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Gallery VI: 400 years of European art

Telling Tales: Stories and symbols in art from the 18th and 19th century

A picture is worth a thousand words. People have always used images to tell stories, from cave paintings to children’s books. Paintings are often used to illustrate a myth, a religious story, a tale from a book or a historical event. Signs and symbols can be used in these paintings to represent a character or even an idea. In the 18th and 19th centuries a number of recognisable symbols were used to represent concepts like time, justice or death.

Paintings which tell stories are known as narrative paintings. These were very popular with the Victorians as they were an escape from the harsh reality of the industrial world. They loved classical or medieval stories which showed a romantic view of life. 

Works in this display include Edward Burne-Jones' The Hours (1882) and George Frederick Watts, Time, Death and Judgement (about 1895).

Devotion: Religious art from the 16th to the 18th century

Religions use art and images to celebrate their faith. Some use paintings and objects to tell the story of how their faith began. Others use imagery to encourage people to lead a good moral life. Religious art is also used to help create a focus for prayer. Stories were illustrated so that everyone could understand them, as many people couldn’t read. They contained easily recognisable signs and symbols so that people of all ages and backgrounds knew what they meant.

In Europe, the Christian church was powerful and wealthy. It was therefore the main funder of art and culture. As a result of this, the religious art in Sheffield’s collection mainly represents the Christian faith.

Works in this display include Giulio Cesare Procaccini's The Mocking of Christ (about 1617) and Bartolome Esteban Murillo's The Infant Christ Asleep on the Cross (about 1670).

The Great Outdoors: Landscapes from the 18th and 19th century

During the 18th and 19th centuries landscape painting became increasingly popular. Artists looked for inspiration in nature as an escape from the growing industrial cities. Other artists painted the beauty of the landscape as a way of worshipping nature. There was a big increase in travel at this time among the rich. Wealthy young men travelled around Europe to broaden their education. This type of trip was known as the Grand Tour. They often bought paintings to remind them of their visit and show everyone back home what they had seen.

In France the Barbizon School left the confines of the studio to paint outdoors, this is known as plein-air painting. This technique was developed by the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists who used light and colour to capture their experience of the landscape.

Works in this display include J M W Turner's The Festival of the Opening of the Vintage at Macon (about 1803) and Paul Cezanne's Bassin du Jas de Bouffan, France (about 1874).

  • More on YouTube
  • Piers Williams, Iris (screenprint) © the artist
  • Neil Woodall, Derwent - Gorsey Bank © the artist
  • Kid Acne, South Yorks, © Kid Acne
  • Jonathan Wilkinson, Motorway & the Meadow © the artist
  • Joe McDonnell, Turnkey © the artist
  • Jo Peel, Henderson's Relish © the artist
  • Beaker (reverse), commemorating the General Armistice © Museums Sheffield.
  • Beaker, commemorating the General Armistice © Museums Sheffield.
  • Pincushion, bought by Tom Akers, Royal Horse Artillery, as a souvenir for his wife, Violet © Museums Sheffield
  • Sheffield Military Hospitals Convoy badge. © Museums Sheffield
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