Celebrating Narrative Art through the ages

Narrative Art tells a story. It uses the power of the visual image to ignite imaginations, evoke emotions and capture universal cultural truths and aspirations. What distinguishes Narrative Art from other genres is its ability to narrate a story across diverse cultures, preserving it for future generations.

What is Narrative Art?

"There are countless forms of narrative in the world," wrote French literary theorist Roland Barthes in An Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative. “Among the vehicles of narrative are articulated language, … pictures, still or moving, gestures, and an ordered mixture of all those substances; narrative is present in myth, legend, fables, tales, short stories, epics, history, tragedy, … comedy, pantomime, paintings, … stained-glass windows, movies, local news, conversation. Moreover, in this infinite variety of forms, it is present at all times, in all places, in all societies; indeed narrative starts with the very history of mankind; there is not, there has never been anywhere, any people without narrative…"

Lascaux Paintings

(ca. 15,000 BCE)

Defining Narrative Art

The Illustrated Dictionary of Art Terms defines "Narrative Art" as: "Art which illustrates or tells a story. It usually describes self-explanatory events from daily life or those drawn from a text, well-known folk tale or myth."

In the prologue to his book, Tales from the Easel: American Narrative Paintings from Southeastern Museums, circa 1800 – 1950, Dr. Charles Eldredge states: "Some of the 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."

According to ArtSpeak: A Guide to Contemporary Ideas, Movements, and Buzzwords, 1945 to the Present, the term "Narrative Art" first appeared in the mid-1960s. In previous decades, what was to be described later as "Narrative Art" was referred to by individual categories such as "history" or "genre" painting. The umbrella term of "Narrative Art" can apply to any time period and any form of visual narrative, including painting, sculpture, photography, video, performance and installation art. It is thought that the most popular forms of visual narrative today are painting and video art, with performance and installation art the runners-up.

Ancient Greek Pottery
(c. 520 BCE)

A Brief History of Narrative Art

Examples of Narrative Art can be seen very early in the history of art. A number of reliefs in the European Bronze Age rock art of the Iberian Mediterranean Basin show narratives of hunting or battle, and Narrative Art is also evident in Egyptian tomb paintings. Greek vase paintings from the 6th century BCE also display narratives that describe both mythological and actual events.

Narrative Art can also be seen in "history painting"—defined as painting consisting of subject matter drawn from classical history, poetry and religion. Scholars believe that the use of the word "history" to denote narrative painting almost certainly goes back to the influential 15th-century humanist Leon Battista Alberti, and it is at this time that narrative painting first acquired its status as the preeminent mode of expression. In his treatise on painting, De Pictura, Alberti wrote, "The great work of the painter is the narrative." From the Renaissance to the 19th century, history painting was regarded by academics as the highest, most worthwhile kind of painting.

The Creation of Adam



"Genre painting"—defined as painting which portrays scenes from daily life, usually having a narrative quality and often making a moral point—is another important type of Narrative Art. This subject matter was first used by Dutch 17th-century artists, including Jan Vermeer, and much later by 20th-century artists, including Norman Rockwell.

As one art scholar pointed out, genre paintings of the 19th 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." Regardless of their basis in reality or fantasy, genre scenes were much admired and appreciated in the mid-1800s.

After the Prom

Norman Rockwell

When Modern Art came into vogue, painting and sculpture with a narrative quality fell swiftly out of favor. In fact, Narrative Art was disparaged as tired, outdated and passé. In the 1940s, the New York School of art valued a more liberated, abstract take on artistic expression, and the movement rejected and rebelled against familiar narrative themes involving history, religion and literature, branding this work mediocre and unimaginative.

In response to one prominent art critic, Norman Rockwell wrote: "The critics 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."

By the late decades of the 20th century, a changing cultural climate brought renewed appreciation for realism and storytelling through art, paving the way for Narrative Art's resurgence to critical commendation. Although Abstract Expressionism had been favored by critics and art connoisseurs, Narrative Art's popularity with the general public never wavered, pointing to its ability to cross cultural and social boundaries in its plainspoken, genuine style.

About the artwork

The Museum’s collection, launched with inspired objects from George Lucas’s personal holdings, is growing to encompass an unparalleled presentation of narrative art forms. Gifts from George Lucas, his family and trust will help the collection grow to show a breadth of narrative art forms, ranging from classic illustrations by Norman Rockwell to cutting-edge digital works of the 21st century, as well as a range of painting, children’s art, comic art and photography from many periods and cultures. Some of the featured artwork is not a part of the Lucas seed collection and is here to illustrate the history of narrative art.

Lucas Museum of Narrative Art