A history of history painting after 1800: to 1869

Francisco Goya (1746–1828), El Tres de Mayo (The Third of May) (detail) (1814), oil on canvas, 266 x 345.1 cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid. Wikimedia Commons.

There are two types of history painting: the term can be applied to historia, which basically means any painting telling a story, or in a much narrower sense to paintings of historical events, which includes legend but excludes mythology, religious works, and other narrative subjects. Today and tomorrow I’m going to look at the latter, paintings showing history which were completed in the nineteenth century and later – with the exception of my first.

The nineteenth century was a period which first made history painting very popular, then is claimed to have destroyed it. Here I look at what happened, which has to start with the work of Jacques-Louis David.

Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), Marat Assassinated (1793), oil on canvas, 165 x 128 cm, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels. Wikimedia Commons.

David’s Marat Assassinated (1793) must be one of the most famous history paintings of all time. It shows this leading member of the Revolutionary movement, an influential journalist and friend of the artist, stabbed to death in his bath by a young woman from Normandy, Charlotte Corday. She admitted if not boasted of her actions, and on 17 July she was executed in public by guillotine. Marat became a martyr for the cause, after his friend David had organised his spectacular funeral. Still clutched in Marat’s hand is the note written to him by Corday.

Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), Marat Assassinated (detail, rotated) (1793), oil on canvas, 165 x 128 cm, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels. Wikimedia Commons.

Corday’s note, shown rotated from its orientation in the painting, gives the date, and addresses itself from her to Citizen Marat. It opens with “It suffices to say that I am very unhappy to qualify for your kindness”. This sparse and simple painting became the quintessential image of The Terror in particular, and the Revolution as a whole.

David’s new histories contrasted with that of Benjamin West, an American who set out to paint ‘modern’ histories, but through a succession of accidents ended up in Britain painting more traditional works.

Benjamin West (1738–1820), The Death of Nelson (1806), oil on canvas and panel, 182 x 247.5 cm, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, England. Wikimedia Commons.

The year after Britain’s successful commander, Admiral Lord Nelson, already a national hero, had died of his wounds during the Battle of Trafalgar, West painted one of the first visual accounts.

Nelson had been on the deck of his flagship, HMS Victory, when he was hit by a marksman from the nearby French ship Redoutable. Nelson was first seen kneeling on the deck, before falling onto his side. Thomas Hardy, captain of Victory, was with him, and Nelson was shortly carried below by the Sergeant-Major of the Royal Marines and two seamen. He died three hours later.

West’s painting succeeded not on its strengths, which were few, but on its timeliness and public adulation for its subject. Exhibited first in the artist’s studio, it apparently attracted thirty thousand visitors in just over a month.

Like David, Francisco Goya preferred individual engagement to mass spectacle.

Francisco Goya (1746–1828), El Tres de Mayo (The Third of May) (1814), oil on canvas, 266 x 345.1 cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid. Wikimedia Commons.

In November 1807, Napoleon’s armies occupied Spain and fought the Spanish in the Peninsular War. The people of Madrid rebelled on 2 May 1808, in an uprising which led to fierce battles. The following day, before dawn, the French forces rounded up and shot hundreds of the rebels at various locations in Madrid.

Goya’s depiction of this is one of the great paintings of European history, which concentrates attention on one of the Spanish prisoners about to be executed.

Francisco Goya (1746–1828), El Tres de Mayo (The Third of May) (detail) (1814), oil on canvas, 266 x 345.1 cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid. Wikimedia Commons.

Goya opts for the moment before the shots are fired, as the instant of greatest drama.

Larger groups could still make great paintings, though, as was demonstrated by Jean Louis Théodore Géricault in another of the major works in the European canon, The Raft of the Medusa (1818-19), showing the distressed survivors of an infamous shipwreck.

Jean Louis Théodore Géricault (1791–1824), The Raft of the Medusa (1818-19), oil on canvas, 491 x 716 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

The end result of over a year’s painstaking research and studies by the artist is a vast canvas, its figures life-sized, which has had huge impact on everyone who has seen it since 1819. Its relatively traditional approach and attention to detail give it the air of complete authenticity, although Géricault carefully manipulated its composition in several ways to make his point. For example, he shows the few survivors crowded together on a small part of the raft, and crops the image tightly to give the impression that the raft was overcrowded, which it wasn’t.

There had been plenty of recent history to paint about in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. By the time that Eugène Delacroix came to the genre, he felt that had to reach back millenia to The Death of Sardanapalus.

Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863), The Death of Sardanapalus (1827), oil on canvas, 392 × 496 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

His narrative is drawn from a contemporary play, written in blank verse by Lord Byron, which was published in 1821. That in turn relies on an account in the historical library of Diodorus Siculus, a Greek historian, and Mitford’s History of Greece. Sardanapalus was the last of the great Assyrian monarchs, ruling a large empire from his palaces in Nineveh. However, a rebellion grew against him, and the story reaches its climax in the fifth and final act of Byron’s play.

At the time, the river Euphrates was in high flood, which had torn down part of the protective walls of the city of Nineveh. Once the river started to fall again, this left no defences against the rebels. The leader of the rebels, Arbaces, offers to spare Sardanapalus his life if he will surrender, but he refuses, asking for a cease-fire of an hour. During that period he has a funeral pyre built under his throne. He releases his last faithful officer to flee for his life, and climbs the pyre. As he does so, his favourite wife, Myrrha, throws a lighted torch into the pyre, and climbs up after him, where they both burn to death.

Delacroix departs considerably from that narrative to invite us to see Sardanapalus in a different light. Most prominent in the foreground is the horrific sight of one of his courtesans about to have her throat slit by a guard. Her face looks up to the heavens, her back is arched, forcing her body and legs into an arc, as she is tensed ready for slaughter. With these scenes of carnage and destruction all around him, Sardanapalus rests, recumbent on his great divan. His face is mask-like, unmoved, and he stares coldly into the distance, his head propped by his right hand.

Paul Delaroche didn’t reach back as far, but chose a sparser scene drawn from English history.

Paul Delaroche (1797–1856), The Execution of Lady Jane Grey (1833), oil on canvas, 246 x 297 cm, The National Gallery, London. Courtesy of The National Gallery, bequeathed by the Second Lord Cheylesmore, 1902.

England in 1553 was in turmoil. King Edward VI’s reign of six years was marred by economic problems, social unrest which erupted into open rebellion, and war with Scotland; these had culminated with the King’s death at the age of just 15. As he had no natural heirs, there was dispute over his succession; his plan for a cousin, Lady Jane Grey, to become Queen was put into action, starting her rule on 10 July 1553. When King Edward’s half sister Mary deposed her on 19 July, she was committed to the Tower of London, convicted of high treason in November, and executed on Tower Green by beheading on 12 February 1554 at the age of just 16 (or 17).

Delaroche might appear to have made an accurate depiction of the scene, but in fact he made one major alteration: Lady Jane Grey was actually executed in the small court-like space within the Tower known as Tower Green, not in a dark room. By changing the location, it enables Lady Jane Grey’s silver-white gown to dominate the entire painting, forcing everything and everyone else back into sombre mid tones and darker. With its simple composition and charged atmosphere, it caused a sensation when first exhibited at the Salon of 1834.

Although Jean-Léon Gérôme’s later reputation was made on his careful reconstructions of classical Roman gladiatorial combat, he didn’t have to look so far back for one of his most memorable history paintings.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), The Death of Marshal Ney (1868), oil on canvas, 64.1 x 104.1 cm, Sheffield Gallery, Sheffield, England. Photo from Militärhistoria 4/2015, via Wikimedia Commons.

Michel Ney (1769-1815) was a leading military commander during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, and was made a Marshal of France by Napoleon. Following Napoleon’s defeat and exile in the summer of 1815, Ney was arrested, and tried for treason by the Chamber of Peers. He was found guilty, and executed by firing squad near the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris on 7 December 1815.

Gérôme shows Ney’s body abandoned after the execution, slumped face down and lifeless in the mud, his top hat apart at the right edge of the canvas. The firing squad is being marched off, to the left and into the distance. This reinforces Gérôme’s powerful image of a cold, bleak, heartless execution.

His timing contrasts with Goya’s above, and that chosen by Édouard Manet for another scene from recent history.

Édouard Manet (1832–1883), The Execution of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico (1868), oil on canvas, 252 x 305 cm, Kunsthalle Mannheim, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Manet shows the moment of The Execution of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico, with a disorganised firing squad at almost point-blank range of their victims. In this painting, Manet puts them in field dress which could easily be interpreted as being French. Their faces are turned away from the viewer, only their body language and actions being clear. At the back of the squad (right of the painting) their commander is fiddling with his rifle, and disinterested in the execution.

Maximilian appears to be an old man, although he was only 35 at the time. The nearer of his generals assumes the expression of horror, and appears in his posture to have been hit by bullets. Maximilian’s face is oddly neutral, and he appears to be holding the hand of the general on each side of him. The other, distant, general appears almost detached from the group, with an odd expression and little body language.

In 1870, history painting remained in rude health, with the masters of the day continuing to innovate in their themes and compositions.