Narrative art has held various meanings throughout history, but today we describe works as narrative when they tell a story or imply an association. Some artists construct their works like cartoons with two or more panels suggesting a time line. Other artists place elements within a single panel. Often the meaning is unclear and the viewer must resolve the story or make connections between different elements.

Narrative art is found in Egyptian tomb paintings accompanied by hieroglyphics that document events. Greek vase paintings from the third century B.C.E. also display narratives that describe both mythological and actual events. In early Christian art, narrative works, such as the stained glass windows of cathedrals, visually told Bible stories. Later, artists used narrative art to portray historical events. In the early twentieth century, some artists turned to Social Realism, using narrative art to describe contemporary culture.

With the advent of abstraction, artists began to look at art as a means of personal expression rather than storytelling. With Abstract Expressionism in the 1940s and 1950s, artists struggled to express the idea of self in relation to the universe by using large gestural strokes on canvas. Movements and styles since that time – Pop Art, Op Art, Conceptual Art, and Earthworks – also avoided narration. However, in the 1970s, many artists returned to figurative work; that is, to art that explored the idea of a human presence within a particular space.

There are many different approaches to narrative art, including art in series, narrative works within a single frame, works with no clear story line, and works that document an event or era.