Looking at Narrative Images

The White Horse
John Constable, 1819
Frick Collection, New York

Narrative: Telling a Story

A narrative visual image tells us a story using figures within a particular setting—interior or exterior. Objects, within the image’s particular setting, allows the viewer to piece together a story—as if piecing together a puzzle. Any prior knowledge or background information helps you to complete the puzzle and allows for a more complete understanding of the visual narrative.

How does the artist tell a story?

Objectively describing the visual elements and physical activities within the picture frame will help you to begin your search

Some questions to ask

What is the focus (or focal point) of this composition?
When I look at this painting, what do I see?
Describe what is happening in the image.
What’s going on? Is there any movement?
Describe the setting.
What accessories help to identify the place?
Look to the details:
natural or staged setting
interior or exterior environment
urban or suburban surroundings
agricultural or industrial indications
What role does the landscape play with regards to the image?
What roles do the figures play within the landscape?
Does the figure (figures) or the landscape dominate?
Is the landscape important in its own right?
How does the foreground/background influence the figures?
What time of day, year, etc. does the action take place in?
What are the atmospheric conditions or forces of nature that are apparent?
Does either of these elements effect the action of the composition?
Describe the figures: singularly or in a group.
Look to the details:
positioning, activity (what are they doing, where are they placed?)
physical countenance (body type, weight)
facial expressions (do they show emotion?)
clothing (what are they wearing, social status indicated?)
accessories, objects, props (what is the placement, symbolism?)
interpersonal relationships (what, and with whom, are they doing?
lifestyle (any indication?)
What is the source of light?
How does the use of light/dark add to the understanding of the image?
What is the position of the viewer?
Does the position add to the visual impact of the composition?
What is the message?
Is there any message or moral overtone that the artist is trying to convey?

Analysis of Constable's 'The White Horse'

Objective Description

This horizontal landscape composition is divided into approximately two equidistant sections: earth and sky. The lower part of the composition is dominated by the quiet waterway that is dotted with shrubbery and trees that pierce into the sky above.

In the foreground—lower left hand corner—a flat-bottomed canal boat carries a white tow horse. These shapes drift into the center of the composition. Two men, their backs to the viewer, work the barge poles and move the boat along. The river reflects the color and patterns of he clouds.

In the middle ground—left of center—sits a white house with a red tiled roof and chimney. A thatched river structure nestles into the greenery opens on to the river. Several other houses, painted in earthy tones, sit partially hidden by the trees. Three cows, one of which is white, graze near the river.

After objectively describing the elements and composition of the painting, create a subjective interpretation of the image. From prior knowledge and experience, come to some conclusion about what the painting is saying to you.

Subjective Analysis

A role reversal. The role of the tow horse is to pull the canal boat down the river, In this instance, the horse (with its back to the viewer) is the passive passenger, whilst the two men work to push the boat along.

The painting, as does the river, reads from left to right. Our eye is drawn initially to the ‘white horse’, up to the white house and then down to the white cow – all balanced by the white clouds reflections in the water.

In the early 19th Century, the river and canals were the primary source of goods transportation in England. A system of canals linked major cities and ports allowing agricultural and manufactured goods to be shipped within and out of the country.

This pre-industrial image reflects the harmony of work and nature, as well as a constancy of life.