What Is Narrative Art?

Debra Barnhart

Narrative art is the name given to visual art that conveys a story. The most common instances of narrative art might be found in children's books, although the subjects of narrative art have most often been religious or historical. Narrative artwork can depict continuous scenes, a single event, or several scenes at the same time.

Adam and Eve often wear fig leaves in narrative art.
Adam and Eve often wear fig leaves in narrative art.

The illustrations in children’s books usually rely heavily on the written word to express meaning. Some experts feel that pictures do not do a good job of telling a story, because stories are told over time and pictures are seen all at one time. This may be an arbitrary view, however, because most people cannot absorb the contents of a complex work of art at one time. In other words, viewing art can also take place over time, and this is especially true with some famous pieces of narrative art like the frescoes at the Arena Chapel and the Column of Trajan.

The Virgin Mary, who often features in narrative art.
The Virgin Mary, who often features in narrative art.

Narrative art can express a continuous narrative or just one scene. The frescoes completed by Giotto in 1305 at the Arena Chapel in Padua, Italy, are a good example of continuous narrative. Through a number of painted scenes going from left to right, Giotto illustrated the lives of Mary and Jesus. As viewers look at these paintings, it is almost like reading a story when they are looked at in sequence.

The Column of Trajan expresses a continuous narrative in an innovative way. Erected around 113 CE, the column memorializes Emperor Trajan’s victory over the Dacians, a group of people from Northern Europe. The details of the wars wind from the bottom of the column to the top, although seeing the images at the top of this 125 foot (about 38 meters) structure is a near impossible feat from the street level.

Leonardo da Vinci‘s Last Supper, completed around 1498, is an example of a narrative painting that is monoscenic, meaning that it shows a single event. In this scene, Jesus predicts his impending betrayal and departure, setting off a complex set of emotional reactions among the apostles at the dinner table. Another example of a one-scene narrative painting is Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze. Completed around 1851, this painting depicts Washington and his troops struggling to cross the ice-ridden Delaware River to confront Hessian troops during the American Revolutionary War. Leutze created a dramatic scene with a back-lit Washington striking a determined pose as he makes his way to confront the enemy.

Occasionally, a narrative artwork illustrates simultaneous narrative. The Ghent Altarpiece, painted by Hubert and Jan van Eyck, was completed in 1432 and illustrates a number of Christian themes. Jesus is shown in the upper center of the altarpiece with the Virgin Mary to his right and John the Baptist to his left. When facing the artwork, Adam and Eve appear to the far left and the far right, respectively. The lower panels depict the worship of a lamb, a symbol of Jesus, on an altar.

The works of Norman Rockwell contained visual clues from which a narrative could be discerned.
The works of Norman Rockwell contained visual clues from which a narrative could be discerned.

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Discussion Comments


@croydon - You can do that without words as well though. A really good example is Shaun Tan's book "The Arrival". It is a long picture book and the story is told entirely without words. It allows the viewer to truly experience the story in a universal way, in part because the point of the narrative is to create a sense of alienation.


@Iluviaporos - I'm particularly fond of inference in art, although most of the examples I can think of off the top of my head are ones I've seen in picture books, rather than ones I've seen in paintings.

When you've got text to go along with the pictures, you can play them off each other so that a different story is told to the one that might exist if there was only one component to the narrative.

I guess a very basic example (in terms of narrative, at least) is that famous painting of a pipe, which has the words underneath it (in French) "This is Not a Pipe."

If you had either the words or the image without the other, there would be no story. But because they are both there together, the audience has to infer more meaning than they might have, otherwise.


It's actually amazing how much meaning painters were able to fit into narrative art, particularly when you understand the symbols they were working with. They will hide details so that they will only be discovered after a close look, which, I suppose, serves as a way of drawing out the experience. That way the story seems to take time, even though it is depicted all at once, because the understanding of the viewer grows gradually.

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