I was wondering this morning why it is that narrative paintings always seem to fall so flat for a modern viewer (i.e. me). Not just those cheesy C19th paintings with titles like A Soldier Returns; even paintings by artists I find more sympathetic — Rembrandt, Goya, Velazquez — seem very obviously unconvincing when they try to capture a spontaneous moment. It occurred to me that the explanation might simply be what you could call the Muybridge problem.
Famously, Eadweard Muybridge started taking his high-speed photographs in an attempt to answer the question: do horses ever have all four hooves off the ground when they gallop? The answer turned out to be yes: but not quite what everyone expected. Before that, even someone as devoted to the careful study of the horse as Stubbs had painted galloping horses with all four feet off the ground when their legs were outstretched; in fact a galloping horse only has all feet off the ground when they are bent underneath it.
But if you have seen lots of photos of running horses, all those old paintings of horses flying like Superman over Epsom Downs look faintly but irretrievably ludicrous. Photography has permanently changed what we think things look like; and that doesn’t just apply to horses.
» The Stubbs is a detail from Gimcrack on Newmarket Heath, with a Trainer, a Stable-Lad, and a Jockey; the Muybridge is a detail from The Horse in Motion, both from Wikimedia Commons.