Thursday, December 31, 2009


Charles XII of Sweden and Ivan Mazepa after The Battle of Poltava (1880) by the Swedish painter Gustav Cederström (1845-1933).

Charles XII had waged war against many countries and some people even compared him with Alexander the Great. Finally he let his troops deep into the south of Russia, where he lost the decisive battle of Poltava which was the beginning of the end. Cederström shows here the defeated and wounded king with his ally Mazepa the Hetman of the Ukrainian Cossacks. Mazepa is pointing to the south, to Turkey where new allies could be found.
Sweden was lost but the adventure went on

The Sons of Edward IV in the Tower (1830) by the French history painter Hippolyte Delaroche (1797-1856).

Since Shakespeare’s Richard III the story of the poor sons of Edward IV who had been murdered in the Tower had caused a lot of speculations and artwork. The cruel fate of these pretenders to the English throne had inspired especially romantic painters in the 19th century.

Assassination of Alboin, King of the Lombards (1859) by the English painter Charles Landseer (1799-1879), the elder brother of the better-known and more successful Sir Edwin Henry Landseer (1802-1873).

Landseer depicts here the Assasination of Alboin king of the Lombards and conqueror of Italy. As legend tells Alboin fell victim to a plot by his wife Rosamunde.
It’s nothing particular that Landseer is mixing here legend and reality. But what’s really strange is the unnatural posture of the persons. There is no real "action" they look like they were posing for a photograph.

The Last Grenadier of Waterloo by the French painter Horace Emile Jean Vernet (1789-1863).

Even though Vernet became famous as a battle painter this is much more a kind of symbolism. The cross with the setting sun behind and the lonesome contemplating soldier, nothing is real or had anything to do with the battlefield in the evening

Peter the Great at the Battle of the Col de Panissars (1889) by the Spanish painter Mariano Barbasán Lagueruela (1864-1924).

Barbasan depicts here the great king of Aragon stopping an French army of crusaders in the Pyrenees. Some of the Aragonese soldiers hesitate or are looking even a little scared viewing the overwhelming forces of the enemy. But the king stands firm and proud like a continuation of the rocks under his feet.
But it’s not only a well composed painting. It’s typical for the heyday of European history painting. The weapons, the chainmail, the coat of arms, all these details are historically as perfect as possible.

One of the uncountable battle paintings concerning the Napoleonic Wars by the French painter Louis-François Lejeune (1775-1848). He depicted one of Napoleons big victories.

The French painter Evariste Vital Luminais (1821-1896) who preferred subjects from the barbarian period of French history depicted here a scene from the Merovingian period.

The tortured sons of Clovis (1880)

When in the absence of their father the two sons of Clovis II rebelled, their mother Bathilde had their tendons cut and sent them immobilised down the Seine where they finally reached a Benedictine monastery.

The appealing of the painting is the strong contrast between the peaceful river scene and the cruel story which is indicated by the wounded feet and the dead like bodies.

The American painter Frederick Arthur Bridgman (1847-1928) was specialized in oriental subjects. Sometimes he added further a historical scenery. These two paintings underline the success of this method. The second (I don’t know which one was the first, but this doesn’t matter) is more or less a copy with some different columns and some persons more.

The Procession of the Bull Apis

The Procession of the Sacred Bull Anubis

Echoes of Roncesvalles (1890) by the Spanish painter Antonio Muñoz Degrain (1840-1924).

This painting refers to the battle of Roncesvalles in 778, where Charlemagne's rear guard was annihilated by the Basques. But it’s far more than the typical pseudo-realistic battle painting.

Muñoz Degrain became well known for his traditional history paintings. But later he moved to impressionism, which changed not only his way of painting but also his view on history.
Although there is a canyon with skeletons to be seen, this is obviously not Roncesvalles or at least no realistic depiction of it. The impressionist Muñoz Degrain is not interested in this. History is no portrayable, it’s covered by myths and legends. And because of that he painted only the echoes - the impression.

The crowning of Olav I Tryggvason of Norway (1860) by the Norwegian painter Peter Nicolai Arbo (1831-1892).

Arbo was a romantic painter who specialized in historical and mythological subjects. Here he depicted one of the greatest kings in Norwegian history. This was especially important in the 19th century when Norway was struggling for her independence from Sweden.

Elizabeth Thompson, later Lady Butler (1846-1933) was not only one of the few female painters in Victorian Britain, she was moreover probably the only female war painter. John Ruskin Britain's leading art critic at this time had the opinion "that no women could paint". After seeing Roll Call Ruskin admitted: "But it is Amazon's work, this; no doubt of it, and the first fine Pre-Raphaelite picture of battle we have had."

The Roll Call (1874)

Elizabeth Butler depicts here the exhausted soldiers after battle counting their dead and wounded. Without any doubt a great painting, bur I can not discover any Pre-Raphaelite characteristics.

Remnants of an Army (1879)

This is William Brydon arriving at the gates of Jalalabad. He was the only survivor of an army of 16,500 soldiers, which had left Kabul in January 1842.

Heads of the Rebel Beys at the Mosque of El Hasanein (1866) by the French painter Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904).

Gérôme mixed oriental and historical subjects. Probably he depicts the end of a rebellion against Ali Pasha in the early 19th century. But the whole scenery and the costumes are so archaic that it could also have happened in much older times. But I think that this was the primary reason why Gérôme was so fascinated from the Orient.

At the beginning of the 20th century history painting was out of fashion. It’s kind of realism was displaced by modern art. Sure that there were some incurable epigones, but really good artist painted anything except history. Nevertheless history painting and 19th century art in general had a much bigger influence as it is normally noticed. Great parts of the artistic perception of modern photographers were shaped by 19th century art.

The great influence of history painting is evident in the photos of the great photographer of the American West Edward Sheriff Curtis (1868–1952). They may be called "realistic" but in the end they are arranged and illuminated like good old history paintings.

An Oasis in the Bad Lands

Prayer to the Mystery

The Medicine Man

Napoleon's First Sight of Moscow by the British military painter Laslett John Pott (1837-1898).

Pott shows the false triumph of Napoleon, the elusive relief of his exhausted men. On the horizon is Moscow, but destiny is symbolized by the skeleton in the lower right corner.

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