I am a narrative sort of person. Throughout my life I’ve had a love of words and languages, and consequently I’ve read, written, and told a lot of stories. Learning to tell stories through visual art has been an interesting and rewarding experience. I’m pleased to say that the more time I spend studying the concepts involved, the greater my understand is of what we call narrative in art.
Sometimes we can easily see or imagine a story within a painting. Historical art — such as that of Washington Crossing the Delaware — both shows and tells us what’s happening. If we’re Americans and remember our grade-school history lessons, we’ll probably remember the story of this famous crossing that led to the victorious battles of Trenton and Princeton. I’ve actually read an entire book about this event —Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer — and if you’re a history lover like me, it’s well worth the read.
But, in all honesty, the painting by Leutze probably tells the story just as well. And for visual learners, perhaps the painting tells the story in a better way. And just in case you don’t know this little bit of trivia, that is future president James Monroe there behind Washington.
Information from the J. Paul Getty museum explains that “Works of art often tell stories. Artists can present narrative in many ways—by using a series of images representing moments in a story, or by selecting a central moment to stand for the whole story. Narrative works often illustrate well-known historical, religious, legendary, or mythic stories.”
Now, let me tell you a little story of my own. Step back with me, please, to a day last fall when I had a little “play day” with two artist friends. As we played with our art supplies, we chatted — about art, of course. The HFAA Regional Art Show had recently ended, and the topic of judges and awards came up. We discussed specifically how impossible it is to ever really know and understand how judges make their decisions.
One friend commented that so many times she’s gone home from a show, looked at a particular painting and wondered “Why not?” Why hadn’t that work of art gotten any award or even a bit of recognition?
I pondered her words for a moment. I understood what she was saying. But at the same time, I saw the same question from a different perspective. “For me, I’m having the opposite reaction,” I said with a laugh. “I just won a first place ribbon, and I’m asking why!”
We all had a good laugh, but then the other friend got serious. “I’ll tell you why your painting won,” she said. I listened eagerly. As president of the HFAA group, she was there when the judge made her decisions and handed out ribbons. “You won,” she told me, “because your painting told a story.”
I smiled. Yes, that was one of things I had hoped to accomplish with my painting, The Grove Where We Played as Children”.
Now, there’s a purpose behind this post — beyond presenting a few simple thoughts about narrative. It has to do with still life painting.
A still life is … well, it’s still. A still life painting has no movement, no meaning, no narrative… right? What story can be told about something as simple as a vase of flowers sitting on a table or a bit of fruit?
These thoughts were one reason why still life painting has never appealed to me. While I’ve long admired the richness of details and the magnificent use of colors in still life paintings, I didn’t understand the stories they were telling me. I didn’t know how to read the narrative behind the work.
This is what I’m learning now, and oh, my goodness! I’m discovering that still life paintings certainly do tell stories. They tell us stories about people, stories about time, place, history, and culture. They tell us stories about life.
I’ll be telling a lot of these stories through this blog, sharing the fascinating facts I’m learning now about still life painting and the many ways in which artists can use the elements of art to create narrative even with things as mundane as dishes, flowers, and foods.
So, curl up in a comfy chair, settle in, and get ready for story-time.