Masterpieces

Paintings and Graphic Arts  

History painting

History painting was considered the highest and most ambitious form of French art throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. While its popularity declined in the later 19th century in favour of modern styles, it was still valued thanks to its traditional position at the apex of the classical hierarchy of genres. History painting, as traditionally defined, involved large canvases of elevated subjects taken from Biblical or classical sources. However, artists also made history paintings that chronicled contemporary events of national significance. Jacques-Louis David’s iconic images of the French Revolution are exemplary in this regard.

History painting featured human figures in dramatic poses that were usually observed from life. Paint was handled according to the traditional methods taught in the academies and painstakingly worked up to a high finish. It was the most demanding genre in terms of the preparation time, the historical research, the technical ability, and the expensive studio materials that it typically required. While several American history painters made important contributions, they represent a small percentage of the total, and there are only a few examples of their works in French public collections.

Perhaps the most important American history painter was Benjamin West, who advocated the genre during his prestigious tenure as the second president of the Royal Academy in London. The French public collections contain two West paintings with Biblical themes from 1782: Isaiah’s lips purified by the fire and its pendant, Jeremiah seeing a branch of flowering almond. The French state recently acquired another American history painting from 1769 by Philadelphia artist Henry Benbridge, Pascal Paoli at the Battle of Ponte Novu. In his painting of the Corsican patriot, Benbridge draws upon classical techniques of composition to present a climactic moment in a refined, highly stylized way.

History painting became less popular in the later 19th century, as the system of salons and academies that had fostered its importance began to be diminished by the advent of new styles. The rise of photography made history painting’s ability to depict major contemporary events seem less relevant. Artists who embraced Impressionism and subsequent modern styles consciously rejected the academic system. They produced instead small canvases of contemporary, everyday subjects using a vivid unmodulated palette and a decidedly unclassical technique. By the turn of the 20th century, history painting was essentially defunct as a major form. However, some American artists continued to borrow the conventions of the genre, turning old academic techniques to new uses. Henry Ossawa Tanner’s large paintings The Raising of Lazarus (1896) and The Supper at Emmaus (1905) are clearly influenced by history painting, although they fall outside the temporal limits of the genre.