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British and American History Paintings of the 1700s
As if from another boat on the water, we look onto the side of a rowboat crowded with nine men trying to save a pale, nude young man who flails in the water in front of us as a shark approaches, mouth agape, from our right in this horizontal painting. In the water, the man floats with his chest facing the sky, and arms flailing, with his right arm overhead and the other stretched out by his side. Extending to our left, his left leg is bent and the right leg is straight, disappearing below the knee. His long blond hair swirls in the water and he arches his back, his wide-open eyes looking towards the shark behind him. To our right, the shark rolls up out of the water with its gaping jaws showing rows of pointed teeth. In the boat, eight of the men have light or swarthy complexions and one man has dark brown skin. The man with dark skin stands at the back center of the boat and he holds one end of a rope, which falls across the boat and around the upper arm of the man in the water. Another man stands at the stern of the boat, to our right, poised with a long, hooked harpoon over the side of the boat, ready to strike the shark. His long dark hair blows in the wind and he wears a navy-blue jacket with brass buttons, white breeches, blue stockings, and his shoes have silver buckles. Two other men wearing white shirts with blousy sleeves lean over the side of the boat, bracing each other as they reach toward the man in the water. An older, balding man holds the shirt and body of one of this pair and calls something, his mouth open. The other men hold long oars and look into the water with furrowed brows. The tip of a shark’s tail sticks out of the water to our right of the boat, near the right edge of the canvas. Along the horizon line, which comes three-quarters of the way up the composition, buildings and tall spires line the harbor. The masts of boats at port creates a string of crosses against the light blue sky. Steely gray clouds sweep across the upper left corner of the canvas and the sky lightens to pale, butter-yellow at the horizon.

Overview

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.

John Singleton Copley, American, 1738 - 1815, Watson and the Shark, 1778, oil on canvas, Ferdinand Lammot Belin Fund, 1963.6.1

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We seem to hover low over a body of choppy water in front of several rowboats filled to capacity with light-skinned men jostling and fighting each other amid larger wooden ships in this complex horizontal seascape. The water transitions from tan and pale green near us to blue-green in the background. A few of the men are bare-chested but most wear a wide range of colorful military uniforms or the full-sleeved shirts of sailors. A few vignettes within the bustling, action-filled boats draw our attention. For instance, at the center of the hubbub, two men wearing white shirts lean over the stern of a crowded boat, pulling two submerged men out of the water. Three other men float nearby, only their heads peeking above the water. In the same boat, another rescuer reaches for a man in the water while yet another has pulled an unconscious or lifeless man into his arms. That rowboat bumps into several others filled with men brandishing swords, long muskets, and perhaps spears. Activity there seems to swirl around two men who stand in the boats to our right. One man wearing a fawn brown uniform with gold embellishments, a white neck cloth, and a brown hat with red feathers brandishes a sword as he seizes the shirttails of a man wearing blue. The man in blue steps into another boat and clutches the mast as he raises his own sword up over his head. With eyes and mouth wide open, he looks over his shoulder towards the man in brown. Boats to our left are also filled with men but they are seated in orderly rows. One man wearing a tawny brown suit and white plumed hat holds a sword in front of his body and raises his other pointer finger. A man blows a long horn behind the standing man. Other rowboats fill the space behind these along the foreground, and surround three large wooden, ornately carved and decorated ships. The carved medallion insignia of the rightmost ship looms close to us along the right edge of the canvas; boats swarm around another in the distance at center; and flame and smoke billow from the ship to our left.

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.

Benjamin West, American, 1738 - 1820, The Battle of La Hogue, c. 1778, oil on canvas, Andrew W. Mellon Fund, 1959.8.1

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The Boston portraitist John Singleton Copley, urged by Benjamin West to further his artistic studies abroad, sailed for Europe in 1774. Within a few years, Copley had the necessary skills to undertake huge pictures of events from recent history.

On 7 April 1778, William Pitt, the 1st Earl of Chatham, rose to speak in London’s House of Lords. In the midst of a debate about the colonial revolutionaries, Pitt suffered a stroke and died one month later. His death removed one of Britain’s leading political moderates during the critical years of the American War of Independence.

This small oil painting is Copley’s preliminary compositional sketch for his large canvas now in the Tate Gallery, London. Sunbeams pour through a roundel window over the throne canopy, spotlighting the stricken Pitt. Following proper academic procedure, Copley first used browns and grays to work out the overall distribution of the scene before considering the color scheme and details. The pencil lines drawn over this study create a proportional grid—called “squaring”—that enabled the artist to transfer and enlarge the design. In 1781, the final ten-foot-wide canvas was displayed to popular acclaim in a private pavilion. How Copley had managed to persuade fifty-five noblemen to sit for their portraits became the talk of British society.

John Singleton Copley, American, 1738 - 1815, The Death of the Earl of Chatham, 1779, oil on canvas, Gift of Mrs. Gordon Dexter, 1947.15.1

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The bodies of four people are locked together through dramatic gestures and poses against a dark background in this nearly square painting. The two men and two women all have pale white skin and together they almost fill the composition. A man with a white beard and hair wears a short sleeved brown garment and sits to the right of center. His body faces our left and both of his arms reach straight out at shoulder height. His head juts forward and his bulging eyes appear white. He points towards a younger man kneeling in front of him with his left hand. Near the left edge of the canvas, the younger man’s body also faces our left and kneels on his left knee. His body leans forward over his right knee, which is bent so his foot is flat on the ground. His head is thrown back and his right hand, on our left, crosses his body and is raised as if to shield his face. His opposite arm extends so that the raised flat of his hand is close to the old man’s face. The young man has dark hair and wears a tight-fitting, short-sleeved golden yellow tunic. One woman with long blond hair rests her hands and forehead head on the old man’s knee in the lower right corner. The second woman stands behind the pair of men with her arms spread wide so one hand reaches over the shoulder of the old man and her opposite hand nearly touches the younger man’s head. She has long, curly brown hair and she looks at the older man with her lips parted. Both women wear white and pale gray garments and their skin is noticeably pale, as if carved from white marble. There is the suggestion of blue sky beyond some trees along the left edge of the composition but the rest of the background is deep in shadow.

Henry Fuseli's dramatic painting, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1786, depicts the tense climax of Oedipus at Colonus, a drama by Sophocles. In that ancient Greek tragedy, King Oedipus had gone into self-imposed exile at Colonus, a town near Athens, after discovering to his horror that, unwittingly, he had murdered his father and married his own mother. Oedipus, having blinded himself in remorse, is depicted here with blood-red eyes in a thick, scabby paint—the opposite of the normal use of smooth, clear textures for eyes.

The kneeling Polynices, one of Oedipus’ two sons, hopes to win his father's favor over his brother, who had usurped the throne. Outraged at both his unfaithful boys, Oedipus condemns them to die in battle by each other's hand. The blind king extends his powerful arms to curse them, while Polynices recoils as if struck a painful blow. Standing between her father and brother, Antigone seeks reconciliation. In contrast to Antigone’s strength of will, her weeping sister, Ismene, personifies sorrow.

Fuseli, a Swiss clergyman, became a classical scholar before studying art in Rome. After immigrating to London in 1780, Fuseli was elected the Royal Academy’s professor of painting.

Henry Fuseli, Swiss, 1741 - 1825, Oedipus Cursing His Son, Polynices, 1786, oil on canvas, Paul Mellon Collection, 1983.1.41

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About two dozen elegantly dressed men and women, almost all with pale skin, gather in a room with high, stone walls, with bars over the windows and iron manacles and chains hanging from the wall to our right in this horizontal painting. Most of the people are men, and many wear knee-length, long sleeved jackets, breeches, and stockings, and some wear white wigs. Three men and two women create a loose line across the stone floor, close to us. Near the center, a man stands wearing a coral-red coat with gold colored buttons, navy blue breeches, white stockings, buckled, black shoes, and a black tricorn hat. He faces us with his arms crossed across his chest and his feet planted widely apart. His ankles appear to be manacled. To our left, a woman wearing a long, aquamarine-blue dress with a full, wide, hooped skirt kneels with arms spread wide, a handkerchief in one hand, in front of an older, portly man who leans away from her, one hand raised above skeleton keys that hang from that wrist. To our right, a woman wearing a full, white, satin dress kneels facing us and looks up toward a man wearing a black coat and hat, with white at the neck, cuffs, and white stockings. A sword hangs at his side. He holds up one hand, palm out, towards the woman in white. Both women wear pearl necklaces and white lace caps. The remaining people gather around the perimeter of the scene behind a low, brick-red wall. The head and shoulders of a boy with brown skin peeks out of the box near the man with the sword, to our right. The scene is surrounded by a band of gold and by a cobalt-blue, gold-edged curtain that flutters along the top and drapes down each side to puddle on the floor.

At its London premiere on 29 January 1728, The Beggar’s Opera triumphed as an immediate success. In his comic operetta, John Gay parodied both government corruption and the vogue for Italian opera. The arias were popular ballads with new lyrics by Gay, and the characters were pickpockets and prostitutes. William Hogarth, as Gay’s friend, painted six canvases of the final scene, which is set in Newgate Prison.

On trial for robbery, Captain Macheath stands in shackles, while two of his lovers plead for his life. Lucy, his mistress, kneels before her father, Lockit the jailer, who wears keys on his belt. Macheath’s wife, Polly, also implores her father, Peachum, a criminal mastermind and fence, to intervene on Macheath’s behalf. The other figures are not actors but theater patrons who, according to custom, were privileged to sit on stage. Adding to the fun, these spectators include caricatures of prominent aristocrats.

Before becoming a painter, William Hogarth earned fame with sets of humorous prints—his “modern moral subjects”—that satirized contemporary life. In 1753, Hogarth published the earliest major book of art theory in English. His Analysis of Beauty extolled lively, sinuous lines, such as the complex curves of the figures’ poses and the stage curtain in this theatrical tableau.

William Hogarth, English, 1697 - 1764, A Scene from The Beggar's Opera, 1728/1729, oil on canvas, Paul Mellon Collection, 1983.1.42

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We seem to hover low over a body of choppy water in front of several rowboats filled to capacity with light-skinned men jostling and fighting each other amid larger wooden ships in this complex horizontal seascape. The water transitions from tan and pale green near us to blue-green in the background. A few of the men are bare-chested but most wear a wide range of colorful military uniforms or the full-sleeved shirts of sailors. A few vignettes within the bustling, action-filled boats draw our attention. For instance, at the center of the hubbub, two men wearing white shirts lean over the stern of a crowded boat, pulling two submerged men out of the water. Three other men float nearby, only their heads peeking above the water. In the same boat, another rescuer reaches for a man in the water while yet another has pulled an unconscious or lifeless man into his arms. That rowboat bumps into several others filled with men brandishing swords, long muskets, and perhaps spears. Activity there seems to swirl around two men who stand in the boats to our right. One man wearing a fawn brown uniform with gold embellishments, a white neck cloth, and a brown hat with red feathers brandishes a sword as he seizes the shirttails of a man wearing blue. The man in blue steps into another boat and clutches the mast as he raises his own sword up over his head. With eyes and mouth wide open, he looks over his shoulder towards the man in brown. Boats to our left are also filled with men but they are seated in orderly rows. One man wearing a tawny brown suit and white plumed hat holds a sword in front of his body and raises his other pointer finger. A man blows a long horn behind the standing man. Other rowboats fill the space behind these along the foreground, and surround three large wooden, ornately carved and decorated ships. The carved medallion insignia of the rightmost ship looms close to us along the right edge of the canvas; boats swarm around another in the distance at center; and flame and smoke billow from the ship to our left.

Benjamin West sailed from colonial Philadelphia to Rome in 1760. Visiting London three years later, the American artist decided to stay in England, where he soon became principal history painter to King George III.

A London newspaper's review of the 1780 Royal Academy exhibition stated that The Battle of La Hogue "exceeds all that ever came from Mr. West's pencil." In 1692, Louis XIV of France had mounted an ill-fated attempt to restore James II, a fellow Catholic, to the throne of England. In response, Britain and her Protestant allies, the Dutch, massed their fleets and engaged the enemy for five days off the northern French coast near La Hogue. Nine decades later, West employed much artistic license to devise this patriotic scene that is almost entirely propaganda.

Standing in a boat at the left, for instance, Vice Admiral George Rooke embodies heroic command with his raised sword. Yet he undoubtedly gave orders far from the thick of battle. At the right, a Frenchman deserts his craft with its fleur-de-lis motif. Having lost his wig, he becomes an object of ridicule. West parted the foreground's thick smoke to reveal the French flagship beached in the center distance. Actually sunk a few days before this encounter, The Royal Sun is here imaginatively refloated -- only to be run against the cliffs so that West might better symbolize the French defeat.

Benjamin West, American, 1738 - 1820, The Battle of La Hogue, c. 1778, oil on canvas, Andrew W. Mellon Fund, 1959.8.1

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In the left half of this horizonal composition, a winged angel gestures with arms raised over a man and woman being forced away from a bank of clouds set against a flat and barren landscape. The angel, man, and woman all have pale skin. The blond angel is dressed in a flowing white robe with a coral drape that hangs over one arm and billows behind. Kneeling in front of the angle, the woman wears a garment like a toga that appears to be made from an ivory-colored animal skin. Her long auburn hair falls in waves around her shoulders and she looks up to the sky, her mouth open. She kneels with her body facing our right, and she grasps the man’s right arm, closer to us. The man wears a chestnut colored fur garment around his hips and he covers his face with his opposite hand. His brown curls and the animal skin blow in the wind. Gold and cream colored clouds envelop the angel to our left and give way to the shadowed landscape to our right. A dagger-like spear of light thrusts out of the clouds from above the angel, towards the man and woman. Thistles grow close to us in the foreground and to our right, a stripped serpent lifts its head and flicks out its tongue. A lion attacks two horses beyond the people and snake, and in the sky above, an eagle swoops down on a heron. The landscape gives way to a navy-blue horizon line, perhaps indicating a body of water. Small patches of blue sky appear through breaks in the clouds.

By 1779, Benjamin West had conceived his life’s “great work,“ intending to rebuild the Royal Chapel at Windsor Castle as a shrine to Anglican theology. His proposal involved some forty different subjects from the Old and New Testaments, all rendered on a colossal scale. After sponsoring West’s elaborate scheme for two decades, King George III canceled it in 1801. Although the overall project was abandoned, many individual canvases were completed. This nine-foot-long Expulsion had been shown at the Royal Academy of art in 1791.

The Archangel Michael, as the agent of the Lord’s wrath, expels the first sinners from Eden. Overhead, a sharp ray of light cuts through the air in reference to God’s “flaming sword” in the Book of Genesis. While Eve implores forgiveness, Adam covers his face to hide his sobbing. They wear fur robes because God clothed them in “coats of skins” so that they could stand unashamed in his presence. Satan’s serpent, now cursed, slithers away on its belly to eat dust.

West’s inventive interpretation in this Expulsion contains two motifs not found in Genesis or any traditional pictures of the theme: an eagle swoops upon a helpless bird and a lion chases frightened horses. In general terms, such beasts of prey might imply the destruction of harmony that resulted from Original Sin.

Benjamin West, American, 1738 - 1820, The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, 1791, oil on canvas, Avalon Fund and Patrons' Permanent Fund, 1989.12.1

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Richard Wilson, who began as a portraitist, became Britains’ first major landscape painter. During a seven- to eight-year stay in Italy in the 1750s, he realized that landscapes could be metaphors of the human condition. Inspired by the arcadian scenes painted in seventeenth-century Rome by Claude Lorrain, Wilson produced evocative vistas that combine classical grandeur with English rusticity. One of the thirty-six initial members of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1769, Wilson found patrons among British gentlemen who had taken Grand Tours of Italy.

The Mediterranean scenery here, including the sunlit church and smoking volcano, evokes memories of Italy. But, the woodland glens and the cavern by the brook are distinctly English. Three hermits inhabit this shadowed grove. The two at the left are robed as Christian monks, while the partial nude at the right may be a pagan priest. He lies beside a crumbled statue of a lion, symbolic of civilization’s vanities.

The romantic subject recalls poetic lines in The Seasons, a long blank verse finished in 1730 by James Thomson:

“…And all is awful, silent gloom around.
These are the haunts of Meditation, these
The scenes where antient Bards th'inspiring breath,
Extatic, felt; and, from this world retird.”

Richard Wilson, Welsh, 1712/1714 - 1782, Solitude, c. 1762/1770, oil on canvas, Paul Mellon Collection, 1983.1.45

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Josiah Wedgwood, the pioneer of pottery manufacturing, commissioned this mythological scene that illustrates the invention of the art of modeling bas-relief sculpture. Wedgwood’s own fired-clay vessels, decorated with low reliefs, would have been seen by an eighteenth-century audience as the aesthetic descendants of this ancient Greek maiden’s attempt to preserve her beloved’s profile.

The girl was the daughter of a potter in Corinth. Her boyfriend was about to embark on a perilous journey to foreign lands, taking only his spear and dog. As a memento, she traced her sleeping lover’s silhouette onto the wall. Her father then used the drawing to model a clay relief, which he baked in his kiln to create a ceramic keepsake.

Joseph Wright, a master of artificial illumination, concealed a hanging lamp behind the curtain, suggesting the source of the beams that cast the youth’s shadow. In contrast to the lamp’s gentle glow, intense sparks and embers leap inside the potter’s fiery furnace.

Wright researched his topic for archeological accuracy. Wedgwood loaned antique vases from his own art collection so that Wright could copy their shapes, and the clothing derives from ancient sculpture. Classical symmetry pervades the design; the curtain and archway flank the focal action of the maiden’s stylus tracing the youth’s profile.

Joseph Wright, British, 1734 - 1797, The Corinthian Maid, 1782-1784, oil on canvas, Paul Mellon Collection, 1983.1.46

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Joseph Wright of Derby, nicknamed after his birthplace in Derbyshire, was noted for dramatic lighting effects such as the twilight cliffs in this imaginary landscape. The contrast of moss-green highlights against rose-violet shadows generates a remarkably decorative effect. These mountains are bracketed between a distant sky of jade and amethyst and a rust-brown foreground with its solitary, seated peasant.

The villas and castles atop the bluffs recall Wright’s studies in Italy from 1773 to 1775, but the rutted road and gentle hills in the front resemble his own central England. Although the inspiration is from ideal landscapes by seventeenth-century artists, the shimmering colors are unique to Joseph Wright. He perfected such enchanting light effects in scenes of blacksmiths at their forges, scientists conducting experiments at night by candles, and moonlit landscapes with erupting volcanos or electrical storms. Note, for instance, Wright’s contrast of different flames in The Corinthian Maid.

For all of his fame at depicting unusual illumination, Wright of Derby earned his income mainly as a portrait painter of the middle-class gentry. Since he chose to live in Derbyshire, Wright was isolated from London’s art circles. Elected to the Royal Academy of Arts in 1781, he quarreled with that institution and resigned three years later.

Joseph Wright, British, 1734 - 1797, Italian Landscape, 1790, oil on canvas, Paul Mellon Collection, 1983.1.47

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