Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on July 9, 2004 in Resource Library Magazine with permission of Charles C. Eldredge and the Univesity of Georgia Press, Athens, GA. The essay was previously included in pages 7 through 70 in an illustrated exhibition catalogue for the exhibition Tales from the Easel: Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century American Narrative Paintings from Southeastern Museums, circa 1800-1950. The exhibit was held at the Columbus Museum from February 8 and through April 11, ,2004 with additional venues including the Tampa Art Museum (April 25-July 11, 2004), The Speed Art Museum (September 14-December 12, 2004) and the El Paso Art Museum (January 16-April 10, 2005). The exhibition catalogue was published in 2004, ISBN 0-8203-2569-4. Images accompanying the text in the exhibition catalogue were not reproduced with this reprinting. We wish to extend our appreciation to Mr. Tom Butler, director, The Columbus Museum for his courtesy in connection with this reprinting. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you have interest in obtaining a copy of the exhibition catalogue, please contact The Columbus Museum through either this phone number or web address:


Tales from the Easel: Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century American Narrative Paintings, circa 1800-1950

by Dr. Charles C. Eldredge



One of my daughter's favorite children's books was the story of a photographer who was frustrated in his effort to take a family's portrait. His subjects repeatedly interrupted the sitting to add, one by one, a treasured bibelot, a favorite pet, or some other superfluous thing to the ensemble, so much so as finally to obscure the family members beneath a pile of clutter. We read Nancy Willard's book over and over again, savoring the silly story and Tomie de Paola's charming illustrations, until the text was committed to memory. The lesson of the tale gave the title to the book: "Simple pictures are best."[1]

This simple truth came to mind as I was pondering how to introduce this survey of narrative paintings by American artists. In preparation for the exhibition and this text. I immersed myself in recent literature on literary theory: postmodern analyses of texts, both visual and verbal; competing definitions of "narrativity"; considerations of the "allegorical impulse" in art and literature. (Walter Benjamin writes, "It is the 'common practice' of allegory 'to pile up fragments ceaselessly, without any strict idea of a goal.'"[2] Just like the photographer's family portrait!) This reading, both heady and heavy, unexpectedly reminded me of Nancy Willard's story, which I'd not thought about for many, many years. With that memory came the realization that indeed, simple pictures are often best.

Some literary specialists would apparently agree. Robert Scholes and Robert Kellogg, for example, identified narrative simply, defining it by its two primary characteristics: "the presence of a story and a story-teller. . . . For writing to be narrative no more and no less than a teller and a tale are required."[3] I wondered, by extrapolation, would a painter and a painting suffice?

And so I start with the object: in this case paintings that, simply put, somehow tell a story, using pictorial means to project a narrative. This study does not purport to be exhaustive or definitive, but rather aims to represent some of the narrative themes that engaged American painters over a century and half, from around 1800 to 1950. Although that time frame is somewhat arbitrary -- paintings might have been chosen of earlier or later dates -- the period in question seems marked by a continuing concern for such representational and narrative themes. Eighteenth-century examples are scarcer among the institutions participating in the project, as they are in general in American art; history painting and related imagery did not capture artists' attention until late in that century, and never found here the same favorable reception as in Europe. At the midpoint of the twentieth century, the high tide of abstract expressionism at least momentarily overshadowed narrative subjects in many quarters. Painters of the New York school and their apologists placed a premium on spontaneity and contemporaneity. For them, narrative themes drawn from literature, history, or religion seemed decidedly old fashioned.

Norman Rockwell, narrative painter par excellence, chafed at that critical stance. In a jibe at the prominent critic Clement Greenberg and his fraternity, Rockwell lamented "the critics [who] say that any proper picture should not tell a story but should be primarily a series of technical problems of light, shadow, proportion, color and voids. I say that if you can tell a story in your picture, and if a reasonable number of people like your work, it is art. . . . I feel that I am doing something when I paint a picture that appeals to most people. This is a democracy, isn't it?"[4]

By the late decades of the twentieth century. a democratic cultural climate brought changed fortunes to narrative art -- and to Norman Rockwcll. Representational imagery -- "realism" of various sorts -- reemerged to compete with abstraction for critical acclaim. (It had always enjoyed popular acclaim, even during the heyday of abstract expressionism.) With this reinvigorated representation, narrative modes, even long-disparaged history painting, came once again to enjoy attention. The new pluralistic climate in the studios encouraged the attention of critics, curators, and collectors to our artists' varied fare.

This survey of narrative subjects, of pictures that tell a story, of tales from the easel, is but one result of that climate change. Some of these stories told in paint are rather straightforward, easily read by most viewers: simple pictures. Others convey content through more obscure symbols, using details freighted with personal, often cryptic meaning -- complex images that perhaps reflect the complex circumstances of their creation. But all suggest a basic and enduring fascination with a story well told, with a tale well painted.

My sample was drawn from the collections of member institutions of the sponsoring organization, the Southeastern Art Museum Directors Consortium. Although it comprises work from public collections in the South, this is not a study of southern art per se. Rather, I have tried to draw conclusions about American art in general, albeit wherever possible welcoming the introduction of a southern accent or flavor in works perhaps less familiar to audiences outside that region.

The premise of narrative subjects was inspired by the well-known tradition of storytelling in southern literature, from Joel Chandler Harris's Bre'r Rabbit to Eudora Welty, the subject of William Eiland's essay. Viewing American painting through such a lens perforce eliminates many important types; still life, portraiture, landscape, and abstraction are among the absent here. I recognize that consideration of subject matter may eclipse some issues, especially formal ones of style; others, such as the consideration of patronage, may be implicit, but relegated to the margins of curatorial attention. I hope, however, that from this selection viewers might infer something about the nature of southern taste, about patterns of collecting and a penchant for stories.

The narratives related in these American paintings are as diverse as their artists. My essay is divided into sections suggested by the artists' themes. Another curator might, probably would, organize the selection of topics and paintings differently. But in whatever arrangement, a special exhibition drawn from the collections of these southeastern museums would demonstrate the rich variety and strong quality of those regional holdings.

Many years ago, the South's native son H. L. Mencken famously maligned the region as "the Sahara of the Bozart," where "a poet is now almost as rare as an oboe-player, a dry-point etcher or a metaphysician."[5] Today, in the vaunted New South, circumstances have happily changed, a situation that I hope this exhibition and publication help in some measure to document.


1. Introduction

There he stands, straight and strong as the column behind him, blessing the attributes in whose midst he poses, yet lacking in expression or ceremony: the Father of His Country, the hero of the Republic, the subject of admiration, even adulation, from painters and patriots alike. But aside from the gesture of his right hand, directing attention to the symbols of national leadership, the figure portrayed in Gilbert Stuart's "Lansdowne" portrait of George Washington (fig. 2) doesn't do anything. He simply exists, the symbolic embodiment of his creation, the new American nation, an image familiar to generations of his compatriots.[6]

The Lansdowne portrait tells us nothing about the personality behind the official pose. Turned only slightly from a full frontal stance and positioned at almost the center of the large canvas, Stuart's subject is presented as a sort of secular saint: hieratic, powerful, remote. That attitude is reinforced by the portrait's composition. Meyer Schapiro recognized the importance of the frontal and profile as symbolic forms, attributing to the former the character of "the generalized, the abstract man" -- usually Divinity or saint, or potentially monarchical -- "outside any context and without the subjectivity implied in a glance."[7] By presenting his subject nearly front and center -- the slight deviation from that pose being the painter's (or perhaps the president's) concession to the secular man, neither sacred nor royal -- Stuart enhances the symbolic perception of Washington as national icon, a view that led the artist to repeat the Lansdowne design on several occasions.[8]

More than fifty years later, by which time Stuart's and other likenesses of Washington had become part of the American visual culture, Junius Brutus Stearns initiated what was to become a cycle on his subject's life with The Marriage of Washington, 1848 (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts). In a marked departure from Stuart's iconic image, Stearns presents his subject as bridegroom in a scene that democratizes Washington by domesticating him.[9] The wedding painting was followed by similar historical tableaux: Washington as a Captain in the French and Indian War, circa 1851 (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts), Washington as a Farmer at Mount Vernon, 1851 (cat. no. ,56), Washington as a Statesman, at the Constitutional Convention, 1856 (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts), and Washington on His Deathbed, 1851 (Dayton Art Institute). Individually the Stearns paintings depict incidents from a life and imply virtues and values associated with each; collectively they provide a biography in paint, a worthy lesson for the nation to emulate. In each, Washington is the central character, although never in the central position. In the harvest scene at Mount Vernon, for instance, Washington stands at the far right, in a pose that slyly echoes Stuart's Lansdowne pose without copying it; the planter is shown conversing with his overseer, whose profiled figure suggests attentive engagement with the landowner. Stearns's Washington is still rich in symbolic associations; the Roman warrior hero Cincinnatus, who abandoned his weapons to take up the plow, comes immediately to mind. Yet he does not simply exist; he acts. And he is humanized: the First Farmer in an agrarian nation, engaged with the seasonal rites of harvest. Unlike the earlier Stuart painting, which may symbolize power and nation but relates little of the man, Stearns's tells a story of the sort that appealed to midcentury Americans, presenting Washington as citizen, not hieratic and unknowable, but usefully involved with agricultural pursuits familiar to his fellow Americans.[10] It was that very familiarity that made Washington accessible, as hagiographers of Stearns's day knew. "Washington on his farm at Mount Vernon, performing his duties as a virtuous and useful citizen, is not less worthy of contemplation than Washington leading his country to independence," advised one writer in 1845. Indeed, Washington as farmer was "more extensively useful, because it comes home to the business and bosoms of ordinary men, and is within reach of their imagination."[11]

The story of George Washington was familiar to audiences of Stearns's day and, despite the woeful lack of historical literacy of many Americans today, presumably remains so. Over time, it has been embroidered with recountings factual and imaginative to become the stuff of legend as well as history, narrated in paint and statuary as well as in prose. Historical incidents, such as those involving Washington, constitute one aspect of narrative painting, imagery that tells a story. [12] But such historical accounts related through visual form are scarcely limited to Washington's life, or even to the nation's.

The vogue for historical compositions dates well back into the annals of European monarchies and societies. The Bible provides an even more ancient inspiration for a pictorial record, as do classical legend and mythology, sources that were popularized in eighteenth-century London by Benjamin West (fig. 3), among others. Literature, in its diverse forms. has . . prompted imagery specifically illustrative of its sources. as well as inventions that may take off from some particular text but not be narrowly illustrative of it.

Imaginative fantasies, sometimes broadly familiar within a culture but often unique to an individual, may also prompt storytelling paintings. Some observers have argued that Americans' "leading characteristic has been an earnestness of character, which militated much against any purely imaginative work."[13] Imaginative compositions, often with a narrative character, have, however, had a long history in American art and letters, from novelist Charles Brockden Brown and painter Washington Allston to authors and artists of recent years (fig. 4). Such imaginative pictures and stories, whether sweetly dreamlike or nightmarish in effect, were the delight of romantics in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and they remained a potent force through the age of Sigmund Freud and modern psychoanalysis. In this respect, they parallel developments in Britain, where critic Sanford Schwartz detected continuities between Hogarthian narratives of the eighteenth century and works from the modern School of London (Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, and others); he thought paintings by the latter group "represent a kind of work that. . . [is] traditionalist but not timid . . . where the figure is of paramount importance and where we can sense a story being told.[14]

Incidents drawn from the quotidian experiences of artists and audiences might also constitute the inspiration for narrative images. Actually, as Lesley Wright has pointed out, genre paintings of the nineteenth century are "not really scenes of daily life at all, but scenes of a devoutly desired daily life that existed among all those who cherished and created genre paintings."[15] However realistic or idealized, these genre scenes -- often depicted with painstaking detail so as to enhance their legibility -- enjoyed a particular vogue in the middle decades of the nineteenth century but have remained a constant in other eras as well, even during the abstract heyday of the mid-twentieth century. In lieu of exceptional moments drawn from religious, historical, or mythic sources, the genre artists concentrated on the familiar to illustrate the changing aspects of contemporary life or the unchanging aspects of human nature. Some of the motifs exhibited in this catalogue involve social commentary on the artists' times, praising or decrying certain behaviors; others relate behaviors of city or country folk, of community or family life, with intents ranging from the judgmental to the humorous to the affectionate. Through such imagery, an artist's contemporaries might have gleaned insights into their time and society. Today, the attentive viewer or historian might garner comparable insights into the past, for, as one nineteenth-century critic observed, "like the intimate studies of our greatest fiction, it [genre painting] is itself history, and itself analysis."[16] Sometimes this relationship is obscured by the apparent subject matter of an image, but, as Susan Danly explained with reference to nineteenth-century examples, a narrative painting "not only illustrates a specific story but also illuminates, sometimes unintentionally, broader issues. . . . Important national concerns such as western expansion, cultural identity, social class, literacy, and urbanization were often imbedded in scenes of classical Greece, storm-tossed ships, and European peasants."[17] Or, for more recent examples, in scenes of the modern metropolis, train wrecks, or American soldiers.

Media critic David Thorburn, speaking of television's role in modern American life, identified a type of narrative system common to most societies, which he called "consensus narrative." Its chief feature is "the ambition or desire to speak for and to the whole of its culture, or as much of the whole as the governing forces in society will permit." He explained that consensus narrative "operates at the very center of the life of its culture and is in consequence almost always deeply conservative in its formal structures and in its content. Its assignment -- so to say -- is to articulate the culture's central mythologies, in a widely accessible language." This is "always a deeply collaborative enterprise," involving interactions between a text and its audience, between a text and its ancestors, between a text and constraints of subject or form imposed by the dominant culture, and even between or among the community of creators.[18]

By extrapolation, might we discover similar consensus narratives in images as well as texts? As in television programming, so too in paintings, both historical and modern? Is there a similar dynamic among makers and viewers of art as between producers and consumers of television? And in those images and interactions might we find similarly "complex mirrors of their societies"? It is to consensus narratives, Thorburn advises, to such "essential artifacts. . . [that] we must turn if we wish to understand ourselves, our ancestors, and our fixation with the past."[19]

In light of the historical popularity of stories, and in view of the recent resurgent interest in representation and storytelling imagery, our understanding of ourselves would seem to be enhanced through the consideration of American narrative paintings.


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