Volume 22, Issue 2 | Autumn 2023

Narrative Painting in Nineteenth-Century Europe by Nina Lübbren

Reviewed by Jonathan P. Ribner

Nina Lübbren,
Narrative Painting in Nineteenth-Century Europe.
Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2023.
224 pp.; 8 color and 54 b&w illus.; bibliography; notes; index.
£85 (hardcover)
ISBN: 978–1–5261–6857–3

For much of the twentieth century, disregard for subject matter in nineteenth-century art and exclusive interest in vanguard stylistic innovation prompted scorn for academic narrative painting. Since the 1970s, myriad scholars have reevaluated figures previously forgotten or regarded solely as benighted foils to the pioneers of modernism. One such artist is prominent orientalist Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), whose visual acuity rivaled that of the impressionists, whose work he despised. He is among the figures freshly viewed in Nina Lübbren’s important new book, which focuses on an aspect of nineteenth-century European art less attended to than social, political, or literary context, gender, colonialism, or race. Arguing that the second half of the nineteenth century saw a pan-European preoccupation with storytelling on the part of artists and art critics, the author claims that this phenomenon is both period-specific and consistently manifest in works disparate in subject and emotional tenor. If the book’s focus on academic realism during the second half of the nineteenth century is narrower than what the title announces, the geographic range is uncommonly broad. The author moves with ease between France, England, Germany, Scotland, and Austria, with stops in Italy, Spain, Belgium, Switzerland, and Armenia. This ambitious project owes its success to a sharp eye, command of multiple European languages, and twenty years of labor.

Signaling particular indebtedness to Wolfgang Kemp, the author incorporates concepts developed by practitioners of narratology and reception theory, articulated in the first chapter.‍[1] Throughout the text, Lübbren anatomizes the elements of storytelling in paintings that drew jostling crowds at public exhibitions. Keenly perceptive of clues planted by the artists, she provides deft readings. The book opens effectively with an examination of three paintings that tell stories in what the author maintains is a distinctly nineteenth-century manner. In Gérôme’s heartbreaking representation of unspeakable sadism under Emperor Nero, La dernière prière des martyres chrétiens (The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer, 1863–83), we view an arena rutted by chariot wheels and surrounded by numberless spectators. Our vantage point is close to a hatch from which a male lion has emerged; a tiger is visible close behind, poised to leave subterranean captivity. Defenseless believers kneel in a close-pressed cluster at the foot of a praying elder as pitch-smeared crosses bearing doomed prisoners are successively torched. Upending the insistence by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–81) in Laokoon; oder, Über die Grenzen der Mahlerey und Poesie (Laocoon: An Essay upon the Limits of Painting and Poetry, 1766) that painting is limited to representing a single, “pregnant” moment of a story familiar from literature or tradition, Gérôme evokes past and future through narratively significant details, which infuse the chosen instant with dread. Tacitus merely provided a point of departure; Gérôme invented The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer out of whole cloth.

Like Gérôme’s sequentially ignited crosses, a half-burned cigarette marks the passage of time in Der Salon-Tiroler (The Weekend Tyrolean, 1882) by the Austrian Franz von Defregger (1835–1921), a painted story without a pre-existing text. Masking masterful staging with folksy humor, Defregger conveys the amusement of rustic locals at the expense of an urban tourist attempting to blend in. Identified by binoculars, guidebook, and cloak, the odd man out sits at a tavern table beside two mocking women. At the opposite end of the table, a group of entertained Tyrolean men watch with rapt attention. Just as Gérôme exploited a compositional blank between the lion and huddled Christians to heighten suspense, Defregger’s tourist occupies a space charged with humiliating mirth. That he is caught in a crossfire of flirtation between gendered Tyroleans thickens the plot.

It is key to Lübbren’s argument that, unlike earlier narrative paintings, those from the second half of the nineteenth century do not necessarily rely on stories the audience could be expected to know in advance. Even when representing a textual account, nineteenth-century painters could upstage the principal actors with narrativized objects and extras from central casting. This is the case in Camillo Miola’s (1840–1919) Il fatto di Virginia (The Death of Virginia, 1882), based on Livy’s account of the centurion Lucius Virginius, who slew his daughter to free her from sexual enslavement by the Roman high judge Appius Claudius. With compelling realism, the painter makes no distinction between major and minor visual information. The knife-brandishing father is left of center, surrounded by an anonymous crowd; at a short distance from onlookers, his lifeless daughter bleeds alone on scrupulously rendered paving stones, dignified by no more detail than the palpable cuts of meat hanging before the nearby butcher shop from which the weapon was seized. In such works:

Spatial intervals, background settings, characterisation and the positioning of inanimate objects are all deployed to amplify the narrative momentum of the image. . . . Nineteenth-century narrative paintings were not incidentally narrative; they were constitutively narrative. They do not so much show or illustrate a story that is located elsewhere. Rather, they are themselves stories, or, to be more precise, they elicit story-telling activities from their viewers (5).

By way of contrast, the author correctly indicates that, without reference to Virgil’s text, a viewer would be unable to discern the narrative of Charles-Joseph Natoire’s (1700–77) rococo Vénus demande à Vulcain des armes pour son fils Enée (Venus Asking Vulcan to Make Weapons for Her Son Aeneas, 1734). Here, a distinction might have been drawn between rococo handling of narrative and its treatment in baroque painting, such as that of Charles Le Brun (1619–90), discussed later in the book. Emulating Nicolas Poussin’s (1594–1665) didacticism, Le Brun employed operatic gesture and the exaggerated physiognomic types he catalogued in the Méthode pour apprendre à dessiner les passions (Method for Leaning to Draw the Passions, 1698) to trumpet stories flattering to his patron, Louis XIV (1638–1715). In the rococo, decoration trumps narration, which tends to be absent, minimal, or ambiguous. It is unclear, for example, what stage in the visit to the island sacred to Venus is represented in Antoine Watteau’s (1684–1721) Le pèlerinage à l’île de Cythère (Pilgrimage to Cythera, 1717).

In a manner characteristic of the later nineteenth century, Lübbren argues, Miola’s canvas departs from an earlier example of the same subject by Vincenzo Camuccini (1771–1844), painted from 1804 to 1815. Less attentive to props or significant voids, Camuccini narrates primarily via the gesturally and physiognomically expressive human figures at center stage. It could be noted that, in his maturity, Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863) developed an alternate mode of storytelling. Often relying on preexisting texts or legends, he narrated primarily through the figure, whether human or beast. However, he flouted convention in amplifying his stories’ expressive force not through facial expression (which he tended to downplay) but rather through resonant color and rhythmic interplay of bodily gesture with background elements such as waves or mountains, as in Le Christ endormi pendant la tempête (Christ Asleep during the Tempest, ca. 1853).

Given the author’s attention to “eloquent objects” (the title of chapter 2), Paul Delaroche (1797–1856) emerges from this book as a seminal figure whose legacy looms over the second half of the nineteenth century. Lübbren makes it clear that the strategies employed by Gérôme, Defregger, and Miola are already at work in Delaroche’s representation of L’assassinat du duc de Guise (The Assassination of the Duke of Guise, 1834). In this meticulous staging of the aftermath of the notorious murder in 1588 of a fanatical Catholic and rival to the monarch, narrative efficacy is enhanced by the disquieting void separating corpse from grouped assassins and by “an upturned chair, a blood-stained cloak, a rucked-up carpet, and a torn-down bed drape” (38). It is an indication of Delaroche’s precocity that, although the painting caused a sensation, critics were puzzled by the equal attention bestowed upon all of its human and inanimate components. Such lack of hierarchical distinction among visual data was characteristic of the juste milieu mode of painting practiced by Delaroche and by Horace Vernet (1789–1863) during the July Monarchy. The author might have mentioned that this was also a salient aspect of the daguerreotype, whose invention (in the same decade) and popularization were no less driven by thirst for visual fact.

Lübbren observes that previous artists who invested objects with meaning (e.g., Dutch seventeenth-century painters of vanitas still lifes), or who were admired for convincingly mimetic depiction of accessories (e.g., David Wilkie [1785–1841]), did not freight those objects with narrative significance. The case of Wilkie is especially germane to Lübbren’s point. Whereas his painstaking itemization of props in works such as The Blind Fiddler (1806) elicited popular enthusiasm in the early nineteenth century, it was only at midcentury that his lovingly depicted things were regarded as narratively significant. Thus, in a biographical novel about Wilkie (1854), the artist’s friend John Burnet (1784–1868) has the painter elaborate on the livelihoods of the fiddler and his wife through reference to the husband’s “fiddle-case, stick, and bundle” and his spouse’s “laces, garters, trinkets, and other matters represented in the basket on the ground” (76).

Lübbren shows that even objects without narrative significance—the prominent chandelier in The Assassination of the Duke of Guise, for example—draw in the viewer by encouraging suspension of disbelief. Nineteenth-century painters thus exploited the “reality effect” identified by Roland Barthes (1915–80)—the inclusion of objects ostensibly irrelevant to the narrative, which, by their very extraneousness, reinforce the fiction of factuality. Lübbren’s citation (70–71) of Barthes’s analogy to Gustave Flaubert’s (1821–80) inventory of the bric-a-brac in the sitting room of Mme. Aubain in the novella Un coeur simple (A Simple Heart, 1877) reminds us that the heyday of narrative painting coincided with the flowering of naturalist fiction.

Lübbren’s analyses are linguistic as well as visual. Emulating T.J. Clark’s gathering and unpacking of critical responses to Édouard Manet’s (1832–83) Olympia (1863) when exhibited at the Salon of 1865, Narrative Painting in Nineteenth-Century Europe offers a bountiful harvest of reviews pertaining to the narrative aspect of the works in question.‍[2] These are parsed at a micro level; the art historian assumes the role of grammarian, distinguishing among a profusion of verb tenses to demonstrate the agency of critics as storytellers in their own right. There are examples of breathtaking license on the part of critics, who extrapolated detailed narratives from the paintings despite a paucity of visual evidence. Thus, an anonymous critic for the Athenaeum complained about the ambiguity of the central panel of Augustus Leopold Egg’s (1816–63) trilogy on the wages of sin, Past and Present (1858), yet recounted in startlingly detailed and figured language what he imagined to be its story. The painting

shows us the husband just returned from a journey, reading a little note, the scented ink envelope which held it lying torn on the floor. It has disclosed his wife’s disgrace. He has screamed it forth,—throwing her shame like a dash of burning vitriol full in her spotted face. Poor sinful creature! it has felled her like a blow from a murderer’s club (121–22).

And there is more. Such criticism, Lübbren persuasively contends, proves that viewers shared the artists’ overweening urge toward storytelling.

Given that critics either incorrectly remembered details or, like some of the public, relied on published criticism rather than actual viewing of the works, erroneous description could be both tenacious and capable of independent life. A marvelous example is drawn from responses to Gérôme’s La mort de César (The Death of Caesar, 1859–67), in which most objects are “saturated with narrative” (47). A solitary, seated senator, who glares with clenched fists was mistakenly and persistently described as being asleep. Lübbren’s account of the afterlife of this falsity—which includes the poem “Un sénateur romain” (“A Roman Senator,” 1869) by Anatole France (1844–1924) and a 1908 film directed by William V. Ranous (1857–1915)—with scenery and staging derived from Gérôme’s painting—is a tour de force.

Notwithstanding such independence from visual evidence, that evidence, the author insists, is integral to even the most floridly embellished reviews by critics accustomed to approaching art as if they were detectives in search of a culprit. Moreover—and these bold claims are grounded in reception theory—Lübbren maintains that disparities between the critics’ descriptive reportage and what is visible in the paintings are not germane to her argument; nor are considerations of artistic intent: “I would query the existence of any such ‘actual’ pictorial motif. Keeping in mind reception theory’s premise that each work of art is realised by viewers (and each text by readers), this means that there can be no ‘actual’ pictorial motif outside its realisation in the recipient’s mind” (111).

This perspective militates against in-depth consideration of context. Accordingly, in the rare instances in which Lübbren provides contextual information, it is kept to a bare minimum. Full disclosure: this reviewer’s scholarship is predicated on belief in the value of studying art in context—whether aesthetic, literary, religious, social, political, intellectual, or biographical. To the author’s credit, the book’s admirable clarity and economy might have been compromised by additional contextual framing. If her skillful readings leave curiosity regarding context unsatisfied, this is of less moment than the fact that historical specificity is contributed by the voices of contemporary critics. Tactful balance is maintained between the argument’s deductive grounding in reception theory and the inductive research substantiating the author’s claims.

It is a telling confirmation of the book’s thesis that even a critic as sympathetic to anti-academic innovation as Gustave Courbet’s (1819–77) friend Jules-Antoine Castagnary (1830–88) complained of an inability to discern narrative in Manet’s Le balcon (The Balcony, 1868–69), the sole avant-garde painting considered by Lübbren. To be sure, The Balcony is consistent with Manet’s tendency to treat portraits and figural compositions as if they were still lifes with humans. Yet, it could be noted, Manet was also susceptible to the narrative impulse amply documented in these pages. Thus, Robert L. Herbert provided a persuasive reading of Au café (At the Café, 1878) which recalls the narrativized reviews of academic realist paintings:

A young bourgeoise . . . looks over at us with an ambiguous, possibly bemused expression. . . . That must be her husband next to her, because his forearm is leaning on her shoulder. Yes, it is definitely her husband . . . because the hand that is supported by her shoulder is tapping the stick against the edge of the table, to emphasize what he is saying. His half-open mouth shows that he is apostrophizing the air, as husbands are apt to do; his left hand, thrust into his coat, completes the orator’s pose. Given this, his wife looks at us as much as to say: “Isn’t that just like a husband, prattling away and nobody listening!”‍[3]

Unlike descriptions in nineteenth-century criticism, Herbert’s astute interpretation is grounded in rigorous observation. And it required the eye of a first-rate social historian of art to discern a narrative thread in the work of a painter whose sophistication, irony, and delight in viscous pigment set him apart from the popular storytellers of his era. Whereas Manet’s playful subordination of mimesis to flamboyant artifice demanded effort from viewers avid for extra-pictorial meaning, Gérôme and his ilk painstakingly applied their mimetic skill to ensure that comprehension of a painting’s story would be the path of least resistance.

Addressing the relationship between narration and description, the final chapter, “Stories in Paint” argues that these ostensibly dissimilar functions are integrated in nineteenth-century narrative paintings, which “fuse an attention to the realistic description of the world’s surface with narrative. They narrate in the realistic mode; in other words, they narrate descriptively” (159). The point is set into relief by a fascinating instance of critics faced with a painting which “tests the limits of narrativity and opens up a rupture between visual narration and visual description” (169). In Henri Regnault’s (1843–71) L’exécution sans jugement sous les califes de Grenade (Execution without Trial under the Caliphs of Granada, 1870), a hideous incident is set amid captivating beauty. The viewer is at eye level with a severed head resting on stairs dripping and spattered with blood within the magnificent interior of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain; clothed in green finery, a decapitated body with one arm still flexed lies beneath a majestic executioner coolly wiping his weapon. Dominance of decoration over narrative gave some critics pause; they nevertheless enjoyed the splendor, just as the artist had delighted, during a visit to the Alhambra, in “the rosy light which fills this enchanted palace. . . . [T]he walls are a lace of amethysts and roses in the morning, of diamonds at noon, and of green gold and ruddy copper at sunset” (171). Surrender to retinal indulgence departed from the era’s conventional critical practice, in which style was treated perfunctorily, if at all, in reviews largely or entirely devoted to narrative. Intoxicated by the painting’s visual charm, Théophile Gautier (1811–72) was not bothered by its graphic violence. For that doyen of art for art’s sake, “splendid tones” made the cruel motif palatable: “[H]ere the horror is not disgusting. From the point of view of art, there is beauty” (177). At the same time, Gautier was susceptible to the irresistible pull of narrative: “The crime and the punishment both are equally ignored when the mute slaves will have taken away the body and mopped up the blood. No eye saw, no ear heard” (176–77). That flash forward speaks of intergenerational regard for storytelling. Though Gautier lived until 1872, this admirer of Delacroix and veteran of the legendary kerfuffle during the premiere of Victor Hugo’s (1802–85) Hernani (February 25, 1830) was deeply rooted in romanticism.

Although they foster an illusion of transparent access to what unfolds on canvas, paintings by Delaroche and his heirs have identifiable traits of style and facture. On the basis of close examination, Lübbren dismisses the received notion that they have a uniformly “licked” surface. Yet contemporary critics, she points out, expected that brushwork, color, or other stylistic features would not distract from the story at hand: “This is the yardstick for all narrative paintings: style is there to serve narrative purpose” (163). It could be added that the ascendency of narrative over style sets the works in Lübbren’s book apart from the strongest paintings of the late eighteenth and earlier nineteenth centuries—those of Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825) and Delacroix, for example—in which style and subject are inseparable and equally assertive. Thus, incisive drawing and lucid space match the patriotic rigor of Le serment des Horaces (The Oath of the Horatii, 1784) and the sensuously brushed fabric and ambient chromatics of Les femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement (The Women of Algiers in Their Apartment, 1834) conjure an orientalist fantasy of voluptuous repose. Lübbren’s pan-European perspective reveals that distinctions in national style among the narrative painters are not as apparent as in European romanticism; it would be challenging to imagine a German Delacroix or a French Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840). Though not homogeneous, narrative paintings of the second half of the nineteenth century leave an impression of relative uniformity across national frontiers, underscoring the hegemony of storytelling.

Given that world-class narrative painting demanded the talents expected of a director, a stage manager, a set designer, and a keeper of costumes and props, it is appropriate that the book concludes with an epilogue linking the demise of this mode of painting (ca. 1895) with the advent of cinema. The author’s insightful identification of a split between narration and facture—the former migrating to film and the latter becoming the domain of modernism—invites further consideration of the afterlife of narrative in the modernist era.

In the twilight of the nineteenth century, symbolism furtively whetted the appetite for storytelling for which humans seem hardwired. That it did so through open-endedness was hardly novel. Absence of a definite ending, Lübbren contends, was a source of appeal for nineteenth-century narrative paintings: “Audience pleasure lay precisely in trying out the various options and allowing a painting to yield up multiple readings. A certain degree of ambiguity and irresolution was expected and, indeed, welcomed” (133). Yet symbolist impatience with naturalism altered the terms of engagement with narrative. The suggestive, anti-naturalist imagery of Odilon Redon’s (1840–1916) enigmatically titled noirs, for example, frustrates the viewer’s quest for narrative coherence, inducing a pleasurable state of reverie. As in other symbolist art, their lack of closure is a source of evocative power.

That legacy was inherited by an artist fond of leaving private clues and uneasy with completion. Some of Pablo Picasso’s (1881–1973) most mysterious works both elicit and thwart a narrative reading. Knowledge that La Vie (1903) features the artist’s deceased friend Carles Casagemas (1880–1901) with his lover Germaine Florentin (née Gargallo, 1880–1948), whom Casagemas had attempted to murder before fatally turning the pistol on himself, deepens the painting’s depressing mood. Its position as a major work of the symbolism-infused blue period is bolstered by the elusiveness of its meaning—it is legible neither as narrative nor allegory. Similarly, the incongruity of the motifs in the etching Minotauromachy (1935) is crucial to its haunting effect. The puzzling cast, which includes a minotaur watched by a girl holding a lit candle, a female matador with closed eyes and bared breasts, and a disemboweled horse, registers contact with surrealism. That movement attempted to mimic the volatile unpredictability of the subconscious and dreams by means of troubling pseudo-narratives such as Max Ernst’s (1891–1976) Deux enfants sont ménacés par un rossignol (Two Children Are Threatened by a Nightingale, 1924). The dark pleasure offered by such works stems from their flirtation with storytelling.

Given modernism’s relegation of narrative to the shadows—or to oblivion, in abstract art—it is not surprising that the anti-modernist Thomas Hart Benton (1889–1975) occasionally practiced pathos-ridden storytelling, as in The Ballad of the Jealous Lover of Lone Green Valley (1934). Yet this case only confirms Lübbren’s contention that the narrative painting tradition in question was in eclipse by the late nineteenth century. Unlike nineteenth-century perpetuators of Delaroche’s example, Benton relied on dynamic, stylized figures rather than narrativized objects and compositional gaps; simultaneous representation of the legendary crime of passion and the Ozark folksong’s performance by singer, fiddler, and harmonica player violates the monoscenic logic of nineteenth-century narrative painting; and the warped, non-illusionistic space reminds us that, as a younger artist, Benton had been a modernist.

To find a more loyal heir to the nineteenth-century narrative painters, one must turn to a master illustrator who breathed new life into the tradition of “eloquent objects.” Visitors to the studio at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts will find that Rockwell’s collection of books on art largely stops with the nineteenth century; a volume on Käthe Kollwitz (1867–1945) is one of the few exceptions on display. Whereas Benton willfully rejected modernism, Rockwell (1894–1978) seems to have benignly bypassed it. Reproductions of self-portraits by Dürer (1471–1528), Rembrandt (1606–69), and Van Gogh (1853–90) are tacked to the painter’s canvas in the Triple Self-Portrait (1960). Picasso is also present, as a blank profile overlapped by a grotesquely transfigured half-length of a woman, perhaps his lover Dora Maar (1907–1997). This tongue-in-cheek genealogy reflects a view of modern art consistent with the non-judgmental humor of Rockwell’s covers for The Saturday Evening Post. His prevailing mood of amiable cheer and the accessibility of the situations he depicted contribute to an enduring popularity among outsiders to academia put off by the contemporary art world’s forbidding opacity. Rockwell’s equivocal reputation testifies to both the broad attraction to mimetic storytelling and the loss of the high-art status it enjoyed in the previous century.

Narrative Painting in Nineteenth-Century Europe provides a new lens through which to appreciatively view works that might not have previously seemed worthy of close analysis. It reveals the impressive ingenuity with which artists and critics of the second half of the nineteenth century sought to bring pleasure to viewers and readers hungering for engaging stories. Given that pleasure is not prominent in the earnest academic discourse of the early twenty-first century, it is refreshing to see its pursuit treated as a legitimate topic of research. This is one more reason to be grateful for Nina Lübbren’s well-crafted book.


[1] See Lübbren’s list of relevant publications by Kemp, 36n91.

[2] See T. J. Clark, “Olympia’s Choice,” in The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers, rev. ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).

[3] Robert L. Herbert, Impressionism: Art, Leisure, and Parisian Society (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1988), 71.