Narrative art is art that tells a story

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  • Sir Stanley Spencer, 'The Centurion's Servant' 1914
    Sir Stanley Spencer
    The Centurion's Servant 1914
    Oil on canvas
    support: 1143 x 1143 mm
    frame: 1270 x 1270 x 100 mm
    Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1960© Estate of Stanley Spencer
  • Francis Bacon, 'Triptych - August 1972' 1972
    Francis Bacon
    Triptych - August 1972 1972
    Oil on canvas
    support, each: 1981 x 1473 mm
    frame (each): 2175 x 1668 x 102 mm
    Purchased 1980© Estate of Francis Bacon
  • William Powell Frith, 'The Derby Day' 1856-8
    William Powell Frith
    The Derby Day 1856-8
    Oil on canvas
    support: 1016 x 2235 mm
    frame: 1405 x 2640 x 140 mm
    Bequeathed by Jacob Bell 1859

A narrative is simply a story. Narrative art is art that tells a story. Much of Western art until the twentieth century has been narrative, depicting stories from religion, myth and legend, history and literature (see history painting). Audiences were assumed to be familiar with the stories in question.

From about the seventeenth century genre painting showed scenes and narratives of everyday life. In the Victorian age, narrative painting of everyday life subjects became hugely popular and is often considered as a category in itself (i.e. Victorian narrative painting).

In modern art, formalist ideas have resulted in narrative being frowned upon. However, coded references to political or social issues, or to events in the artist’s life are still commonplace. Such works are effectively modern allegories and generally require information from the artist to be fully understood. The most famous example of this is Pablo Picasso’s Guernica.