History Painting (Istoria)
What is History
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Derived from the Italian word "istoria" (narrative), the term 'history painting' refers to any picture with a high-minded or heroic narrative (message) as illustrated by the exemplary deeds of its figures. Originally dominated by religious paintings, the category expanded during the Italian Renaissance to include works depicting themes from mythology, literature, or history, typically executed in a large-scale format. For the world's greatest exponents of this type of art, see: Best History Painters.
There are five main categories of "History Painting": religious, mythological, allegorical, literary and historical. But please note that, whichever category the painting belongs to, its message must be edifying and worthy of depiction.
(1) Religious history paintings. This speaks for itself. It involves any type of picture with a religious narrative - including Christian (Catholic, Protestant), Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish or tribal religion. Good examples include: Descent From the Cross (Deposition) (c.1435-40, Prado, Madrid) by Roger van der Weyden, and The Avignon Pieta (1454-6, Louvre, Paris) by Enguerrand Quarton. For general themes from Christianity, see: Christian art (150-2000). For later works, see: Protestant Reformation Art (c.1520-1700), as well as Catholic Counter-Reformation Art (1560-1700).
(2) Mythological history paintings. Myths are stories developed to explain unaccountable phenomena in the world. Mythological painting includes any picture illustrating a mythical story, fable or legend. Popular themes included legends surrounding Greek gods (e.g. Ares, Aphrodite, Apollo, Artemis, Athena, Demeter, Dionysus, Hephaestus, Hera, Hermes, Hestia, Poseidon, and Zeus), or mythical stories of Roman deities like: Apollo, Diana, Juno, Jupiter, Mars, Mercury, Neptune and Venus). Examples include: Bacchus and Ariadne (1520-23) and Bacchanal of the Andrians (1523-5) by Titian; Jupiter and Io (1533, Vienna) by Correggio; Allegory with Venus and Cupid (1540-50) by Bronzino; Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus (1618, Alte Pinakothek, Munich) and Judgement of Paris (1635, National Gallery, London) by Rubens; Abduction of the Sabine Women (1634-5, Metropolitan Museum) and Et in Arcadia Ego (1637, Louvre) by Nicolas Poussin; The Rokeby Venus (1647-51, National Gallery, London) by Velazquez. Suicide of Lucretia (c.1666, Minneapolis Institute of Arts) by Rembrandt van Rijn; The Colossus (1810, Prado, Madrid) by Goya; Saturn Devouring his Son (1819-23, Prado, Madrid) by Goya; Pasiphae (1943, Metropolitan Museum of Art) by Jackson Pollock; and Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944, Tate Collection) by Francis Bacon.
(3) Allegorical history paintings. An allegory is a story containing a hidden meaning. Allegorical pictures typically use people or objects that symbolize (or represent) other people or things. Examples include: Allegory of Good and Bad Government (1338-9, Siena) by Ambrogio Lorenzetti; Garden of Earthly Delights (1500-5, Prado Museum, Madrid) by Hieronymus Bosch; and The Tempest (1508, Venice Academy Gallery) by Giorgione. For a modern example, see: The Artist's Studio - A Real Allegory (1855, Musee d'Orsay) by Courbet.
(4) Literary history paintings. A narrower category (sometimes included within Mythological category, above) consisting of narrative paintings based on themes taken from literature (not involving mythological stories). Popular literary works include the plays of William Shakespeare, the poems of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92) and classics like Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. Paintings include: Eve tempted by the Serpent (1800, Victoria and Albert Museum) by William Blake; Ophelia (1852, Tate Collection) by John Everett Millais; The Reconciliation of the Montagues and Capulets (1854, Yale Center for British Art) by Frederic Leighton; Dante's Dream (1871, Walker Art Gallery) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti; and Lady of Shalott (1888, Tate Collection) by John Waterhouse.
(5) Historical history painting. The most straightforward category, it embraces all pictures depicting an event or a moment in history, or a historical figure who embodies a clear message. Examples include Battle of San Romano (1438-55; National Gallery London; Uffizi Florence; Louvre Paris) by Paolo Uccello; School of Athens (1509-11, Fresco, Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican) by Raphael; The Surrender of Breda (1635) by Velazquez; The Third of May, 1808 (1814, Prado, Madrid) by Goya; The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere (1931, Metropolitan Museum, NY) by Grant Wood; and Guernica (1937, Reina Sofia) by Pablo Picasso.
In his treatise 'On Painting' (Della Pittura, 1435), the Italian Renaissance artist Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) identifies istoria with the representation of the exemplary deeds and struggles of moral figures - such as saints or other Biblical figures, pagan divinities, mythological heroes as well as those of historical events. According to Renaissance traditions, history painting aimed to elevate the morals of the whole community, and was ideally suited to the decoration of public spaces, churches, town halls, or palaces. It was seen as an inspirational and educational art genre, best portrayed on larger-than-life canvases.
Almost all of the artistic developments in Italian Pre-Renaissance Art can be understood as a response to the character of history painting. In his famous Scrovegni Chapel frescoes at Padua (1304-13), Giotto condensed the Biblical narrative into moments of supreme drama, emphasizing the key actors and creating new scenes of pathos and significance. See, for example, The Betrayal of Christ (1305) and the Lamentation of Christ (1305).
Arguably the two greatest history painters of the Early Renaissance were Masaccio (1401-28) - creator of the Brancacci Chapel Frescoes (1424-8) - and Botticelli, whose key works were the mythological pictures La Primavera ("Spring") and Birth of Venus - both highly complex mythological paintings.
He was followed by Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519) whose decaying masterpiece The Last Supper (1495-98, Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan) - one of the most famous Christian history paintings - is a seemingly authentic record of a unique event as well as a cogent portrayal of that event's universal significance.
Michelangelo (1475-1564) sharpened history painting further with his fresco 'Creation of Adam' in the Sistine Chapel (part of the Genesis fresco), in which the precise moment of human creation is captured as the spark of life is passed from God to Adam. Twenty five years later Michelangelo executed his Last Judgment fresco on the chapel's altar wall. Raphael (1483-1520), the third Renaissance genius, consistently produced inspirational history painting (eg. School of Athens).
At the same time as the Florentine Renaissance was taking hold, the school of Flemish painting began to produce its greatest masters. The Flemish tradition of detailed realism, combined with outstanding skill in the new medium of oil painting, led to a dazzling variety of history paintings by artists of the Netherlandish Renaissance and also the German Renaissance (c.1430-1580). Interestingly, the Battle of Alexander at Issus (1529, Alte Pinakothek, Munich) by Albrecht Altdorfer is a combination of history painting and landscape.
Simone Martini (1284-1344)
Melchior Broederlam (c.1350-1411)
Andrei Rublev (c.1360-1430)
Jan van Eyck (1390-1441)
Roger van der Weyden (1400-1464)
Quarton, Enguerrand (1410-66)
Piero della Francesca (1420-92)
Antonello da Messina (1430-1479)
Andrea Mantegna (1430-1506)
Hans Memling (1433-94)
Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516)
Albrecht Durer (1471-1528)
Matthias Grunewald (1475-1528)
Lorenzo Lotto (1480-1556)
Hans Baldung Grien (1484-1545)
Sebastiano del Piombo (1485-1547)
Joachim Patenier (Patinir) (1485-1524)
Jacopo Pontormo (1494-1556)
Agnolo Bronzino (1503-72)
Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574)
Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1525-1569)
El Greco (1541-1614)
Annibale Carracci (1560-1609)
Among Baroque artists, Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) stands out as one of the great history painters, with works like Allegory of War and Peace, Minerva Protecting Peace from Mars and The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus. In contrast, the unruly Italian painter Caravaggio (1571-1610) achieved lasting fame for his highly realistic religious history paintings, like Supper at Emmaus (1610, National Gallery, London), which gave the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation exactly the type of art it was looking for. Another Baroque history painter was Velazquez (1599-1660), noted for works like: The Surrender of Breda (1634). The Dutch genius Rembrandt (1606-69) also produced a wide range of history paintings - religious, mythological and historical - including: The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis (1661, Nationalmuseum Stockholm). However, in general, there was no market in Protestant Northern Europe for 'religious art', so artists were forced to turn to non-religious forms of history painting.
Francisco Ribalta (1565-1628)
Adam Elsheimer (1578-1610)
Jusepe 'Jose' Ribera (1591-1652)
Georges de La Tour (1593-1652)
Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665)
Pietro da Cortona (15961669)
Artemisia Gentileschi (1597-1651)
Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669)
Charles Le Brun (1619-90)
Andrea Pozzo (1642-1709)
This period was a watershed in the development of history painting. By the end, due to the dull prescriptions of the academies and the semantic confusion between istoria and history, the genre became devalued.
Death of General Wolfe (1771) by Benjamin West (1738-1820) just about lived up to its billing as a history painting, but The Execution of Lady Jane Grey (1933) by Paul Delaroche (1797-1856) was no more than sentimental melodrama.
Another poor example of history painting was Watson and the Shark (1778) by John Singleton Copley (1738-1815), which merely portrayed a terrible but largely insignificant event. That said, John Copley's other works, like Death of Chatham and Death of Major Peirson rank among the great history paintings produced in England during the eighteenth century. In France, meanwhile, the famous composition Death of Marat by Jacques Louis David was another history canvas that lived up to the genre.
The most important female history painter of the eighteenth century was the Swiss artist Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807). Adopting a neoclassical style, Kauffmann painted numerous celebrated heroines from classical history who symbolized important feminine virtues.
Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770)
Henry Fuseli (1741-1825)
Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825)
The decline of history painting quickened during the 19th century. Artists strove more for dramatic art, rather than the high-minded or morally uplifting variety. In addition, as education became more widespread and the visual arts public increased in number, the acceptable range of subjects fit for inclusion in history painting also increased. As a result, the great models which history painters had previously looked up to began to lose their authority. The French artist Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863) was the most vigorous of the Romantic history painters, while his contemporaries Paul Delaroche (1797-1856) - famous for his engravings of melodramatic historical scenes, often featuring the Kings and Queens of England - and Jean-Leon Gerome (1824-1904) - famous for his dramatic historical scenes - were probably the most populist. But see also the exquisite and highly popular miniaturist military works of Ernest Meissonier (1815-91), executed in rigorous academic style. Another painter of royalist history scenes was Adolph Menzel (1815-1905) who achieved fame through his depiction of scenes from the court of Frederick the Great. A hugely inspirational figure in 19th century German art, he went on to influence a whole generation of German painters, including Max Klinger (1857-1920).
Conversely, art academies and other authorities misguidedly raised genre subjects to the status of history painting in order to lend greater weight to their moral value. When Jean-Francois Millett (1814-1875) or Honore Daumier (1798-1879) portrayed labourers as heroic figures, or Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) painted a large group portrait of his fellow citizens (A Burial At Ornans 1850) they might have been making a valuable social point, but they were hardly elevating the mores of the community. Probably the greatest of the 19th century history painters in France was the influential academic teacher Gustave Moreau (1826-98), who was celebrated for his mythological works.
In England, GF Watts was the best of the Victorian narrative painters, although British history painting was invigorated by the medieval romanticism and symbolism of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, notably Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898). Daniel Maclise (1806-1870) made his unique contribution to English history painting. In Spain, the leading history painter of the early 19th century was Francisco Goya (1746-1828).
In America, the historical painting tradition was maintained by the German-American artists Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze (1816-68) with his celebrated picture Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).
In Russia, the greatest history painter was Vasily Surikov (1848-1916), celebrated for paintings like The Morning of the Execution of the Streltsy (1878-81, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow), Menshikov at Beriozov (1883, Tretyakov) and The Boyarina Morozova (1887, Tretyakov). Other historical painters included: Ilya Repin (1844-1930), famous for Ivan the Terrible and his son Ivan 1581 (1885), and The Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mahmoud IV (1880-91); Vasily Perov (1833-82) noted for The Condemnation of Pugachev (1879, The History Museum, Moscow); and Vasily Polenov (1844-1927) best known for Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1887, Russian Museum, St Petersburg).
To add to the semantic confusion about 'istoria' versus 'history', another development during this period was the movement known as 'historicism'. This emerged when some artists began to adopt the artistic styles and conventions used during the era depicted in their paintings. Notable exponents of historicism included the Belgian artist and teacher, Hendrik Leys (1815-1869). A good example was his imitation of the painting methods of the Dutch genre painters in his own genre scenes from the same era, such as: Floris se Rendant a une Fete (1845) and Divine Service in Holland (1850).
Francisco Goya (1746-1828)
JMW Turner (1775-1851)
David Wilkie (1785-1841)
Theodore Gericault (1791-1824)
Daniel Maclise (1806-1870)
Ernest Meissonier (1815-91)
Ford Madox Brown (1821-93)
Gustave Moreau (1826-98)
Arnold Bocklin (1827-1901)
William Holman Hunt (1827-1910)
John Everett Millais (1829-96)
Frederic Leighton (1830-1896)
Edouard Manet (1832-83)
Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98)
Odilon Redon (1840-1916)
Ilya Repin (1844-1930)
Paul Gauguin (1848-1903)
John William Waterhouse (1849-1917)
James Ensor (1860-1949)
Perhaps because the cataclysmic events of the early and mid-twentieth century destroyed so many value systems, and blurred the difference between good and evil, this period paid less attention to the difference between the painting genres, and stopped giving special status to history painting. Even so, the genre endured as a resource when artists wanted to demonstrate the gravity of their work. Good examples of twentieth century history painting include: the Mexican murals painting movement (1920s), embodied in the work of Diego Rivera (1886-1957), Jose Clemente Orozco (1883-1949) and David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974); Guernica with its juxtaposition of modern and traditional images, by Pablo Piccaso (1881-1973). In the Soviet Union too, the totalitarian authorities imbued Socialist-Realist Art with a nobility and grandeur to better propagandize their political agenda. A modern example of history painting is The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere (1931) by Grant Wood; another is by the Australian expressionist painter Sidney Nolan (1917-92), who painted a fascinating series of paintings depicting the historical story of Ned Kelly. The most recent exponent of 20th century history painting is the German contemporary artist Anselm Kiefer (b.1945), noted for his large-scale works of neo-expressionism depicting issues of Nazi history and nordic mythology.
Lovis Corinth (1858-1925)
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1884-1976)
Diego Rivera (1886-1957)
Marc Chagall (1887-1985)
Salvador Dali (1904-89)
Barnett Newman (1905-70)
Robert Motherwell (1915-91)
Sidney Nolan (1917-92)
Cy Twombly (1928-2011)
Anselm Kiefer (b.1945)
Modern Abstract Art
A modern alternative to the tired academic formula of history painting was to turn to a more abstract form of art when depicting monumental or grave issues. Seen in these terms, the masterpiece, The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali, with its Surrealistic presentation of a nuclear world, might qualify as a history painting. A better example is the extended "Elegy" series of abstract paintings by Robert Motherwell. Another artist who used abstract images and symbolism to depict serious issues was Barnett Newman (1905-1970), noted for his Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950-1). Unfortunately, the inspirational power of an abstract painting is typically far less than that of a figurative hero caught up in a dramatic moment of history.
Will History Painting Survive?
Two factors, both arising in the twentieth century, have combined to spell the likely end of history painting, First, there seems now to be very few subjects (aside from the Nativity of Christ) that can evoke an interested understanding in Western society. Second, the istoria or narrative which used to be the main component of traditional history painting, is now almost universally delivered by film. Nearly all iconic moments or narratives from history and mythology are now conveyed by photographs or video film, rather than fine art. In the absence of a new Renaissance in painting, it is hard to see how the genre of history painting can survive.
For more about history and mythological painting, see: Visual Arts Encyclopedia.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ART