The Painting

This study guide will help you analyze the short story “The Painting” by Bruce Chatwin, which can be found in the textbook Gateways (pp. 238-243). You can also find a summary of the text, as well as inspiration for interpreting it and putting it into perspective.

Note that an adapted version of the short story has also been used for a 2018 exam in Engelsk fellesfag entitled Diversity in English-speaking countries.  

Presentation of the text

Title: “The Painting” (1987)
Author: Bruce Chatwin
Genre: Short story

Bruce Chatwin was born in England in 1940, during World War II. From an early age, he developed an interest in antiquities. After college, he worked in the Antiquities and Impressionist Art department at Sotheby’s, eventually making a name for himself as an arts and antiquities advisor, as well as a travel writer.

The story “The Painting” is taken from Chatwin's book The Songlines, written after a trip to Australia for the purpose of researching traditional Aboriginal songs. Chatwin challenged the perception of himself as a travel writer, by claiming he was a storyteller who was interested in penning unusual tales. 


You can read a short excerpt from our study guide below:


The title of the story “The Painting” by Bruce Chatwin is straightforward. The narrative revolves around the painting created by an Aboriginal man, Winston Japurula, and ordered by Eileen Houston, who wants to buy it from him for a much smaller price than the price she intends to sell it for.

In answer to Eileen Houston’s request to paint a “white picture” (p. 238, l.17), Winston’s painting shows “six white to creamy-white circles, painted in meticulous dots, on a background which varied from white to blueish white to the palest yellow. In the space between the circles there were a few snakelike squiggles in an equally pale lilac grey” (p. 240, ll.1-5). Mrs Houston’s request for a “white picture” (p. 238, l. 17) refers not only to the color of the painting, but also to its style. She does not want something typically Aboriginal, since she does not think this will appeal to her wealthy white customers. This is symbolic of her patronizing and exploitative attitude towards Aboriginal people. 

The painting is also a symbol of the cultural identity of the Aboriginal people, who express their worldviews and beliefs through painting, songs, dance, and stories. By painting a "white" painting, the Aboriginal man compromises his cultural heritage to make a living. In this way, the painting is also suggestive of how white people impose their view on Aboriginal art and culture and transform it.

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The Painting

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