In the first seventy years of the nineteenth century, history painting – in its narrow sense of the depiction of historical events – had gone from strength to strength, innovating from David to Manet. Then came the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune, events which should have taken it on to even greater achievement.
Instead, the great history painters of the day harked back to mediaeval times.
Jean-Paul Laurens’s Pope Formosus and Stephen VI (the “Cadaver Synod”) from 1870 tells one of the most bizarre episodes in the history of the papacy. When he died, Pope Formosus was succeeded by Boniface VI, then by Stephen VI (or VII!). Stephen sought to annul the acts of Formosus, so in 897 had him tried posthumously before an ecclesiastical court in the Basilica of Saint John Lateran in Rome. Stephen accused Formosus of perjury and having succeeded to the papacy illegally.
Inevitably Formosus’ corpse was unable to defend the case effectively, and Pope Stephen had it pronounced guilty, then ordered that Formosus’ papacy was declared null and void, and his acts invalid. Following further twists and turns, this posthumous conviction was reversed, then reaffirmed.
Laurens shows this bizarre trial in progress, with the rotting corpse of Formosus dressed in his papal finery and propped up in a throne. Conventional wisdom tells that the artist, fascinated though he was by obscure corners of mediaeval history, had in his mind more contemporary events. He painted this in the year that the new Kingdom of Italy put an end to the Pope’s temporal power, in the Capture of Rome, which was his true motivation for this painting.
A decade later, the events of 1870-71 were still too controversial to be depicted directly. Édouard Debat-Ponsan recalled a scene from three centuries ago which he felt had more immediate relevance.
His One Morning in Front of the Louvre Gate (1880) shows Catherine de’ Medici (in black) gazing impassively at the bodies of French Protestants who had been slaughtered in the massacre of Saint Bartholomew in 1572. King Charles IX of France is said to have ordered this massacre, at least partly under the influence of Catherine, his mother, allegedly in fear of a (Protestant) Huguenot uprising. The reading of this painting relies on the massacre of the Communards for context.
That same year, Évariste Vital Luminais painted his masterwork telling an obscure and almost certainly fictitious legend from around 660.
Clovis II (637-657/8) was king of Neustria and Burgundy from 639, initially with his mother acting as regent, then a succession of influential nobles. He married Balthild, an Anglo-Saxon aristocrat who had been sold into slavery in Gaul. They had three sons: Chlothar (who succeeded Clovis), Childeric, and Theuderic.
A persistent legend grew up that, in about 660 (by which time Clovis was already dead), Clovis went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. While he was away, he entrusted his kingdom to his oldest son, Chlothar, under Balthild’s regency. However his older two sons fell out with their mother, and conspired to seize power from her. Clovis rushed back to control this revolt, and ponder what to do with his sons.
Clovis wanted to execute them both, but Balthild proposed punishment which would deprive their limbs of all power, so they could not revolt again. Although the language is ambiguous, it appears that the main tendons, particularly those of the hamstrings, were cut in their arms and legs, although this is referred to as énervé in the French. The helpless boys were placed on a raft on the river Seine, and floated downstream to Jumièges, near Rouen, where Saint Philibert took them in and gave them shelter.
Luminais made a series of studies for his major work showing the legendary scene of the two boys floating in their bed-like raft on the Seine. He then painted two versions of the finished work, of which The Sons of Clovis II (1880) remains in Rouen.
Even Gérôme was driven back to indirectness.
The tulip flower, originally a Turkish import, became extremely popular in the Netherlands during the early 1600s. The Dutch cultivated them to produce varieties of different colours, petal and leaf patterns, and these became associated with wealth and status. By 1634, the value of tulips had become very high, out of all proportion to their real worth. Certain varieties in particular became highly sought-after, and the subject of financial speculation. Eventually the bubble burst, prices collapsed, and paper fortunes vanished almost overnight. This resulted in a credit crisis and national financial problems which were a parallel to those in France at that time.
Gérôme shows one group of (government) soldiers in the middle distance, destroying beds of tulips in a move to manipulate the market. In the foreground, an officer stands guard over a pot containing a single rare variety of tulip. His sword is drawn ready, although pointing at the ground just by his valuable plant.
There is another reading which may not have been Gérôme’s: prices of his paintings had become almost absurdly high. When this work was sold to New York within months of completion, it fetched 50,000 francs, for example. He may well have foreseen the crash in value which would result when his work fell out of fashion, as it did towards the end of the nineteenth century. This could even have been his warning to speculators that he felt his work had become overvalued.
Others left it years before they felt able to paint the history of the Paris Commune.
Although only a boy at the time, Maximilien Luce must have retained vivid memories of the Commune, which he finally committed to paint in his A Street in Paris in May 1871 (also known as The Commune) in 1903-6.
It would have been easy to write an epitaph to history painting there and then. It had ignored one of the fundamental rules of narrative painting: the viewer must already know the story. How many who studied those mediaeval histories had any clue what their original story was, or the artist’s intent for their contemporary interpretation? History painting had become an obscure backwater, eclipsed by Naturalism with its concern with the here and now, and the sumptuous landscapes of Impressionism.
Then in 1914, everything changed again.
At the time of the Great War, traditional history painters like Georges Rochegrosse had no response. One of his last paintings shows The Death of Messalina (1916). She had married the Roman Emperor Claudius, and was powerful and influential, with a reputation for insatiable promiscuity. In 48 CE, there was an unsuccessful plot against Claudius, and Messalina was, rightly or wrongly, accused of conspiracy. She was executed forthwith.
Rochegrosse chooses the instant before her death, as the climax. The leader of the Praetorian Guard is about to kill Messalina with his sword. Behind the imminent execution, Claudius stands, his hands on his hips, smiling wrily at the killing, with the ranks of the guard stood close behind. Although a powerful narrative, by this time it’s interesting to speculate how many of his viewers would even know of Messalina. Far more were likely to have been more interested in Cubism.
By 1917, attention turned to more recent history, as the first grim accounts came in from war artists who had been to the front.
An official war artist, CRW Nevinson’s Paths of Glory was exhibited with a quotation from Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written In A Country Church-Yard (1750):
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike the inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
Like Marshall Ney, the bodies in Nevinson’s famous depiction of the aftermath of the destruction of war lie face down in the mud. Rifles, helmets, the bodies themselves are being engulfed in that all-enveloping mud.
Nash’s The Menin Road (1919) was commissioned by the British War Memorials Committee in April 1918 for its Hall of Remembrance, for which John Singer Sargent’s Gassed was also intended. It shows a section of the Ypres Salient known as Tower Hamlets, after what is now a part of eastern London. This area was destroyed, reduced to barren mud, during the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge.
History painting wasn’t dead after all, it had changed again, even if its old adherents struggled to see this new direction.
Rather than tackle any of the major battlefield scenes, Jean-Paul Laurens’s memento of those four grim years was this strange municipal painting of the Security Committee of the City of Paris and the Département of the Seine, during the 1914-18 War. It missed the point spectacularly.