Thursday, December 31, 2009

PAINTING HISTORY (PART 1)

On the first look it seems to be a normal religious painting, a crucifixion. But after a few seconds you will notice the other crosses more in the back. And maybe then you will remember that you have heard of slave revolts in Rome - probably you have seen the film Spartacus! So the tortured slaves (the working class) take here the place of Christ.

The Damned Field, Execution place in the Roman Empire (1878) by the Russian painter Fyodor Andreyevich Bronnikov (1827-1902).

The photo "Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima" taken on February 23, 1945, by Joe Rosenthal is probably the most reproduced photograph of all time. It was the only photograph to win the Pulitzer Prize for Photography in the same year as its publication, and it became in the United States one of the most important national icons.

Nevertheless it’s a photograph and no painting! But the crucial point is, that it depicts not the first flag-raising. This happened some hours earlier and was photographed by Staff Sergeant Louis R. Lowery.

Later there was a big discussion and Rosenthal was accused that he "could not resist reposing his characters in historic fashion." Meaning that he arranged his photograph like a history painting! Rosenthal and all the surviving witnesses always denied that he did so. But they became all famous because of the photograph and had therefore a lot to loose.

But anyhow that’s not very important in our context. Our crucial question has to be: Why became Rosenthal’s photograph an icon and a million seller and that of Lowery was nearly forgotten? The answer is simple: Because Rosenthal shot a perfect history painting whether accidentally or not. It fulfilled all the esthetic requirements (formed by 19th century paintings) but could be accepted as "realistic".

The poster of the film "Flags of Our Fathers" (2006) by Clint Eastwood is even optimizing this history-painting-effect by adding to the dramatic action and the pyramidal group the typical illumination. It’s clear, Eastwood refers to a painting, a monument, an icon, not to a realistic photograph.
Recently appeared the painting "September 11th" by the American contemporary artist Jamie Wyeth. Now the history painting is quoting a photograph, which was quoting history paintings. The circle is closing. Once history painting pretended to be realistic and failed, now it seems that it returns more to the roots, wanting to be an icon. 

Execution Without Hearing Under the Moorish Kings in Granada (1870) by the French painter Henri Regnault (1843-1871).

One art historian wrote about this painting, that "the painter had played with the blood of the victim as if he were a jeweller toying with rubies." I think, that hits the nail on the head. Regnault was primarily interested in orientalistic and exotic subjects. He was inspired to this painting by old legends during his stay in Spain.

The death of Messalina by the French painter Georges-Antoine Rochegrosse (1859-1938).

Rochegrosse was a well known history painter, who turned more and more to oriental subjects. But often he mixed historical and oriental sceneries to dramatic exotic paintings. 

The Polish military painter January Suchodolski (1797-1875) depicts here a very problematic episode of the Napoleonic wars. Many exiled Poles served Napoleon as soldiers, but when the Emperor made peace with Austria, Russia and Prussia he wanted to rid himself of these problematic allies. So he sent them in 1801 to Haiti to suppress the slave revolt there. So the Poles, who once fought for their freedom ended as mercenaries of French slaveholders. Most of them perished in that absurd and cruel war.

Polish troops on Haiti

The French Henri-Paul Motte (1846-1922) was a student of the famous Gérôme and became a very experienced history painter, whose paintings were frequently as illustrations in books and magazines.
Here he depicts the great Cardinal Richelieu at the Siege of La Rochelle the last Huguenot stronghold in France. To block the seaward access to the city Richelieu ordered a long fortified seawall to be build.

Cardinal Richelieu at the Siege of La Rochelle (1881) 

The famous French history painter Hippolyte Delaroche (1797-1856) depicts here the Execution of Lady Jane Grey, who had been queen of England only for nine days, when she was deposed by the Catholic Mary I, who became later known as 'Bloody Mary' for her persecution of the Protestants. Delaroche concentrates totally on the personal drama, the poor and helpless queen, the weeping court ladies, even the executioner seems touched.

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey (1833)

When the Dutch artist Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912) moved to England and specialized in sweet paintings about the leisure life in ancient Rome and Greece he became one of the most successful Victorian painters. In endless variations he painted nice girls in classical costumes in smooth colors decorating the whole with some flowers and lots of shiny marble.

Sappho and Alcaeus (1881)

A Coign of Vantage (1895) 

The Spanish painter Antonio Gisbert Pérez (1835-1902) was a convinced liberal. On this painting he shows the end of the rebellion of the Castilian towns in 1521. The members of the Catholic Church are shown as the great enemies of any liberal movement. The rebels didn’t listen to their promises and threats. They are the true martyrs of their time and their people.

Los Comuneros de Castilia (1860)

Józef Brandt (1841-1915) was one of the most famous Polish battle painters and in my opinion the best. He specialized on scenes from the 17th century, the great and dramatic period of Polish history.

His preferred heroes were the Cossacks from the eastern provinces, who fought in this time normally against the Poles. Brandt’s paintings are so convincing, so realistic because he concentrated more on everyday life scenes than on the great battles, which he also painted.

There’s a Cossack on guard, a wild colorful figure in a wide landscape. This is no pretentious painting, it is reduced to the absolutely necessary.

Returning from Vienna. Here are the victors who saved Vienna in 1683. They are returning with there trophies, their exotic booty and their prisoners. 

This is a very interesting Art Nouveau painting by the Austrian Maximilian Liebenwein (1869-1926).

Saint George, as though the world were full of devils... (1908)

Sure it’s not a real history painting, neither it’s a religious painting. It pretends to show Saint George but he’s painted as a medieval knight. As model for the costume and the title served the engraving from Albrecht Dürer (1470-1528) Knight Death and the Devil (1513).

The fantastic battle scene with the realistic costume reminds me also of the painting "Beserk" by the American fantasy artist Frank Frazetta (born 1928).

I don’t think that Frazetta knew Liebenwein or his painting. But it is a good example for the strong influence of history painting on modern fantasy art. When painters like Liebenwein abandoned the pretension to be "realistic" they turned into the forefathers of fantasy.

Beyond any doubt this is a very romantic painting. A Gaelic bard is fleeing from an English castle in Wales and curses his pursuers from above a cliff. This nice story is based on the legend that king Edward I ordered to kill all bards to suppress Gaelic culture.

But anyway the artist John Martin (1789-1854) was famous as a landscape painter. And it’s nice to see that he puts some mountains from the Swiss Alps into Wales. The whole scenery is a theatrically arranged invention.

The Bard (c. 1817) 

Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier (1815–1891) was a well known military painter, who focused on subjects from the Napoleonic wars. There he preferred everyday life scenes instead of glorious battle scenes. The result was a kind of military genre painting, which implied a certain authenticity.

Information: General Desaix and the Peasant (1867)


The Rest (1870)

The Polish history painter Jan Matejko (1838-1893) shows here his famous compatriot Nicolaus Copernicus in a conversation with God. Copernicus and his tools are illuminated by the divine light from above.

Astronomer Copernicus: Conversation with God (1872)

The Return of the Crusader (1835) by the German painter Carl Friedrich Lessing (1808-1880).

The Romantic painter Lessing shows an old disillusioned warrior coming home. Sure that he left a lot of his ideals back there in the war. May be that some crusaders returned like this, but painting must be seen in the context of the conservative restoration in Europe that ended the liberal and national dreams.


The Excommunication of Robert the Pious (1875) by the French painter Jean-Paul Laurens (1838-1921).

Laurens was the last of the great French history painters. Excellent skilled by his academic studies he preferred anticlerical subjects.


The Black Brunswicker (1859-60) by John Everett Millais (1829–1896).

Millais shows here a member of that famous German mercenary corps that fought in British service against Napoleon. The young soldier parts from his lover before the battle of Waterloo. He is characterized by his black uniform and the prominent skull and crossbones on his hat. But I think these signs are serving also to indicate his almost certain fate, because the Brunswickers suffered terrible losses at Waterloo.

Neither the Brunswickers nor Millais could suspect that the well designed black uniform with the skull and the bones should become very popular in the German right-wing Freikorps movement after the First Worls War and become on this way the pattern for the uniform of the SS.


Mehmed II enters Constantinople with his army by the Italian painter Fausto Zonaro (1854–1929).

Zonaro is an interesting character. After he studied art in Italy he moved to Turkey and lived for many years in Istanbul, where he became a kind of Turk by choice. Moreover he had great success with his history paintings glorifying the highlights of Turkish history. That’s the cause why today there can be seen history paintings in the best European academic tradition in some public buildings in Istanbul.


An allegory is a figurative of representation of something abstract. Allegories became very popular in Renaissance and Baroque painting. Normally virtues, feelings or moods like Justice, Fidelity or Melancholy were represented by young women. Later with the discovery of the world these women were also used to symbolize the new continents. Europa was just known, now she was accompanied by the new invented Asia, America and Africa.

Europe Supported By Africa and America (1796). A typical 19th century illustration by William Blake (1757–1827).

Allegories as national symbols became popular not before the rising nationalism as a reaction on the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.

Germania and Italia (1811-28). This peaceful allegory is by the German Romantic painter Johann Friedrich Overbeck (1789-1869) one of the founders of the Nazarene movement. Both people, the Germans and the Italians, were suppressed and far away from forming nations. Without nations, nationalists from many kingdoms were supporting each other.

But this harmony passed by in some decades. Here Germania (1849) by the German painter Christian Köhler (1809-1861) is called to arms by Justice. And she’s not only reaching for the sword, but also for the imperial crown.

Hardly surprising that with the beginning of the First World War the once so peaceful Germania has changed to an aggressive Valkyrie with armor, shield and sword and the crown on her head.

Germania (1914) by Friedrich August von Kaulbach (1850-1920).

There are a lot more examples from all European nations. Interesting and a little sad is how these once so peaceful figures were transformed into something so aggressive and hateful, they were mobilized.


Boer War (1901) by the English painter John Byam Shaw (1872-1919).

This painting reminds me a lot of "The Proscribed Royalist" by Millais. It’s that untypical absence of heroism, that concentration on the civil aspects of war, which made them comparable.

The "Boer War" is far, far away, as indicated by the green typical English countryside, which is so different from the dusty South African bush. The war is only represented by the lone woman, who is mourning because she lost somebody over there.


The Hunting of Chevy Chase (1825-1826) by the English painter Sir Edwin Henry Landseer (1802-1873).

Landseer was one of the best animal painters in the Victorian age. Here he chose a historical subject based on a popular ballad about the medieval border wars between English and Scots. The result is, that the animals are nearly perfect, but the medieval costumes are a little ridiculous. Who would go hunting with chain mail and crown??

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