Altogether Now: Introduction to uniquely visual narrative

William Powell Frith (1819–1909), The Derby Day (1856-58), oil on canvas, 140.5 x 264 cm, The Tate Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Visual narrative, the mainstay of much of painting since the Renaissance, is too often considered to be the poor relative of serial forms of storytelling in literature and movies. There’s at least one mode of telling stories in images which has no equivalent in literary or cinematic media: telling many stories at once, in a single image. This new series looks at this narrative mode in some of the most spectacular and fascinating paintings ever made.

Classical visual narrative tells one story at a time, just like a single scene in a play.

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

Poussin’s Rinaldo and Armida from about 1630 is one of my favourite examples. It shows an instant in time, in which Armida decides to fall in love with the knight Rinaldo rather than murder him.

It has references to previous events, including a distant view of the lake in which the partly dressed Armida had been bathing earlier, and to her prior intent to murder him with the dagger in her right hand. It has references to the future too, in her facial expression and left hand, which confirm her new intent to enchant and abduct him, so that he can become infatuated with her, and forget the Crusade altogether.

Contrast that with Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s Netherlandish Proverbs seventy years earlier.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Dutch Proverbs (1559), oil on oak wood, 117 x 163 cm, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin. Wikimedia Commons.
Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1526/1530–1569), Netherlandish Proverbs (1559), oil on oak wood, 117 x 163 cm, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin. Wikimedia Commons.

What at first glance appears to be a painting of a bustling coastal village is so contrived and the figures so extraordinary in their activities that they demand close attention. Armed with a compendium of proverbs of the day, the painting finally makes sense. Here is just a small sample to whet your appetite.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Dutch Proverbs (detail) (1559), oil on oak wood, 117 x 163 cm, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin. Wikimedia Commons.
Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1526/1530–1569), Netherlandish Proverbs (detail) (1559), oil on oak wood, 117 x 163 cm, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin. Wikimedia Commons.

These figures represent:

  • to be armed to the teeth,
  • to be an iron-biter (boastful and indiscreet),
  • to bell the cat (being indiscreet about secret plans),
  • one winds off the distaff what the other spins (spreading gossip),
  • watch out that a black dog does not come in between (two women together do not need a barking dog to add to the trouble),
  • one shears sheep, the other shears pigs (one has all the advantages, the other none),
  • shear them but do not skin them (don’t press your advantage too far),
  • to be as tame as a lamb (very obedient).

Each of more than a hundred recognisable proverbs are told as simple narratives set within the one image. This is an accomplishment which is impossible in any of the serial narrative media. Could you imagine a novel or movie trying to tell all these simultaneously? They can manage two or three interwoven stories, but have to cut between them, which many can find confusing.

Hieronymus Bosch (c 1450–1516), The Garden of Earthly Delights (c 1495-1505), triptych, oil on oak panel, 220 x 390 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. Wikimedia Commons.

An even earlier example is Hieronymus Bosch’s masterpiece, and one of the most famous paintings in the world, The Garden of Earthly Delights, which he most probably painted around 1500 as a conversation piece for his patron, Count Henry III of Nassau-Breda.

Those two paintings tell a great many short stories within an overall theme, of proverbs, or the origin and downfall of humankind. This technique has also been used to tell a single story in multiplex or continuous narrative.

Jacopo Tintoretto (c 1518-1594), The Crucifixion (E&I 123) (1565), oil on canvas, 536 x 1224 cm, Albergo, Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Jacopo Tintoretto’s vast Crucifixion (1565) makes sophisticated use of space for multiplex narrative, in which its single image shows events at more than a single point in time, in an ingenious and modern manner. Naturally, the painting centres on Christ crucified, but the two thieves executed beside him are not shown, as would be traditional, already hanging from their crosses.

Instead, to the right of Christ, the ‘bad’ thief is still being attached to his cross, which rests on the ground. To the left of Christ, the ‘good’ thief is just being raised to the upright position. There is nothing in the well-known gospel accounts which actually makes this view anachronistic, but it’s most probable that the crucifixions were more simultaneous.

It’s thus an ingenious artistic device which shows the three executions at different times, but avoids the archaic repetition of figures or other content, as Tintoretto applies it to discrete passages within the whole.

Spaced out around the canvas are relevant sub-stories from that whole. At the foot of Christ’s cross is his group of mourners, including the Marys. Each of the crosses has attendant workers, busy with the task of conducting the crucifixion, climbing ladders, hauling on lines, and fastening each victim to his cross. This mechanical and human detail brings the scene to life and adds to its credibility, and grim process.

The crowd on the left is spread out. In the distance is a flag bearing the letters SPQR representing the Roman Empire, and its link through Pilate. Most faces are turned towards Christ, with their eyes wide in awe.

On the right, in a small rock shelter suggestive of a tomb, two men are gambling with dice. To the right of them, a gravedigger has just started his work with a spade. The ruling class, perhaps Herod himself, have turned up on horseback, and they too stare wide-eyed at Christ.

This single image has captured the detail in much of the Gospel accounts of the Crucifixion.

A century before that, Hans Memling ingeniously threaded many of the scenes into a single image, in his Scenes from the Passion of Christ (1470-1).

Hans Memling (c 1433–1494), Scenes from the Passion of Christ (1470-1), oil on oak panel, 56.7 x 92.2 cm, Sabauda Gallery, Turin, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Here each of the individual scenes making up the Passion as a whole is located in a different part of a fictionalised aerial view of Jerusalem. This does lead to some strange effects, though. For example, he shows no less than three separate crucifixions: at the upper right of the city is the first, with Christ laid on the cross but still on the ground. The second is above and to the left of that, where all three victims are seen on their crosses. The third and final scene is to the right of that, where Christ’s body is being brought down in a Deposition.

The buildings provide demarcated spaces for many of the scenes, almost framing them, perhaps. This is a technique used in illustrations for children’s books which we use to teach them how to read multiplex narrative, without really being aware of what we’re doing.

The same year that Tintoretto completed his Crucifixion, Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted The Harvesters (1565).

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Harvesters (1565), oil on panel, 119 x 162 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c 1525–1569), The Harvesters (1565), oil on panel, 119 x 162 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

This is one of the earliest visual encyclopaedias about the grain harvest. The activities of the harvesters in the foreground are quite plain, whether they’re cutting the corn (on the left) or enjoying a meal under the pear tree (centre and right), and the detail and narrative extends far beyond into transportation and storage, activities which occur at the same time, but trace the stages of the harvest.

This type of painting enjoyed renewed popularity in the nineteenth century, particularly in the human panoramas of William Powell Frith (1819–1909). Following his successes of Ramsgate Sands in 1854, and The Derby Day (1856-58), Frith set to work on his greatest painting, a similar human panorama showing the interior of one of London’s major railway stations.

William Powell Frith (1819–1909), engraved by Francis Holl (1866) The Railway Station (1862), original oil on canvas, this print mixed media engraving on wove, finished with hand colouring, 66 x 123 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

The Railway Station (1862) is set in a crowded and busy Paddington railway station in London. It’s rich with little social vignettes, and among its many faces are associates and friends of the artist, including the dealer who paid for it.

Take, for example, the incident happening at the extreme right, where a man dressed in brown clothes is apparently in the process of being arrested while trying to board a train. We don’t know what event has preceded or precipitated his arrest, nor do we have any inkling as to whether he will try to run off, or be taken into custody. Much as in later ‘problem pictures’, the viewer is left to endless speculation and absorption over its many small narratives.

Here I’ve given some insight into the richness and diversity of these paintings. To start off, I’ll distinguish between four sub-types:

  • A temporal sequence of scenes involving common characters from a single grand narrative (Scenes from the Passion of Christ).
  • Stages which could occur simultaneously, providing fine detail to a grand narrative (The Crucifixion, The Harvesters).
  • Unrelated stories within an overall theme or grand narrative (Netherlandish Proverbs, The Garden of Earthly Delights).
  • No common or unifying theme other than location for essentially unrelated stories (The Railway Station).

I hope that you’ll join me as I examine some of the best examples of these distinctively visual stories.