Art Guides · European Art

What is History Painting?

If you are a fan of historical European art, you’ve probably heard the term history painting but may not be exactly sure what it means. It’s obvious that history paintings depict history, but there’s a little more to it than that.

Angelica Kauffmann what is history painting
Angelica Kauffmann, Cornelia, Mother of the Gracchi, 1785. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Virginia.

History paintings depict narrative scenes from classical mythology, the Bible, and ancient or modern history. They can also feature literary scenes or allegorical themes. (In French, histoire refers to any kind of story, not exclusively one set in the past.) History paintings are usually large and complicated affairs filled with action, drama, and lots of human figures in dynamic poses. Stories and characters derived (sometimes very loosely) from the Bible and classical antiquity are popular subjects. These paintings always have a lesson to teach or moral to promote and tend to be grandiose in intent. They feature a high level of mimesis, detail, and symbolism, as well as complex compositions with many figures.

Jacques-Louis David what is history painting
Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Socrates, 1793. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Originally, history paintings were always set in the deep past, but they eventually came to include more recent events. But even then, they were still depicted as taking place in the classical past, regardless of the event in question. Everybody wore togas, even eighteenth-century Frenchmen like Jacques-Louis David’s famous The Death of Marat. (By contrast, Medieval and Renaissance religious paintings had dressed their scenes in the trappings of the artist’s own era, rather than that of the Biblical world.) American artist Benjamin West made waves just before the American Revolution by depicting current military history in correspondingly contemporary military dress. By the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte, showing modern history in modern settings had become conventional.

The most prestigious of genres

Benjamin West what is history painting
Benjamin West, The Death of General Wolfe, 1770. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.

During its height in the 18th and 19th centuries, history painting was considered to be the most important of all forms of painting. This was because it requires a lot from the artist, including the ability to skillfully paint the human body in motion (necessitating a solid understanding of anatomy), create a successful and inventive composition out of many diverse parts, and narrate a sophisticated story. This last part is particularly important; since painters wanted to be seen as intellectuals rather than simply craftsmen, showing their understanding of and ability to interpret scenes from history and myth was critical.

Antoine-Jean Gros what is history painting
Antoine-Jean Gros, The Interview Between Napoleon I and Francis II after the Battle of Austerlitz, December 4, 1805, painting date – 1812. Chateau de Versailles, greater Paris.

According to the French and English art academies, which were the European art world’s major taste makers, history painting ranked at the very top of a five-genre hierarchy that prioritized the representation of the human figure and elite subject matter. Naturally, history painting scored highly on both accounts, and all the most ambitious artists wanted to pursue it because of its potential for high prestige and high incomes. This explains why art museums are often filled with huge paintings depicting complicated stories that no longer interest most of us. It also informs us about why painters specializing in the other, less-prestigious genres sometimes added elements of history painting (especially moral messages and allusions to classical history and myth) to their work in an effort to raise its esteem a bit close to that of history painting.

A genre, not a style

Eugene Delacroix what is history painting
Eugene Delacroix, The Assassination of the Bishop of Liege, 1829. Musee du Louvre, Paris.

Predictably, Neo-Classical artists loved history painting, with all its noble classical associations. French Neo-Classicist Jacques-Louis David is probably the most celebrated of all history painters, and his works are typically what people immediately think of when they hear the term “history painting”. However, there are many great history paintings that look very different from David’s. History painting is a genre that can be adapted to a variety of styles. For example, the Romantic artists also found inspiration in history painting’s potential for drama and literary references. It was one of the few things those two traditions both valued. 

As you can imagine, history painting wasn’t very popular with avant-garde artists of the later 19th century. It represented everything they rejected – morality, narrative, classicism, and naturalistic detail. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that history painting faded in popularity (along with academic art in general) near the end of the 19th century. Of the five major genres of western painting (history painting, portraiture, genre painting, landscape, and still life), this formerly-celebrated genre is the only one no longer commonly produced today.

Jacques-Louis David what is history painting
Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Marat, 1793. Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels.

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