History painting

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An example of history painting : Jan Matejko , adoption of the Constitution of May 3, 1791 in Warsaw , painted on the occasion of its centenary in 1891. It shows how members of the Sejm enter St. John's Cathedral to the cheers of the residents of Warsaw , where the oath on the just adopted Constitution should be filed. The focus is Sejm Marshal Stanisław Małachowski , who is carried on the shoulders by enthusiastic MPs and waves the constitutional text. The painter only gave King Stanislaus II August Poniatowski a minor role. He can be seen at the left edge of the picture (with a hat) greeting his mistress Elżbieta Szydłowska .

The history painting is an art form that its origins in the Renaissance has. In history painting , historical, religious, mythical-legendary or literary material is depicted condensed into an ahistorical moment .

An important characteristic of history painting is that the main characters shown can be named. Often the focus is on a hero , a single person portrayed as acting autonomously. History pictures serve its deliberate transfiguration, its exaggeration and the development of a historical myth , not a realistic representation of a past event. They were often commissioned, acquired or exhibited by rulers.

The genre of history painting

One reason for the emergence of this art discipline was the changing awareness of history and an associated need to depict the past with certain intentions. Artists painted historical motifs in large format and sometimes in coherence with the exhibition venue, which they interpreted and faked in pictures.

What history painting has in common in all art historical epochs is the demarcation from the event picture , which often depicted everyday occurrences such as field work or city life. The history picture, on the other hand, can and wants to tell of the historically special moment through timeless and transferable symbolism. Often the question arises whether a history painting is art or history. Both disciplines can provide an answer to this, which must be understood depending on the scientific perspective.

For the historian , the history picture is also history or history insofar as one abstracts the depicted historical moment from the history of its creation and the circumstances in which the painter found himself. Views and intentions as well as design elements typical for a time give the history picture an actual historical content. The content, which is often skillfully staged, manipulated or trimmed to a level of truth, is only the interpretation of an event or the interpretation of the past by the artist. Starting from this point of view, one can now approach the picture from the perspective of art. The content and expression of history pictures are determined by the aesthetic design principles of art, so that the visual staging of history is to be regarded as art (work).

The artistic staging and design of the painter is usually not done by himself , since intentions such as the adoration of the rulers, which for the political self-portrayal of a person or a state and its legitimacy were often commissioned by the parties represented. In this way, artistic personal work and political purpose are mutually exclusive. However, this dimension was not necessarily clear to the contemporary observer, because the often transfigured depiction seemed real to the recipient . So in very few cases there was a separation of fiction and reality, which was due to the level of education but also the degree of maturity of large parts of society.

Furthermore, the tangibility of the image as a medium was an advantage, since something was depicted objectively in it. In this sense, the artist interpreted the past in the present, the time of creation of the picture, taking a certain perspective and thus updated it for the audience. The viewer was to be shown a symbiosis between the past and the future initiated by the image, with the aim of historizing the depicted material in memory. This visual offer was particularly tempting for naive and uneducated recipients.

The origin and development of history painting

15th century

In the 15th century, in addition to the disciplines of genre , portrait , landscape and still life , that of history painting developed . Not least because of the increasing preoccupation with one's own identity and the past of society, this genre was formed through a previously unavailable awareness of history and the past.

There was a consensus that a person was more difficult to depict than a landscape and for this reason a hierarchization gradually developed among the painters. They enjoyed a higher reputation for creating histories or portraits and were also paid better. The content and motifs of the first history pictures were based on elements and figures from the ancient world and thus adapted the figures or themes from mythology . In addition to this creative function, the pictures consistently had historical or religious content, and it was not uncommon for them to combine both together in the picture.

Italy can be located as the center of the first phase of history painting, where Leon Battista Alberti dealt with the art theory of this genre from an early age. For him, the history painter should have a special status among the other artists. In addition to historical factual knowledge, which was important for the content of the picture, the painter should be able to inspire the viewer through the design of reality that he aligned in the picture. In order to leave this effect on the recipient, the primary educational goal of a painter was to study nature and mathematics - not humanistic education - in order to make figures and elements of the picture as appealing as possible through the mimesis of reality.

16th Century

François Dubois : Bartholomew's Night (after 1576)

The design principles of the 15th century should initially also be adhered to in the following 16th century. The conception of the slowly emerging Italian art theory continued to provide the painter with guidelines and frameworks for his work. The fact that history painters absolutely must also have knowledge of the historical materials they are depicting matured further. The form of representation also claimed that the viewer should be attracted and affected by the image. What was new was the requirement to maintain the convenevolezza - the observance of the appropriateness of the presentation. In this way, idealizing motifs were pushed back as far as possible in theory and appealed to the painter's art of representation. In addition to the influences of the Catholic Church on motifs and image content - works of art were often interpreted as sermons in images - the demand for a simple reading of the images characterized this phase of history painting. Gabriele Paleotti called for a stringent and clear design that should make it easier for the viewer to read the images. Furthermore, he saw the medium of image as an opportunity to address a much larger group of recipients than was possible with fonts and texts, as only a few people enjoyed training in reading and writing. The transition from Renaissance to Baroque , known as Mannerism , presented the painter not only as an artistic craftsman who designed pictures, but rather as the creator of a work whose talent is reflected in the works he creates.

17th century

Nicolas Poussin : The Rape of the Sabine Women (1637/38)

Towards the end of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th century, the center of (historical) painting increasingly shifted from Italy to France . Here too, opinions about the purpose and content of history painting were increasingly divided. On the one hand, this genre became the subject of the discipline now institutionalized at the Académie Française . The Art Committee of the Academy had both organizational and conceptual tasks in the field of painting. The council decided on the assignment of the status of the professional title of painter, on the rules of the predominant art, on the years of apprenticeship and apprenticeship of painters as well as the functionalization of painting in political matters. On the other hand, painters and critics like Roger de Piles held on to the independence of painters. De Piles took a clear opposite position to academic art , the core of which related to the perception of the painter and not to established regularities. However, both approaches to art theory, that of the Academie and that of de Piles, combined the educational and moral aspects that history paintings had.

18th century

The early achievements of the 17th century in the field of art criticism opened up an even greater debate in institutions, but also by private individuals, with the subject of history painting in the 18th century. Denis Diderot once again exposed the dichotomy that already existed between the basic ideas of the Académie Française and those of de Piles. An opposition between aesthetic design principles in the sense of the painter himself and the conservative rules of painting is difficult to reconcile, according to Diderot. In the contemporary painters he only saw the inability to transfer moral statements of the depicted heroic figures into the picture, so that there was no expression of passion. Diderot's thoughts on aesthetics even went beyond the old principles of the genre, and he gave expressive landscape painters the same status as history painters.

The art theorist Louis Etienne Watelet, on the other hand, clearly rejected this assessment and saw the genre hierarchy in painting as well founded. Since the history painter needs more knowledge than artists in other disciplines, he must be accorded more fame and support, according to Watelet. Furthermore, he demanded that the public and the institutions as well as ruling houses have to support the history painter through commissions.

Benjamin West : The Death of General Wolfe (1770)

The discussion between the rules of painting and the independent design principles was decisively broken by the painter Benjamin West . In West's picture The Death of General Wolfe, the focus was no longer directly on the design principle, but rather on the content presented. West painted, as the title suggests, the death of the British general James Wolfe in the battle of the Plains of Abraham against French troops near Quebec in September 1759. The special thing about this picture was that it showed an event in contemporary history and immediately after Death of the general was made. After some discussions about the exhibition of the picture, West prevailed and it was made available to the public. West justified his picture by saying that, in addition to the position of the painter, he also saw himself as a historian whose duty it was to document such important contemporary history in the medium of the picture.

European artists and theorists, on the other hand, initially continued to grapple with the form of representation. Richardson and Shaftesbury advocated centering the hero figure; in it facial expressions and gestures should be aligned in such a way that the viewer is addressed morally and sympathetically by the image. The Englishman Joshua Reynolds once again referred to the rules of the Académie Française in his art doctrine. According to him, the training of a painter should contain three essential elements: the instruction to draw, the copying of models and the study of antiquity. However, these conservative ideas were mixed up with a changed focus on the recipients. Reynolds rejected the idealization of individuals and followed the change in society by calling for the images to be more oriented towards the bourgeois audience. The Swiss-English painter Johann Heinrich Füssli , who, alongside Reynolds and West, was one of the most important of his time, identified three categories of painting: the historical, the epic and the dramatic element. The historical category should receive the least attention here, since the recipient is most addressed by dramatic and epic design principles. In Germany, an art-theoretical examination of images emerged relatively late. The reason for this was, on the one hand, the change in historical awareness that had only now taken place in the course of historicism , so that historical pictures met with an excited audience in many places. In addition to exhibitions, they also found their place in printed form in magazines . In the public, there was above all a need for an authentic representation in pictures, as there was a poor source of written sources about the past and the present.

19th century

History painting in the area of ​​today's Germany developed later than z. B. in Italy and France. Pictures from the late 18th and early 19th centuries showed epic-philosophically exaggerated events in world or regional history up to popular narratives; here, military and battle paintings as well as monumental paintings predominated.

In the second half of the 19th century, some major European powers pushed ahead with their colonization efforts. This opened up new perspectives and content to painters. The cult of personality was also practiced in the medium of the image . Also patriotism was discussed figuratively.

The art critic Robert Vischer demanded with regard to the form of the representation that history pictures should be "cheerful and devoid of myths" and should have a clear artistic coloring. Accordingly, like some of his European predecessors, he established rules of art, which he was later to revise in favor of the freedom of art. His ideal was now the free artistic development, which, however, should aim at an expressive image.

Cornelius Gurlitt transferred this dispute between historical knowledge and the design of the pictures, which Alberti had already discussed in the 15th century, to the recipients. In his opinion, viewing the history pictures by an uneducated observer only means half aesthetic and factual enjoyment. Furthermore, he appealed to the design principles of contemporary painters, as they glorify history through the idealized portrayal of people and facts and cause a “atrophy of reality” in the picture.

Richard Muther saw it similarly , albeit with a somewhat more distant analysis by assigning history painting to the task of imparting historical knowledge. The function and purpose of history painting was very complex, especially in the 19th century, as a spectrum of use can be recorded from private edification and sentimental emotion to scientific knowledge and illustrative instruction.

The year 1871 was particularly significant in Prussia. After Prussia's victory against France in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870/71 and the proclamation of the German Empire in Versailles, i.e. on enemy territory, the past was received by numerous painters in favor of the political ruling elite, including the emperor, in order to legitimize the long-forced national unity . From the second half of the 19th century five central motifs can be identified that were intended to serve this project in a manipulative manner: The first of these motifs was the battle in the Teutoburg Forest in AD 9 between Varus and Arminius , also known as Hermann the Cheruscan known, from which Hermann emerged as the winner, who was understood as the first German in the visual re-functionalization of the 19th century. In the wake of the establishment of the empire, he was not only paid homage to him in a few paintings, such as those of Karl Friedrich Schinkel and Friedrich Gunkel , but also the Hermann monument in Detmold, inaugurated in 1875 .

The second historical event that was received and alienated in many ways is the death of Frederick I Barbarossa . His death in 1190 in Anatolia during the Crusades was adapted and repurposed by artists. Thus Wilhelm I appears in a picture in the Barbarossa scroll, which should not imitate the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, but rather must be interpreted as a picture of the successor or executor of the intentions of Frederick I. Since Barbarossa in contemporary painting showed a strong resemblance to the crucified Jesus due to the artistic design, appeals were made not only to political traditions, but also to the religiosity of the nation. Even Friedrich Kaulbach and Hermann Wislicenus ( Goslar Imperial Palace ) worked to the Barbarossa motif and transfigured it in the sense of political intentions. The presence of the name Barbarossa was still clearly noticeable beyond the turn of the century, because not only Wilhelm I, but also Adolf Hitler with the Barbarossa company tried to legitimize their claims to power and rule in Europe with the name of the former emperor.

A person whose religious background was updated as a German in the 19th century is also used for the next motif. Martin Luther , who was portrayed as an enlightener in pictures by artists, although he was much more likely to be alive. The painter also uses this example to interpret a historical event in the retrospective: Luther's burning of the ban threat scrolls in 1520. Catel keeps this in his picture Martin Luther burns the papal bull and canon law . In the creative symbolism of the 19th century, Luther is portrayed as the reformer and enlightener of the Germans, who brought the language of the many to the few (educated) through his Bible translations; at the same time, this suggests to the viewer of these images that Luther was the founder of the Protestant empire was. In the alienation caused by art and politics of the 19th century, the Reformation thus served as an important hub for the origin of national unity.

In the chronological order of time, the next historical event cannot be located again until the beginning of the 19th century. The Battle of the Nations near Leipzig in 1813 and the preceding war years were not only incorporated into political and literary writings, but also into contemporary history. Thus the intellectual elite prepared themselves in words and pictures to bring about a solidarity and patriotic cohesion of the population against the French enemy led by Napoleon.

Ferdinande von Schmettau offers her hair on the altar of the fatherland 1813, painting by Gustav Graef

The painting Ferdinande von Schmettau sacrificing her hair on the altar of the fatherland was one of the most famous pictures of the time; it combined all the motifs intended for the historical event in image and title. The elements of unity and willingness to make sacrifices as well as religious motifs are made clear in the title and in the graphic representation and expanded by other works in the areas of voluntary reporting to war and later by the motif of the victor. Like the theme of Barbarossa, that of the Battle of the Nations near Leipzig was incorporated into the history of the following century. In 1913 the Völkerschlachtdenkmal near Leipzig was inaugurated and here, too, an estrangement took place. The memorial, designed specifically for the fallen, served as a symbol of the German victory, but without the Russian-Austrian alliance against Napoleon, the latter would probably not have been defeated either.

The founding of the German Empire, the unification of Germany, can be identified as the fifth significant historical event. At the historical moment of the imperial proclamation , German history seemed to have come true as the military victory of the German armies under the leadership of Prussia. Anton von Werner was commissioned to take part in this event as an artist in order to capture it in the picture. In Werner's three versions of his painting The Proclamation of the German Empire (January 18, 1871) one can see how history can be received and shaped by the painter. The perspective of the viewer changes in all images, so that the perspective of the German princes and the military is represented in the version for the Berlin Palace from 1877, the Prussian army in the version for the Hall of Fame Berlin from 1882 and the Hohenzollern family as a gift to Bismarck from 1885 . A side effect of the change in perspective is the increase in attention to detail. The focus of the last, the Friedrichsruher version, is on Kaiser Wilhelm I and Crown Prince Friedrich III. , Bismarck , Moltke and Roon . Werner painted them all in a photo-realistic manner as they look in the present, not in 1871, but in 1885. He showed how far they have come in the present. He only painted the long deceased Roon, who could not take part in the proclamation, how he had looked in 1871 and how the other sitters remembered him, and how he had portrayed him in 1871. Werner's aim was to emphasize the merit of the Emperor and Bismarck and the Prussian generals in the fifteenth year of the empire in this version. Here, too, the history picture does not show how history was, but should be seen.

Similar to Anton von Werner, Hermann Wislicenus was also commissioned to design paintings that should enter into a symbiosis between past and present. After the imperial palace of Goslar was in need of renovation towards the end of the 19th century, Wislicenus won a competition to renovate and redesign the residence. The 52 murals he designed in the Kaisersaal formed a chronological sequence of German history with themes such as medieval imperial glory, an allegory of the Sleeping Beauty that represented the awakening of the German states from deep political sleep, and ultimately the founding of the German Empire in 1871. The motifs symbolize the historical development of the empire, which has now come to life again, as seen in this way by the artist and his clients.

What is important with all paintings of the time is the demand for effectiveness on the viewer, which is why the right way of publication had to be found to guarantee them. For this purpose, on the one hand, exhibitions such as the National Gallery (founded in 1861), which, based on the French model, were initially intended exclusively for history paintings. Another publication option was to use the outside of public buildings, such as the Munich court arcades . The histories created here were commissioned by the state and, in addition to the development of national pride, which was in the foreground, should also serve as a means of education for the people. At his suggestion, Peter von Cornelius was awarded the contract in 1826 to organize and design the arcades with 16 pictures of the history of the Wittelsbach house since Otto I founded the dynasty. Ob Ernst Förster's painting Liberation of the Army in the Chiusa Gorge by Otto von Wittelsbach in 1155 or Karl Stürmer's Max Emanuel during the conquest of Belgrade in 1688 , the respective important persons of the Wittelsbach house always stand in the center as hero figures in glorious poses. In this series of history paintings, too, an attempt was made to motivate national patriotism through art; although the contemporary Sulzer remarked that the pictures do have educational advantages in terms of content, but are no competition for historiography. The reasons in the area of ​​image design and choice of motifs are, as shown above, due to historically striking events and personalities. The observer's acceptance of these representations is based on the turning point in Europe after the phase of the French Revolution. The term freedom was henceforth tied to that of the nation or the state and thus the community living in a state was oriented accordingly. By visualizing myths and history, the idea of ​​unity was interpreted as the ultimate goal on the path to the well-being of the nation. Mythical and legend-like material, such as a sleeping Barbarossa, who portrays the political situation before the founding of the empire in 1871 as a deep sleep, should enable historical references and continuity to previous epochs.

See also


  • Sven Beckstette: The history picture in the 20th century. Artistic strategies for the representation of history in painting after the end of the classical picture genres. Dissertation, Free University, Berlin 2010 [1]
  • Wolfgang Brassat : The history picture in the age of eloquence. From Raffael to Le Brun. Akademie-Verlag, Berlin 2002, ISBN 3-05-003757-1 .
  • Monika Flacke (Ed.): Myths of Nations. A European panorama. Catalog. Berlin 1998.
  • Stefan Germer , Michael F. Zimmermann (ed.): Images of power. Power of pictures. Contemporary history in representations of the 19th century. Munich / Berlin 1997.
  • Ralph Gleis : Anton Romako. The emergence of the modern history picture. Vienna, Cologne, Weimar 2010, ISBN 978-3-412-20613-0 .
  • Thomas Gaehtgens , Uwe Fleckner (Ed.): History painting. Reimer, Berlin 1996, ISBN 3-496-01138-6 .
  • Werner Hager : History in Pictures. Studies in history painting of the 19th century. Hildesheim, Zurich, New York 1989.
  • Thomas Kirchner : The epic hero. History painting and art politics in 17th century France. Fink, Munich 2001, ISBN 3-7705-3397-6 .
  • Harald Klinke: American history painting. New pictures for the New World. Graphentis Verlag, Göttingen 2011, ISBN 978-3-942819-00-8 .
  • Rudolf Kuhn: Invention and Composition in Monumental Cyclical History Painting of the 14th and 15th Centuries in Italy. Lang, Frankfurt a. M. 2000, ISBN 3-631-37022-9 .
  • Ekkehard Mai , Anke Repp-Eckert (Hrsg.): Triumph and death of the hero. European history painting from Rubens to Manet. Catalog. Cologne 1987.
  • Ekkehard Mai (Ed.): History painting in Europe. Paradigms in form, function and ideology. Mainz: von Zabern 1990.
  • Rainer Schoch : The “Belgian Pictures”. A dispute of principles in history painting of the 19th century. In: Karl Möseneder , Ed .: Dispute over pictures. From Byzantium to Marcel Duchamp . Reimer, Berlin 1997, ISBN 978-3-49601169-9 , pp. 161-180.

Web links

Commons : History  painting - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. The generic name history or history painting is etymologically derived from the word historia or istoria .
  2. ^ Norbert Schneider: Historienmalerei / From the Late Middle Ages to the 19th Century , Böhlau Verlag, 2010, p. 11.
  3. After Monika Flacke: Myths of the Nation.
  4. So Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld .
  5. ^ About Louis Gallait , "The abdication of Emperor Charles V in favor of his son Philip II in Brussels on October 14, 1555" and about (Jean Francois) Edouard de Bièfve (1808–1882). Karl announced his abdication in 1555, the handover to the two successors took place in 1556 in two steps, so there are always different dates of the transfer of power. A replica of the Gallait picture in the holdings of the Städelsches Kunstinstitut and Städtische Galerie, Frankfurt. Pictures online