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” many times before. 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, VA. Photo via (Public Domain).

History paintings depict important stories in history, literature, religion, and mythology. They can also feature allegorical themes. History painting was popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, though its themes have been popular since the Renaissance. They are almost always very large.

During its height, history painting was considered to be the most prestigious form of painting, and all the most ambitious artists wanted to pursue it. History painting was at the very top of the European art academies’ hierarchy of styles. Therefore, it was the most prestigious and lucrative form of painting, and all the most ambitious artists wanted to pursue it. Painters specializing in fields like portrait painting (the second highest on the list) and landscape painting sometimes added elements of history painting to their work in an effort to raise its esteem a bit.

Jacques-Louis David what is history painting
Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Socrates, 1793. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo via (Public Domain).

History paintings were always very large in size and grandiose in intent. Stories and characters derived (sometimes very loosely) from the Bible and classical antiquity were popular subjects. These paintings always had a lesson to teach or moral to promote. They featured a high level of mimesis, detail, and symbolism. They sometimes feature complex compositions with many figures.

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. Photo via (Public Domain).

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 always set in the classical past. Everybody wore togas, even eighteenth-century Frenchmen like Jacques-Louis David’s famous The Death of Marat. American artist Benjamin West made waves just before the American Revolution by depicting current military history in the military dress of the time. By the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte, showing modern history in modern settings had become conventional.

Benjamin West what is history painting
Benjamin West, The Death of General Wolfe, 1770. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo via (Public Domain).

Predictably, Neo-Classical artists loved history painting, with all its noble classical associations. However, so did the Romantic artists, who found inspiration in its potential for drama and literary references. In fact, 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 near the end of the 19th century and is rarely ever practiced anymore.

Eugene Delacroix what is history painting
Eugene Delacroix, The Assassination of the Bishop of Liege, 1829. Musee du Louvre, Paris. Photo via (Public Domain).

History painting is a genre, not a style. Therefore, there have been many artists working in various traditions who have been successful at it over the centuries. 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.

Jacques-Louis David what is history painting
Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Marat, 1793. Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels. Photo via (Public Domain).

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