History PaintingPainters today often complain that they've been reduced to servants of interior decorators. And it's a valid complaint, except among those artists only too willing, for a price, to fulfil the need to match size, style, shape, and colours with couch and carpet. It might surprise artists on all sides of the issue to know there's nothing new in all this. As far back as the Renaissance, painters were asked by wealthy patrons to cater - in the subject of their work, at least if not size and colour - to its location within their new ducal palaces to certain expected norms. Scenes with philosophers were expected in studies; feast scenes went into dining rooms (last suppers if they were monastery dining rooms). Paintings of battles or great pomp and ceremony were required for reception rooms and, naturally, semi-erotic scenes of Greek gods pursuing nymphs and maidens were all important for the bedroom. What's an artist to do?
Most of those we recall today happily complied. Those who didn't mostly don't get recalled. In general, except for some religious scenes for perhaps the chapel, and the obligatory mythology for the bedroom, this early form of interior decorating amounted to the then relatively new genre of history painting. Which was fine for the first hundred years or so, but as the number of frescoed walls kept growing, the number of historic anecdotes to fill them did not. I mean, what's a rich young ruler to do? If the neighbours on one side have Claude's Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba (1648) and the neighbours on the other side have Poussin's Et in Arcadia Ergo (1639), the last thing you want in your grand salon is more of the same. But then again, it can't be too different. Maybe that new guy, Guercino, might be able to come up with something?
Guercino came up with Hersilia Separating Romulus from Tacitus (1645) which might go a long way in explaining why few of us recall Guercino. In other words, the more history painting that gets done, the harder it is to come up with history that needs to be done. By the eighteenth century, would-be history painters were reduced to painting what we'd call now historic trivia - some of their scenes so trivial that art scholars today are reduced to outright speculation as to what they depict, much less what they mean. History painting became such a prestigious striving for artists that they were reduced to combing through contemporary literature, Shakespeare and the like for even second-hand accounts from which to create new work. Just about anything would do, so long as it hadn't already been done to death, and it wasn't so mundane as to look like genre.
Of course, history tried to supply its legions of history-painting artists as best it could. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were both filled with all manner of wars, skulduggery, political scandals, beheadings, firing squads, burnings, and other dramatic events - enough to fill volumes of history books, but not enough to sate the appetites of those who, in effect, illustrated them. Jean-Auguste Ingres went so far as to turn to Vasari's Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (kind of an early ArtyFacts) in search of subject matter. In 1812, he painted Raphael and La Fornarina, becoming the first history painter in history to paint another history painter. The work depicts the dashing young artist with the love of his life (a baker's daughter) on his knee, his attention not upon his lovely bride-to-be (he died mysteriously before they could be wed), but looking back over his shoulder at the drawn image of her on his easel - an artist to the end.
As early American artists were prone to do, painters such a Benjamin West and John Vanderlyn went to Europe to learn the technical principles of history painting. In so doing, they turned to the history of their own continent, as in West's The Death of General Wolfe (1770) or Vanderlyn's The Murder of Jane McCrea (1804). And while Wolfe's depiction might fall well within the European tradition, Vanderlyn's pleading, screaming white woman about to be scalped by two stripling Native-Americans (based upon Greek models of course) so they could sell her tresses to the English strikes us as abhorrently violent, not to mention terribly inconsequential. Blessedly, there was never much market for history painting in this country, and anyway, much of what was done gravitated toward tired, static, but quite civilised group portraits depicting the signing of peace treaties and other historic documents.
For all its much vaunted, thematic, high (and low) mindedness in the past, fortunately, history painting today is even "deader" than genre. I use the word "fortunately" because, quite frankly, artists have never been very good at this sort of thing. Today we have news photos and taped instant replays flashed on TV and the Internet within mere seconds of the event, some of which are destined to become the modern equivalent of history painting. And as much as we may bemoan the various slants and outright distortion of the news by those charged with documenting it, visually at least, that which passes for historic art today is a far cry more accurate (and artistic) than the storybook art that passed for history ages ago.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
22 January 2001