Opinion  November 2, 2021  Ivy Pratt

History Painting: An Art Genre or the Manipulation of Truth?

Wikimedia Commons.

Benjamin West, detail of The Battle of La Hogue, c. 1778. Oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

History painting as a genre term seeks to describe a work's subject matter—significant historical events or moments from popular mythology and literature—rather than the stylistic aspects of an artwork. That said, paintings in this genre do tend to have an extra injection of grandiosity and drama. These qualities deserve to be examined with a critical eye, particularly when applied to depictions of actual, historical events.

In the French Royal Academy, history painting was considered the highest art form—superseding portraiture, still life, and landscape. Popular in European and American art throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries—these paintings provide an interesting insight into the motives of particular artists and their patrons.

The grandiosity and subject matter of history paintings could, in part, be a natural progression of a contemporaneous fascination with the Ancient Greeks and Roman Empire. This much was certainly the case for the history paintings of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the first President of  London’s Royal Academy. Reynolds, regardless of the actual time period the content of his paintings pulled from, ceaselessly rendered his figures in classical dress and surrounded them with ancient architecture.

Wikimedia Commons.

Joshua Reynolds, Lady Sarah Bunbury Sacrificing to the Graces, between 1763 - 65. Oil on canvas. 95.5 x 59.7 in (242.5 x 151.7 cm.) Art Institute of Chicago.

Still, some—though not all—history paintings played an undeniable role in sustaining the dynasties and empires that cropped up during these centuries. And, perhaps even more so, these paintings worked to quash any sense of autonomy within the colonies and territories obtained by these national powers, all in order to solidify control.

In an important diversion from stylistic tradition set by artists like Reynolds, Benjamin West aimed to make his history paintings as accurate as possible in terms of clothing and setting—from accurate architecture to regional flora and fauna. Especially when applied to the painting of contemporary events, this gave West’s work an extra sense of realism and reliability. Even Reynolds admitted as much.

Wikimedia Commons. 

Benjamin West, The Death of General Wolfe, 1770. Oil on canvas. 151 cm × 213 cm (59 in × 84 in). National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.

Because of their believability, West’s paintings—and the places in which they diverged from reality—were suddenly capable of a dangerous ability to mislead. Take the central figures in one of his most famous paintings, The Death of General Wolfe (1770).

The artwork depicts a key battle of the French and Indian War (The Seven Years War) that occurred in September of 1759, near Quebec. The artwork is riddled with factual and fictional details alongside strategically implemented visual allusions.

The British General Wolfe lays prone, resembling Christ in the iconic Pieta format. His right forearm, where he was in fact injured, features a bandage and a doctor applies pressure to his fatal wound. All but one of the men surrounding Wolfe were not actually at his side during his death, but rather scattered across the battlefield.

General Detail  Benjamin West, detail of The Death of General Wolfe, 1770.
Wikimedia Commons.

 Benjamin West, detail of The Death of General Wolfe, 1770. Oil on canvas. 151 cm × 213 cm (59 in × 84 in). National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.

Anonymous, Pietà, 17th century. Brush and brown wash over black chalk, highlighted with white gouache, on light tan paper; framing outlines in black chalk. 8-9/16 x 6-3/8 in. (21.8 x 16.2 cm).
The Met. Gift of Cephas G. Thompson, 1887.

Anonymous, detail of Pietà, 17th century. Brush and brown wash over black chalk, highlighted with white gouache, on light tan paper; framing outlines in black chalk. 8-9/16 x 6-3/8 in. (21.8 x 16.2 cm).

The Brits won this battle—a British messenger can be spotted on the left of the painting, running, with enemy flag in hand, to the group around Wolfe—and many felt the victory was all due to the general.

Another fictional aspect of this painting is the presence of an indigenous man—likely of the Mohawk nation, part of the Iroquois Confederacy. Though the Iroquois Confederacy were allied with the British in this war, they were not present for this particular battle.

Noble Savage detail  Benjamin West, detail of The Death of General Wolfe, 1770.
Wikimedia Commons.

 Benjamin West, detail of The Death of General Wolfe, 1770. Oil on canvas. 151 cm × 213 cm (59 in × 84 in). National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.

Emanuel Leutze, The Last Drop (from McGuire Scrapbook). Iron gall ink and graphite on thin green wove letterpress paper. 5 5/16 x 4 7/8 in. (13.5 x 12.4 cm)
Courtesy of The Met. Gift of James C. McGuire, 1926.

Emanuel Leutze, The Last Drop (from McGuire Scrapbook). Iron gall ink and graphite on thin green wove letterpress paper. 5 5/16 x 4 7/8 in. (13.5 x 12.4 cm)

Though he is positioned nearly as prominently as Wolfe, he is seated and appears thoughtful, perhaps even mournful, and his attention is fully directed towards the British general.

Additionally, unlike every other man surrounding Wolfe, he has no identity. This alone is dehumanizing but of course, there is more. He has been placed by West to embody the archetype of the "noble savage"—a colonial notion of an “other” type of human, not yet corrupted by civilization, who represents the innate goodness of man.

Much as the late nineteenth-century American myth of manifest destiny was used to justify westward expansion, many history paintings worked to shape and uphold stories of superiority and inferiority. This popular European and North American genre of painting, especially when applied to the depiction of historical events, sheds light on the manner in which art can be used to manipulate the truth.

About the Author

Ivy Pratt

Ivy Pratt is a regular contributor to Art & Object.

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