Narrative paintings

David Bordwell wrote a brilliant article where he discusses narrative paintings of the late nineteenth century and their influence on early filmmakers. Here is one example from his article:

Two prosperous young women are sitting in a garden. One is reading from a sheet of paper. What’s going on?

Marcus Stone: Her First Love Letter
Marcus Stone: Her First Love Letter

The title, Her First Love Letter, helps us zero in on specific aspects of the action and fill in the situation. The girl on the left, bathed in light, leaning forward eagerly and wearing the pale frilly dress, can be seen as the more inexperienced of the pair, caught up in the anticipation of the young man’s ardor. The more worldly woman sits relaxed, perhaps a little skeptical but also tolerant of the ways of young love.


Narrative paintings like this were evidently one source of early cinema’s approach to staging and composition (among many other things, like acting or lighting).


I’m not arguing that these particular paintings influenced filmmakers, only that the principles that the painters employed were picked up by directors. The more general point is that in understanding film aesthetics, we can usefully compare movies to other movies, and movies to other arts. By doing this, we sharpen our sense of what various media can do. (1)

The painting above is by Marcus Stone and dates from 1889, I love it so much! I did a quick google image search and found another image by Marcus Stone, this one is called “In Love”:

Marcus Stone: In Love
Marcus Stone: In Love

And this one comes from the short Division of Gravity:

Division of Gravity (2012)
Division of Gravity (2012)

Again, as David Bordwell wrote already, I’m not arguing that this particular painting influenced the filmmakers, but the principle is there.




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