Thursday, December 31, 2009


Joan of Arc interrogated in prison by the cardinal of Winchester (1824) by the French painter Hippolyte Delaroche, commonly known as Paul Delaroche (1797–1856).

This painting was a great success in its time, because of the illumination and the strong anticlerical and patriotic aspects.





MYA (11)

Another great defender of Christian Western civilization was the grandfather of Charlemagne the famous Charles Martel who defeated the Moslems in 732 in the Battle of Tours also called the Battle of Poitiers, which at least really happened.

This painting depicting the battle is by the French artist Charles Auguste de Steuben (1788-1856). It’s full of symbols. There is the cross, which has to be defended, there is the valiant Charles Martel with his impressive battle axe, and there is the old Abdul Rahman, who probably stayed in Spain. Abdul Rahman is fighting with a so called "falcate" a typical Pre-Roman Spanish sword. Probably the artist saw it in a Spanish museum and took it for typically Arab. 

This is a fresco painting from the town hall in Aachen. It shows Charlemagne in the battle of Cordova in 778. It’s by the German Romantic history painter Alfred Rethel (1816-1859) and dated from 1849/50.

It should be said that Charlemagne not even came near to Cordova or gained any battle in Spain. But these facts didn’t matter. The artist and his employers wanted to show the great defender of Christian Western civilization.

The whole image is a pure construction from the dramatic triangular composition to the imperial crown with which Charlemagne went to battle.

The old Celts became very popular in France at the end of the century. This painting by the French artist George Moreau (1848-1901) is called "Le Sacrifice à la Patrie" (1879).

The painting pretends to show Celtic warriors going to fight for their country. But the poses are borrowed from the volunteers of the war in 1870. The super patriotic woman is owed to the Liberty of Delacroix. Except the costumes the painting is pure 19th century. 

With growing nationalism for many European nations came the interest in their barbarian past. A good example is the French painter Evariste Vital Luminais (1821-1896), who had success with Merovingian, Viking and above all Celtic warriors.

Nothing about the great defeats. Here he is showing how the Celts are plundering Italy. In the background is decoratively burning a temple (though I doubt that temples will burn like this).

The booty consists once more in beautiful women - good old 19th century fashion!

The English painter Sir John Everett Millais, (1829–1896) one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood shows here a scene from the English Civil War. But Millais isn’t the typical battle painter. He’s more interested in the victims and in forgiveness.

The Proscribed Royalist 1651 (1853)

A Royalist who has been proscribed, is hiding in a tree while a Puritan woman is helping him. The date 1651 refers to the incident when Charles II hid in an oak.

Thusnelda led in Germanicus Triumph (1873) by the German painter Karl Theodor von Piloty (1826–1886).

Piloty shows Thusnelda the wife of the German superhero Arminius how she and other prisoners are driven through Rome in the Triumph of the victor Germanicus. That seems strange, because Piloty could have painted Arminius’ great victory over the Romans.

But he’s more clever. The German prisoners are a people full of pride and dignity, while the Romans are fat and decadent. The emperor looks gloomy, he seems to suspect that the future conquerors of Rome are passing by.

Diogenes (1860) by the French painter Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904).

With Gérôme Academic painting reached it's artistic climax. It's perfect but also artificial, almost synthetic. It is not without certain irony that such a rich and successful painter like Gérôme offered here his wealthy clients the ideal of renunciation

This is one of my great favorites in respect of Spanish conquitadores. It depicts Francisco Vázquez de Coronado heading north to Arizona and New Mexico and is by the famous American painter Frederic Remington (1861-1909).

With all the dust an the Indian scouts it looks like the US Cavalry on the march, a subject well known to Remington. But I think because he knew soldiers serving there in the desert, he suceeded in making one of the most realistic conquistador paintings.

While for example Leutze's "Cortez" seems still a kind of European history painting, this one has already something typical American.

It depicts the Spanish conquistador Ponce de Leon in Florida and is by the American painter Thomas Moran (1837-1926). Moran was a member of the Hudson River School and more a landscape than a history painter. But therefore and because he was deeply impressed by the dense forests of north Florida, he was able to show the forsakenness of this little group of Europeans in that enormous wilderness. This was something that you couldn't learn on the European academies.

Ponce de Leon in Florida (1878)

Looking for images with conquistadore I found this: The Storming of the Teocalli by Cortez and His Troops (1848)

It's by the German American history painter Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze (1816–1868) most famous for his painting Washington crossing the Delaware. Here he's using the same pyramidal composition, which he probably learned studying in Düsseldorf and München.

I don't know what the women are doing in the middle of that carnage. Maybe they should lift the dramatic effect.

Looking for history paintings illustrating the great past of the nations I discovered that there are almost no Spanish paintings about conquest of Latin America, probably the most heroic adventure of Spanish history. Sure there are some, but they are more illustrations by inferior painters. It seems that Spanish patriots in the 19th century were occupied by other subjects. America was lost and it seemed better to forget this.

Totally different was the situation in the USA. So was the Capitol rotunda in Washington decorated by the "Frieze of American History", a fresco painting which depicts in 19 scenes the great events from American history. Among these images by the Italian-American painter Constantino Brumidi (1805 – 1880) there can be found three Spanish conquistadores.

Cortez and Montezuma at a Mexican Temple

Pizarro going to Peru

Burial of DeSoto

It’s clear. In the late 19th century it was the USA claiming the great conquistadores as her ancestors, while Spain was still mourning the loss of her empire. Finally in 1992 (500 years Columbus) there was in Spain a new 1,000 pesetas bill showing the two conquistadores: Hernán Cortes and, Francisco Pizarro.

Besides the foundation by a Spanish conquistador a popular subject in Latin American historical paintings is the Christianization. It symbolizes the arrival of modern civilization and the importance of Catholicism.

But because of this these paintings are only typical for countries whose leading classes are strongly linked to Europe and are regarding themselves as whites. Normally the painters attended some years European art academies with the result that style and composition resembles a lot European academic painting.

The first divine service in Brasil (1861) by the Brazilian painter Victor Meirelles (1832-1903).

The first divine service in Chile (1904) by the Chilean painter Pedro Subercaseaux Errázuriz (1880-1956).

This is one of the typical paintings which can be found in many Latin American public buildings and museums. It depicts the foundation of a town, which means now that of a whole nation.

Here we see the “Foundation of Buenos Aires” (1910). It’s a work by the Spanish painter José Moreno Carbonero (1858-1942) and went as an official present from the Spanish king to Argentina.

Later Moreno Carbonero painted a second version which can be seen in his native city Málaga.

One a the great European history paintings is "Juana the Mad holding vigil over the coffin of her husband, Philip the Handsome" by the Spanish artist Francisco Pradilla y Ortiz (1848-1921).

There is no bright spanish sun or happy dancing and wine drinking people. It's a hard cold land. And there's this queen, pregnant and half-mad, beside her broken dreams.

I think the painting could only be understand by a look on the situation in Spain in the time of its creation. It was painted 1878 few years after the miserable end of the First Spanish Republic. Spain fought internal wars againts the Carlist insurrectors, and outside in Cuba, where it defended the small rest of the once so spledid empire.

So there was no time for optimism or happiness. To remain standing and to endure was the best to hope for.

Leif Eriksson Sights Land in America (1893) by the Norwegian painter Christian Krohg (1852-1925). This is one of the grat national icons. It depicts how the Viking Leif Eriksson discovered America.

Because that adventurer could be claimed as a Norwegian it's not surprising that the painting still got his place in the National Gallery in Oslo.

Even better, later the U.S.Senate bought a copy by Per Krohg, the son of the artist. This could be seen in the United States Capitol building in Washington.

I like the painting because Krohg painted Leif Eriksson as a sailor an not as a Wagnerian Viking with a horned helmet, like so many did.

The (modern) problem with history painting is, that most European languages doesn’t make any difference between "story" and "history". In French its only "histoire", in Italian "storia" and in German "Geschichte". The meaning is that likewise there wasn’t any difference telling or in our case painting a story if this was about things what had really happened or about religious or mythological subjects.

Important is that history paintings are "narrative", that means they want to tell something. Therefore it is crucial that the contemplator of a painting already knows the story so that he can understand the signs and symbols. The artist gives only a new interpretation of a well known story.

Because the artist and his audience are dependant of that common knowledge history painting was long dominated by religious subjects. Later when with the Renaissance Greek and Roman mythology became better known, paintings with these topics became popular. But still nearly nobody painted medieval heroes or battles, just for the simple reason that theses were not known at all.

But even when historical subjects (in a modern understanding) were painted they were normally taken from literature. Cäsar, Richard III were known because of Shakespeare and not from history books. Medieval Italy was known because of Dante. Later national heroes like Joan of Arc or William Tell could only become subjects of art because they were already known by literature.

It was then in the 19th century when history became a science with the pretension of objectivity, that some started to make a difference between history, religious and mythological paintings. But despite that history painting improved in many historical details like costumes and weapons it continued idealizing and romanticizing, in short it continued telling stories.

A typical Renaissance history painting. Salome with the head of John The Baptist. It was a well known story then. That the costume wasn't "historical" at all was of no importance.

A romantic 19th century painting. The princes in the tower. The painter made a good work in the historical details, but nevertheless the story is pure Shakespeare fiction.

Its still a story only in better costumes!

This painting depicts how the Danish king Valdemar IV - called "Atterdag" is ransoming the town of Visby on Gotland in 1361. The people has to bring a large amount of money otherwise their town will be burned.
Later this was regarded as a black day in Swedish history. The Swedes are symbolized by the mayor and his family in the center. They resemble the holy family. On the right the bad cruel king can be seen.
In spite of the lot of historical details the painting isn't very historical at all. The artist Carl Gustaf Hellqvist (1851 – 1890) painted it 1882 in München impressed by German medieval architecture and museums. So the houses are looking more like medieval Nürnberg than Visby.

But finally it is a construction similar to that of Royer's Vercingétorix. Hellqvist and his public knew that Sweden will defeat Denmark one time and that Gotland will be part of Sweden.

1899 exposed the French artist Lionel-Noël Royer (1852-1926) his most famous painting: "Vercingétorix throws his weapons to the feet of Julius César". It shows the blackest day in the (newly discovered) Gallic history. The crushing defeat of the Gallic rebellion in Alesia 52 BC.

t looks strange that a painting depicting a defeat was such a success. But it was the time of French revanchism. Vercingétorix may be defeated - as the French was 1871 - but he appears like a proud victor. The time of revenge will come.

I know that there's nothing like "Realistic Symbolism" but it's the only characterization which matches this painting. It's one of my favorites and by the French battle painter Louis-François Lejeune (1775-1848).

It depicts the bloody carnage in the fighting for the monastry Santa Engracia in Saragossa of February 8, 1809. Lejeune took part in the fighting himself and should be probably the wounded soldier near the center.

The fighting in Saragossa is considered one of the most brutal battles of the Napoleonic Wars. It is known for its extreme brutality and ferocity of the street fighting.

Lejeune depicts in this detail fanatical monks and women who are heroical resisting the charging french troops.

So far, so good. Lejeune as an witness and an experienced painter gives a detailed depiction of that battle (The painting is from 1848). But all is arranged far beyond any realism. At first there are the two well arranged groups, which are confronted in an diagonal line. Then there is the spectacular (divine) light from above, which is illuminating like a spotlight the Pietà in the center.

And that's the Symbolism, in the face of the lamenting Mother with her dead son, men are slaughtering each other without any mercy!

Thats a great message and a great painting but it's not realistic. The Pietà is an pure invention of Lejeune as can be seen on the older engraving.

But that wasn't enough. Leujeune replaced even the gothic roof decorations by statues of vultures. I like especially that detail! But thats why I call it Realistic Symbolism.

Als an extremely successful artist Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904) exploits the same subject as Siemiradzki.

The Christian Martyrs Last Prayer (1883)

Sure this painting pretended to show martyrdom. But at least its an well aranged spectacle (even the sky fits) where the viewer could feel a kind of pleasant horror.





MYA (11)

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