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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.

We seem to hover over a flaxen-colored, yellow-gray body of water lined with ships to our left and right, which are silhouetted against a moonlit, cloud-veiled sky, which fills the top two-thirds of this horizontal landscape painting. The moon hangs to our left of center in the sky, its light reflecting on the clouds in a bright, hourglass shape to create a tunnel-like effect. The sea below turns from a golden, gray color close to us to pale blue along the horizon. To our left, one ship with gray sails is cut off by the edge of the canvas and another, also with gray sails, is situated farther away from us. A small, dark rowboat with two passengers moves between them. Light from the windows in buildings along the distant horizon to our left reflect in the water, and another building, a factory, spouts white flame from its chimney. More dark ships line the waterway to our right, their spiky masts black against the sky. Three flames, one orange between two pale yellow fires, flare in the darkness in front of the ship closest to us. The forms of men shoveling coal, crates, and barges are dark silhouettes against the firelight and smoke. More rowboats float among the boats in the distance. Near the lower right corner of the canvas, a broad, flat fragment of wood, perhaps a piece of a wreckage, floats close to us. The hot orange and black on the right side of the painting contrasts with the silvery grey, light blue, and white that fills much of the rest of the composition. The painting was created with thick, blended brushstrokes throughout, giving the scene a hazy look. The texture of some of the brushstrokes is especially noticeable, as where the moon casts white light onto the water and in the clouds. The artist signed a buoy floating to our left with his initials, “JMWT.”

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight, 1835, oil on canvas, Widener Collection, 1942.9.86

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.

Turner, Joseph Mallord William
British, 1775 - 1851
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight
1835