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Members' Research Report Archive

Distance and History Painting

Mark Salber Phillips, Carleton University
Paul Mellon Visiting Senior Fellow, December 3, 2012 – January 31, 2013

In his classic essay, Edgar Wind (1900 – 1971) argued that in The Death of General Wolfe Benjamin West (1738 – 1820) achieved the elevation necessary to history painting by substituting distance in space (North America) for distance in time (antiquity). Thus West’s “revolution in history painting” endowed this prestigious genre with a new, more contemporary focus and moved it toward realism. Wind’s recognition that distance was essential to neoclassical history painting provides an important point of departure. With respect to distance, however, I would argue that Wind’s focus on contemporaneity obscures a more profound redistancing and that deeper issues lie in the changing meanings of “history/istoria.” The crucial shift that began in the second half of the eighteenth century was a slow abandonment of history painting’s commitment to idealization and allegory in favor of an outlook that was more secular and national. The result was not a shift from ancient to contemporary; artists continued to depict both eras. Rather, the new style of history painting increasingly engaged with secular histories — and this at a time when David Hume and other historical thinkers were undertaking a parallel movement toward social and quotidian themes.

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Joseph Mallord William Turner, Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight, 1835. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Widener Collection

What, then, becomes of Wind’s famous thesis? Wind’s focus on distance is valuable, but both empirical observation and theoretical reflection suggest the need for a more comprehensive analysis. Even a cursory description of The Death of General Wolfe reveals a wide range of devices that contribute to our sense of witnessing a moment of high importance — one worthy of memorialization with the dignity and elevated vocabulary traditional to history painting. Most obvious is the formal design, which depicts the dying general after the pattern of the dying Christ, including the pyramidal structure, the circle of grief-stricken witnesses, the slumping body supported by a merciful hand (in this case not that of the Virgin but of a doctor stemming the flow of blood). Through all this we recognize the young general’s death as following the pattern of Christian sacrifice. West’s most striking invention, however, is the great figure of the Indian—a warrior who does not participate in the battle but who gives witness to the secular significance of Wolfe’s death: the mix of human pathos and heroic sacrifice that brings the northern part of America under British rule. Like other eighteenth-century painters, West was uncomfortable with the artificiality of allegory, earlier a common feature of history painting. Instead, he deployed the Indian as a natural symbol and added to the realistic effect by copying some items of costume that he had specially imported from America. The result is a powerful image that is at once historically precise and highly idealized. The same balance characterizes the picture as a whole, allowing West to win acceptance as an orthodox history painter while claiming that his work was faithful to a particular moment of history.

As I have argued elsewhere (On Historical Distance, 2013) these observations on the problem of distance can be given a form that is both more systematic and less prescriptive. Beyond temporality, we need to consider at least four basic dimensions of representation as they relate to the problem of mediating distance: the work’s formal structures of representation, its emotional claims, its implications for action, and its modes of understanding. These overlapping but distinctive distances — formal, affective, summoning, and conceptual— provide an analytic framework for examining changing practices of historical representation.

After its examination of West and of John Singleton Copley (1738 – 1815), Wind’s essay abandons questions of distance, focusing instead on growing “realism.” By contrast, a nonprescriptive idea of distance might look beyond neoclassicism to embrace other types of distance as well as other degrees of engagement. The result is a more nuanced understanding that allows us to examine the hybridities of David Wilkie (1785 – 1841) or J.M.W. Turner (1775 – 1851) as they seek ways to modify and renew the history painting tradition. Wilkie’s Gazette of Waterloo (1822) does not turn away from history; it only brings it closer by placing it in a more familiar and democratized setting. So too Turner’s Venice: The Dogana and San Giorgio Maggiore (1834) and its pendant, Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight (1835), dramatize the rise and fall of commercial empires not in remote Carthage, but in the familiar settings of the tourist’s Venice and of Tyneside in the unlovely age of coal.

Mark Salber Phillips returned to his position in the Institute for Comparative Studies in Literature, Art, and Culture at Carleton University, Ottawa. In January 2014 he will take up a six-month fellowship at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachussets.