History Painting

History Painting


Sir Joshua Reynolds defined British historical painting in his Discourses, a collection of lectures given annually to the Royal Academy while he was president. In "Discourse IV," read to the Academy in 1771, he defines what he means by "the grand style" in historical painting:

Invention in painting does not imply the invention of the subject; for that is commonly supplied by the Poet or Historian. With respect to the choice, no subject can be proper that is not generally interesting. It ought to be either some eminent instance of heroick action or heroick suffering. There must be something either in the action, or in the object, in which men are universally concerned, and which powerfully strikes upon the publick sympathy.

Strictly speaking, indeed, no subject can be of universal, hardly can it be of general, concern; but there are events and characters so popularly known . . . that they may be considered as sufficiently general for our purposes. Such are the great events of Greek and Roman fable and history, which early education, and the usual course of reading, have made familiar and interesting to all Europe, without being degraded by the vulgarism of ordinary life in any country. Such too are the capital subjects of scripture history, which, beside their general notoriety, become venerable by their connection with our religion. (117)

"An history-painter," he concludes, "paints man in general" (131). Reynolds narrowly defines history painting, urging artists to turn to Scripture and to antiquity for their subjects; often these sources might, as an added advantage, impart through allegorical interpretation moral and didactic lessons to the greatest number of people.

It did not take long for the range of fit subjects for historical painting to widen, and, thanks in great measure to the ambitious Shakespeare Gallery of John Boydell, artists turned as well to British history and literature for their inspiration. In 1843 the Queen sponsored a competition to promote the fine arts in the United Kingdom and to determine whether or not frescoes might be “applied with advantage” to the decoration of the Houses of Parliament. The entries were shown in the Cartoon Exhibition in Westminster Hall. The rules for the works to be entered virtually define for us the evolution of "history" painting in the early nineteenth century. The cartoons were to be in chalk or charcoal, but with no coloring. The studies were to be at least ten but no more than fifteen feet in their longest dimension, and the figures had to be life-size. For a topic, "Each artist is at liberty to select his subject from British History, or from the works of Spenser, Shakspere, or Milton" (Art-Union 5:207). The cartoons submitted numbered 140, and 11 prizes were awarded.

We need only add the Bible to cover the range of suitable subjects listed in the rules for the 1843 competition, but whatever the source, the style remained "grand" and heroic. The result often was a scene from Shakespeare or British history, but with characters painted in classical poses set against Roman or Greek backgrounds. The grand style began to look stiff, frozen and dull. Take for example George Romney's rendering of the shipwreck scene which opens The Tempest. The painting was done on a large canvas, almost fifteen by ten feet in size, and was immediately disliked by the critics when it was shown. Richard Dorment says that the painting, which has since been destroyed, was "labored and confused and the figures badly drawn." (320) One has only to look at the engraving of the painting in Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery to see the justice of Dorment's remarks.

Aside from whatever merits history painting had as art, its very "grandness" was ironically the cause of its decline in popularity: quite simply, few patrons had the walls to accommodate these imposing works. William Hogarth aptly noted that "our apartments are too small to contain them" (Altick 77). William Makepeace Thackeray, with disdain for the pompous and pretentious in history painting, mocked the genre in an often quoted observation; these paintings, he says, are "pieces of canvas from twelve to thirty feet long, representing for the most part personages who never existed . . . performing actions that never occurred, and dressed in costumes they never could have worn" (The London Times, 1838).

But the painters did not abandon the subjects of history painting; instead, they made smaller pictures and approached their literary subjects in different ways, with a new focus on more intimate scenes, the minor characters, and the psychology of the characters and situations depicted. These tendencies of course gave rise to different names for various genres, and, although I shall use the term "history" and "historical," one does encounter in the works cited in the bibliography several different terms to describe these paintings.