’s best-known works. An elderly middle-class couple are seen in their parlour in the evening in their sober black clothes and sombre surroundings. They are surprised when their prodigal daughter turns up out of the blue, in her low-cut gown with floral motifs and scarlet accessories.

Father is still sitting, backlit by a table lamp to heighten the drama. Mother has risen from her chair and is visibly taken aback. Daughter stands, her back against the door and her hand still holding its handle, as if ready to run away again should the need arise. Collier also uses ingenious shadow play, a device which became popular in the nineteenth century perhaps with the advent of optical projectors: here the mother’s cast shadow makes her appear much larger than the daughter’s, like an ogre bearing down on a child.

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. Collier went to great lengths to capture emotions, in terms of the daughter’s facial expression, and the contrasting body language. The daughter is seen as a ‘fallen woman’, thus part of a popular mythology of the time. But far from appearing fallen and repentant, she stands tall, proud, and wears a rich dress.

The resulting discussion spilled over from art gossip columns into more general editorial and comment sections of the press.

While problem pictures derived from new genres in popular fiction are numerous, some artists tried telling new stories in other ways, among them the Italian Gaetano Chierici, who seems to have specialised in family comedy involving surprises and untoward consequences.

Gaetano Chierici (1838-1920), The Mask Prank (date not known), oil on canvas, 71 x 97 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

In Chierici’s undated The Mask Prank, a young boy is still laughing as his mother scolds him for surprising and upsetting his younger sister, who is now crying at her mother’s skirts. As in Rembrandt’s Belshazzar’s Feast, the young girl has dropped her spoon, and mother may have dropped and broken something too.

Gaetano Chierici (1838-1920), A Scary State of Affairs (date not known), oil, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

His undated A Scary State of Affairs shows another childhood surprise, when an infant has been left with a bowl on their lap, and that room is invaded first by chickens, then by large and aggressive geese. The child’s eyes are wide open, their mouth at full stretch in a scream, their arms raised, and their legs are trying to fend the geese off.

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, many paintings demonstrated that visual narrative doesn’t have to rely on previously known stories, but does depend on clues to events in the past and/or future. For painting and other visual arts, this vindicates Aristotle’s poetics. While Booker’s extensive and detailed analysis of archetypal plots in literary narrative may contribute to understanding of verbal storytelling, it appears to add little to the understanding of visual narrative, where poetics remain dominant.


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