Characters in Painted Stories: 0 Summary and contents

Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), [name of painting withheld: see text] (c 1630), oil on canvas, 82.2 x 109.2 cm, Dulwich Picture Gallery. Wikimedia Commons.

This article is an overview and summary of this series, as well as linking to each of its articles.

While there has been a great deal of excellent writing on literary narrative, precious few studies have been made on the visual narrative of paintings. This series looks at one approach which has become popular in analysing verbal narrative, the concept of common plots, as expounded in great detail by Christopher Booker in The Seven Basic Plots. Why we tell stories (2004). I therefore set out to consider how they might apply to painted narrative.

In this introduction, I consider paintings of the story of Daedalus as an example of a tragedy. These turn out to be entirely consistent with Booker’s analysis.

1 Introduction

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.

I then turn to the lives of Perseus and Theseus, as examples of overcoming the monster, the first of Booker’s archetypal plots. As they have been extensively painted, and have extended plots, I survey the paintings first.

A life of Perseus in paintings 1
A life of Perseus in paintings 2
A life of Theseus in paintings: 1 Whose are those sandals?
A life of Theseus in paintings: 2 Killing the Minotaur
A life of Theseus in paintings: 3 Fights and failed relationships

I bring those together, with Booker’s model, in a summary. I conclude that in both cases Booker’s sequence of stages isn’t sufficient to fit either story well.

2 Perseus and Theseus

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

I turn to Booker’s second basic plot, rags to riches. These have only seldom formed the verbal narrative behind paintings, with Cinderella being the only good example. I propose that this plot had little appeal either for rich patrons or for artists who had perhaps humble origins.

3 Rags to riches

John Everett Millais (1829–1896), Cinderella (1881), oil on canvas, 126 x 89 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

The third of Booker’s archetypal plots is the quest, which is well-represented in visual art. The three examples that I take have brought some of the most famous narrative paintings, and require careful survey first.

The Painted Story of the Aeneid: 1 From Troy to Carthage
The Painted Story of the Aeneid: 2 From Carthage to Apotheosis
Jason and the Golden Fleece 1
Jason and the Golden Fleece 2
Homer’s Odyssey in paintings: 1 Polyphemus and Circe
Homer’s Odyssey in paintings: 2 The Sirens, Calypso and Nausicaä
Homer’s Odyssey in paintings: 3 Return to Ithaca

Of those three, Homer’s Odyssey is the best fit, and Virgil’s Aeneid works quite well, but Jason and the Golden Fleece doesn’t fit at all well, notably in the complex character of Medea.

4 The Quest

Frederick Sandys (1829–1904), Medea (1866-68), oil on wood panel with gilded background, 61.2 x 45.6 cm, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham England. Wikimedia Commons.

The fourth of Booker’s plots is the voyage and return, for which I examine the tragic story of Orpheus and Eurydice, cited by Booker as an example. The emphasis in paintings is on the death of Eurydice, not the couple’s return journey from the underworld.

5 Voyage and Return, Orpheus and Eurydice

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

Comedy is the fifth basic plot proposed by Booker, and is under-represented in paintings. I choose the Homeric account by Demodocus of the affair between Ares and Aphrodite, which has been depicted more frequently than any comedy other than Cervantes’ long novel Don Quixote. The problem with paintings here is the lack of evidence.

6 Comedy, the tale of Demodocus

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

I next revisit tragedy, which I first examined in the context of the story of Daedalus. Here, I look at paintings of the tragedy of Orestes. In the case of that story, its painted narrative fits even better with Booker’s sequence than verbal accounts.

7 Tragedy, Orestes 1
8 Tragedy, Orestes 2

John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), Orestes Pursued by the Furies (1922-25), oil on canvas, 348 × 317.5 cm, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Boston, MA. Wikimedia Commons.

The seventh and last of Booker’s basic plots is rebirth, which is best represented in folk tales, which haven’t been popular stories for paintings until the nineteenth century. I consider Sleeping Beauty, and the Frog Prince, but the lack of paintings makes this hard to assess.

9 Rebirth in folk tales

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.

Later in Booker’s analysis, he examines the plots of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and that of Oedipus in depth. Here I look at paintings of the latter story, which place particular emphasis on the encounter between Oedipus and the Sphinx, which is quite different from literary accounts. This leads on to the consideration of peripeteia.

10 Oedipus

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.

With the support of some of the finest of the narrative paintings shown in this series, I then make the case for the moment of change, or peripeteia, being the moment of strongest visual narrative in any story. This is in accord with Aristotle’s Poetics rather than any more recent analysis of plots, such as Booker’s.

11 The moment of change

To examine this more systematically, I look first at how painting the moment of peripeteia works for stories with which the viewer is already familiar.

12 Telling a familiar story

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

Until the nineteenth century, it was held that narrative paintings could only tell stories with which the viewer is already familiar. Then, changing tastes in literature brought challenge to the convention of narrative closure, in detective and mystery novels. In paintings this was reflected in ‘problem pictures’, in which there were clues to the past, but the viewer was encouraged to speculate on the future.

13 Telling a new 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),

My conclusion is that this type of plot analysis has little to offer the understanding of visual storytelling, where Aristotelian poetics remain dominant. If you’re interested in literary plots, and his leviathan analysis of a great many novels, stories and plays, Booker’s book is well worth reading, but it won’t help much in the reading of narrative paintings.


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