Sir Stanley Spencer, ‘The Centurion’s Servant’ 1914
Sir Stanley Spencer
The Centurion’s Servant 1914
© Estate of Stanley Spencer
Francis Bacon, ‘Triptych August 1972’ 1972
Francis Bacon
Triptych August 1972 1972
© Estate of Francis Bacon
William Powell Frith, ‘The Derby Day’ 1856–8
William Powell Frith
The Derby Day 1856–8

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.