National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION

Tour: British and American History Paintings of the 1700s

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Sophisticated Europeans from the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries deemed “history painting” to be the supreme achievement in the visual arts. In addition to imaginatively re-creating actual events from the past, history paintings also illustrated heroic or moralizing episodes from religion, mythology, and literature.

The central challenge of history painting lay in selecting a particular subject that could engage the heart and instruct the mind. In devising appropriate figures, the painter demonstrated his mastery of anatomy and expression. Grand settings and symbolic accessories proved the artist’s grasp of perspective depth and still-life draftsmanship. Compositions and color schemes had to be carefully conceived to accentuate the principal characters and to clarify the meanings of the incidents.

In depicting significant events that appealed to the conscience, history painting deserved its reputation as the most demanding and rewarding form of art—both for the creator and the viewer. The same desire for profundity in narrative pictures often invested portraits and landscapes with allegorical meanings and poetic overtones.

Idealism versus Realism in History Painting

Sir Joshua Reynolds, first president of London's Royal Academy of art, delivered these words in a speech in 1774: “Invention is one of the great marks of genius; but if we consult experience, we shall find, that it is by being conversant with the inventions of others, that we learn to invent; as by reading the thoughts of others we learn to think…. It is vain for poets or painters to endeavour to invent with material on which the mind may work, and from which invention must originate. Nothing can come of nothing.’

For his own history paintings, Reynolds declared he would “sometimes deviate from vulgar and strict historical truth, in pursuing the grandeur of his design.” Thus, regardless of when and where the events occurred, Reynolds clothed his figures in classical robes and placed them before idealized scenery. In 1771, though, the American artist Benjamin West, who was to succeed Reynolds as the Royal Academy’s president, produced a startling shift in convention. West depicted a recent incident, set against a recognizable location, with figures in contemporary dress.

Defending his novel idea of conveying history plainly rather than allegorically, West stated, “The same truth that guides the pen of the historian should govern the pencil of the artist…. I want mark the date, the place, and the parties engaged in the event; and if I am not able to dispose of the circumstances in a picturesque manner, no academical distribution of Greek or Roman costume will enable me to do justice to the subject.” Reynolds graciously acknowledged that West’s straightforward approach gave a new, more realistic, direction to history painting.

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