CANVASES, CARATS AND CURIOSITIES

Our Top 10 Paintings that Tell a Great Story

10 minute read

Perhaps one of my favorite features of a work of fine art is not its aesthetic beauty or its historic importance, but the story that unfolds on its canvas. As I walk through the rooms of a museum or gallery, I find myself absorbed by the narratives that play out in works of art, as whole dramas come to life through the simple application of paint on canvas. One can truly “read” a painting as one does a book, identifying central characters and imagining the dialogue that takes place between them. The true masters of art history, in my opinion, are the great storytellers, those who stimulate our imaginations and bring their subjects to life on canvas. Da Vinci, Vincent Van Gogh, and Pablo Picasso were all experts at telling stories through their works of art. Read on to learn about my very favorite paintings that tell a great story in the collection at M.S. Rau that tell a great story, and prepare to be transported into every artwork scene!

The Alchemist by Pieter Brueghel the Younger

The Alchemist by Pieter Brueghel the Younger. Circa 1600.

The Alchemist by Pieter Brueghel the Younger. Circa 1600.
The Brueghel family of Flemish painters dominated art of the Northern Renaissance during the 16th and 17th centuries, and they were particularly renowned for their great genre pieces with villagers and revelers as their subjects. This oil, crafted by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, is a particularly exceptional example of the family’s output. Entitled The Alchemist, it takes its inspiration from the 1558 drawing by his father (which is now held in the Kupferstichkabinett in Berlin). Brueghel deftly weaves the tale of his foolhardy alchemist, hunched over his work and surrounded by a multitude of instruments in his makeshift laboratory. Through his storytelling, you can see he is aided by the scholar, who reads a text titled, “Al Ghemist” (meaning “All is lost”), as well as the fool, frantically and futilely feeding air into the fire. The alchemist’s wife stands next to him, watching him throw their last gold coin into the crucible as she searches in vain through her flat purse. Brueghel reveals the conclusion of the story through the window in a clever example of a painted narrative, showing the ill-fated family being welcomed by the church, the giver of charity. Indeed, the message of the work is clear: Folly often leads to ruin.

Flight into Egypt by Giovanni Francesco Grimaldi

Flight into Egypt by Giovanni Francesco Grimaldi

Flight into Egypt by Giovanni Francesco Grimaldi
Many of art history’s earliest paintings and artwork were commissioned by the church, and thus artists turned to the Bible and church doctrines as the source of their inspiration. Subjects that focused on the life of Jesus were particularly popular, from the Annunciation to Madonna and Child portraits, to scenes of the Crucifixion. This oil on canvas by the famed Baroque painter Giovanni Francesco Grimaldi captures the holy family’s flight into Egypt, a story taken from the New Testament Gospel of Matthew. Fleeing from Herod's call for all infant boys to be killed, Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus sought refuge in Egypt. Depicting the moment when they reach the end of their long journey, Grimaldi positioned the family in the lower left corner of his composition. The remainder of the canvas is occupied by a sweeping landscape, including a soaring rendition of a pyramid that appropriately sets the scene for this dramatic retelling of the popular story.

Salome by Marie Felix Hippolyte-Lucas

Salome by Marie Felix Hippolyte-Luca

Salome by Marie Felix Hippolyte-Luca
This late 19th-century oil by the French artist Marie Felix Hippolyte-Lucas also takes its inspiration from biblical sources, capturing the dramatic tale of Salome and the demise of John the Baptist. Though Salome is not named in the New Testament (she is known only as the daughter of Herodias), she has appeared time and time again in art and literature over the centuries, as both an innocent and a seductress. Her mother, Herodias, resented John the Baptist, who declared that her marriage to King Herod was unlawful. At one evening meal, Salome danced for King Herod and his guests. The king was so entranced by her that he swore to give her whatever she asked of him. At her mother's request, she demanded the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Hippolyte-Lucas portrays her here in the role of the remorseless seductress, standing proudly next to the severed head of her mother's enemy.

The Education of Achilles by Auguste-Clément Chrétien

The Education of Achilles by Auguste-Clément Chrétien

The Education of Achilles by Auguste-Clément Chrétien. Dated 1861
The legend of Achilles is one of the richest and oldest of Greek mythology. It was made famous by Homer in The Iliad, which helped to popularize the adventures of the great hero of the Trojan War. Son of Peleus, king of Phthia in Thessaly, and the sea nymph Thetis, Achilles is most remembered for his one weakness — his heel — which would eventually lead to his downfall. This composition by Auguste-Clément Chrétien captures the warrior as a youth with the centaur Chiron, the legendary tutor of gods and heroes who instructed him in the arts of medicine, music, riding and hunting. One can almost hear that dialogue that is taking place between student and his teacher in this masterfully composed scene. Chiron stands behind Achilles, kneeling on his front legs to lower himself to the height of his pupil, helping him aim. With his left hand he directs the arrow, while his right directs Achilles' arm. Chrétien perfectly captures the setting of the narrative as well. The scene takes place on Mount Pelion in front of the Centaur Cave; the Aegean Sea and the Gulf of Thessaloniki can be seen in the distance.

Napoléon Before the Battle of Moscow by Joseph Franque

Napoléon Before The Battle Of Moscow By Joseph Franque

Napoléon Before The Battle Of Moscow By Joseph Franque. Circa 1812.
While myth and legend provided ample subject matter for artists, history — both recent and ancient — also served as the subject of some of art history’s greatest works. Composed by the French painter Joseph Franque, this portrait captures the French Emperor Napoléon addressing his army before the Battle of Borodino in 1812. The battle was one of the final victories of the legendary general’s career. Napoléon invaded Russia in 1812, and the two forces eventually met at Borodino on September 7, 1812. After a single day of battle, the Russian forces withdrew, and Napoléon’s Grand Armée pushed on to take the ancient city of Moscow. Yet, they arrived to a city already burning, and what followed was a brilliantly strategic scorched-earth retreat by the Russians that ultimately led to Napoléon’s defeat. This oil on canvas, however, offers a portrait of the Emperor before these fateful months, portraying him at the zenith of his power just before his victory. It was among the last group of portraits of Napoléon that were shown at the French Salon during his lifetime, as the next Salon took place in 1814 after his exile.

An Evening at the Royal Theatre by Paul Gustav Fischer

An Evening at the Royal Theatre by Paul Gustav Fischer

An Evening at the Royal Theatre by Paul Gustav Fischer. Dated 1887-88.
This absolutely monumental oil by the Danish Impressionist Paul Gustav Fischer offers a veritable "who’s-who" of Danish society. A stunning cast of characters fills this theatre scene, which once can imagine is filled with the low thrum of gossip and chatter. Fischer's subjects are notable friends, colleagues and members of society. Among them are the poets Henrik Pontoppidan and Christian Winter, artist Otto Bache, pharmacist Otto Benzon, actor Olaf Poulson, composer Niels W. Gade, actress Miss Emma Lange, Lord in Waiting Mr. Fallesen and ballerina Miss Charlotte Hansen. As the theater fills, the Danish Royal Family — the Crown Princess Louise of Sweden, Crown Prince Frederik (later King Frederick VIII of Denmark), Queen Louise and King Christian IX of Denmark — watch the activity from their private balcony. On the whole, it offers a stunning glimpse into a bygone era of royalty, aristocracy and the intelligentsia.

Peeping Roofers & The Woman's Bath by Jehan Georges Vibert

Peeping Roofers & The Woman's Bath by Jehan Georges Vibert

Peeping Roofers & The Woman's Bath by Jehan Georges Vibert. Painted in 1880.
Not one, but two genre paintings come together to form a humorous narratives in this highly detailed watercolor and gouache by Jehan Georges Vibert. It was painted by the artist specifically for William H. Vanderbilt, and its Orientalist twist was certainly well suited to the diverse aesthetics of the Vanderbilt estate, which included luxurious objects from the far reaches of the globe. Like the Vanderbilt home, this scene delightfully combines different cultural elements, including classical columns with Turkish architectural arches, contemporary Western-style dress with Japanese geta and silk kimonos. While the bottom composition reads as a typical Orientalist bath scene, the upper composition tells an entirely different story. Displayed together, these delightful works created a humorous narrative of a group of roofers surreptitiously peeping on the woman’s bath below.

A View of Henan (Honam), Chinese School

A View of Henan (Honam), Chinese School

A View of Henan (Honam), Chinese School. Circa 1840.
The story of commerce is told in this fascinating oil on canvas that dates to the Qing Dynasty. The work captures the Pearl River with astonishing detail as it carries an array of merchant vessels representing the commerce between East and West. Junks, sampans, mandarin boats, tanka and flower boats are all depicted in vibrant hues, while the island of Honam stretches along the distant horizon. Historically, the work tells the story of one of the most important periods of international trade between China and the West. Canton was the only port open to Westerns until the onset of the Opium Wars. Most importantly, Canton was the center of China's tea trade — by 1794, Britain was buying nearly nine-million pounds of tea each year, all of which passed through Canton's ports. This view from Canton across the Pearl River to Honam offers a small glimpse into the bustle of trade and commerce that took place in this significant trading port, which remains a highly important hub of commerce even today.

Emprunt 6% Souscrivez by Raoul Dufy

Emprunt 6% Souscrivez by Raoul Dufy

Emprunt 6% Souscrivez by Raoul Dufy. Circa 1919.
Raoul Dufy’s Emprunt 6% Souscrivez is another work that tells a fascinating story about an important moment in history. The piece was a special commission ordered by the French government, who sought to encourage the French people to join in the post-WWI reconstruction efforts by purchasing war bonds. Dufy’s composition implies that with the purchase of a war loan, every person could make a difference — and earn a significant return on their investment. The words Emprunt 6% Souscrivez, meaning “War Loan 6% Subscribe,” are boldly written across the top, seeking subscribers to a 6% interest loan to help rebuild the country — a very healthy return for the age.

Delivering Two Busts by Norman Rockwell

Delivering Two Busts by Norman Rockwell

Delivering Two Busts by Norman Rockwell

Perhaps one of the greatest storytellers in all of art history, Norman Rockwell is famous for bringing narratives to life on canvas. The director George Lucas has famously compared his paintings to movies, and it is true that Rockwell has a unique ability to create a sense of cinema in oil paint. This oil, entitled Delivering Two Busts, is exemplary of his ability to weave a narrative with just a few objects and carefully placed brushstrokes. The piece, which was painted in 1931 at the height of the Depression, captures a delivery man down on his luck. The newspaper, haphazardly tossed on the ground at his feet, implies an unsuccessful job search, furthered by his slouched posture as he holds two busts for delivery. As the visual chronicler of his age, Rockwell’s works of art showed that times in daily life were not always easy. Yet, with his uncanny talent of depicting the poetry in everyday life, he gives a glimpse of his quintessential “Yankee” conviction that despite times being tough, “this too shall pass.” Endurance will triumph.

 

For more examples of paintings that tell a story, click here to view our current collection of genre paintings.

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