Saturday, December 26, 2009

Two Adventurers

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.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Princes in the Tower

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.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Theatrically Assassination

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.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Last Grenadier

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.

Friday, December 4, 2009

A King like a Rock

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.

Sunday, November 29, 2009


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 Battle of Marengo

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Archaic Cruelty

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.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Oriental Rituals

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

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Echoes of History

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.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Norwegian King

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.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Female War Paintings

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.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Archaic Orient

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.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Influence of History Painting

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

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Napoleon's Sight of Moscow

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.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Glorious Past

The glorification of the past by the Dutch artist Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912). Alma-Tadema visited the ruins of Rome and Pompeii and revived them in his paintings. But it’s not only a reanimation, Alma-Tadema’s paintings are much sweeter than Roman reality could have been.

Unconscious Rivals (1893)

The Colosseum (1896)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Hussite Sermon

Hussite Sermon (1836) by the German romantic painter Carl Friedrich Lessing (1808-80).

Lessing depicts here the revolutionary Hussites as an idealized example. They are demanding a reform of the Catholic Church and of the feudal society. Disguised as a history painting it’s an explicit critic of German society during the restoration after Napoleonic wars, a prelude to the Revolution of 1948.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Moor's last sigh

El ultimo suspiro del moro (1892)

The Spanish painter Francisco Pradilla y Ortiz (1848-1921) is relating here a nice anecdote about the fall of Granada in 1492. When the Sultan Boabdil, the last Moorish ruler in Spain, had to leave his beloved Granada he turned around and made a big sigh. As legend tells his mother approached him and said: "don't weep like a woman for what you could not defend as a man".

Salman Rushdie took this legend as an inspiration for his famous novel “The Moor's Last Sigh”.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Cossacks in Battle

Two more paintings by the great Polish artist Józef Brandt (1841-1915). He was glorifying the great past of Polish history in the 17th century.

Return of the Cossacks (1894)

Battle over the Turkish Banner

Friday, October 2, 2009

Dreams Are Born

The Boyhood of Raleigh (1870) by John Everett Millais (1829–1896).

Millais depicts here Sir Walter Raleigh, the best known English explorer of the Elizabethan age. But he didn’t show him on board fighting the Spanish or pointing to distant horizons. Millais shows him as a boy listening fascinated the stories of an old sailor, maybe a pirate. The subjects of the painting are not the heroic deeds, but the way dreams were born.

Millais' eldest son Everett sat for the figure of Raleigh on the left, and his second son George for the other boy.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Nordic Goddesses

At the end of the 19th century Nordic mythology became more and more fashionable. For one part this was because the European nations were looking for their own cultural roots. But a much bigger influence had the operas of Richard Wagner. Nordic heroes, gods and Valkyries seemed more interesting than the Greek Olympians.

The Valkyrie's Vigil (1906) by the British painter Arthur Hughes (1831–1915).

Frigg Spinning (1909) by the British painter John Charles Dollman (1851-1934).

Despite both artists pretended to paint Nordic goddesses they continue depicting girls in the typical classical costumes. A winged helmet alone doesn’t make a Valkyrie. Moreover you should know that in their origin Valkyries were a kind of bloodthirsty demons. These painters wanted to be wild, but not too much.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Capriciousness of Life

Caius Marius Meditating in the Ruins of Carthage (1807).

The American painter John Vanderlyn (1775-1852) shows here the Roman general and politician Caius Marius in his exile in Northern Africa. Upon the ruins of Carthage he is thinking about the capriciousness of life, about his own future and his destiny. It is not known if Marius visited the ruins of Carthage, they serve here as a typical symbol of vanity. History passes by and in the end probably there are only ruins to tell of grater times.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Dirty War

Vasily Vasilyevich Vereshchagin (1842-1904) was the most famous Russian battle and military painter. As one of the great representatives of Realism he don’t waste his time in showing glorious cavalry charges, normally he painted the dirty face of the war.

Firing squad in the Kremlin (1897-98)

The Night Bivouac of the Napoleon Army during the retreat from Russia in 1812 (1896-97).
Here are some more contemporary battle paintings by Vereshchagin.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

History as Exoticism

The Diversion of an Assyrian King (1878) by the American painter Frederick Arthur Bridgman (1847-1928).

Bridgman was specialized on oriental and exotic subjects. With good success he mixed both in paintings about old Egypt. Here he went even further showing the Assyrian King killing lions in the arena, although it is to doubt that arenas like this existed in the Assyrian empire. It’s a nice and well done painting, but it’s pure fantasy.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Prussians in Battle

The Battle of Hohenfriedberg, Attack of the Prussian Infantry by the German painter Carl Röchling (1855-1920).

Röchling was probably the most famous military painter of his time in Germany. He focused on subjects from the Prussian military history as it was wise in a Germany dominated by Prussians. Although he was more a good illustrator than a great painter, this painting has something special because it shows the Prussians as a military machine.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

A Difficult Job

The Battle of Hastings (c. 1820) by the British painter Frank W. Wilkin (1791-1842)

Although it’s not a really great painting, it’s interesting because it illustrates the first steps and problems of 19th century history painting. Wilkin painted it for the Battle Abbey near Hastings, a kind of national memorial. At his time there was enough historical literature about the battle of Hastings in 1066 and the famous Bayeux Tapestry was also well known. Nevertheless Wilkins painted the two kings like Greeks or Romans like he had probably learned to paint soldiers. From a modern point of view the crowns are also a little strange like the theatrically presentation of the arrow, which killed Harold.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Carlos de Viana

Prince Charles Carlos de Viana (1881) by the Spanish painter José Moreno Carbonero (1858-1942).

Even though Carlos de Viana was the eldest son of King Juan II of Aragon and heir to the throne, he was disowned by his father him in favor of his half-brother Fernando “The Catholic.” After a civil war Carlos was forced to retire in a monastery. Carbonero paints him there. Aa isolated resigned young man who has only his books and a dog as companion.
It’s an impressive work by this great Spanish artist.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Pre-Raphaelite Joan of Arc

In the 19th century in France Joan of Arc converted into a national hero fighting for the liberty of her country, which means she became the ancestor, the great grandmother of all patriots. In other countries she became popular too, even in England the homeland of her former enemies. But there her militant and patriotic aspects never reached great importance. There artists were much more interested in the devoted young woman. To the romantics united in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood she seemed to have been a kind of female Percival on his quest for the Holy Grail.

Joan of Arc (1863) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)

Joan of Arc (1865) by John Everett Millais (1829–1896)

Joan of Arc (early 20th century) by Annie Louisa Swynnerton (1844-1933)

It’s evident that in the focusing on the religious aspect these English romantics are abandoning the traditional history painting approaching instead the style of altarpieces.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Barbarian Ancestors

Rome was the ideal pattern for Empires and because of that there was mostly a close relation in France between French - i.e. Napoleonic history - and ancient Rome. So the French needed much more time to discover their sympathies for their barbarian ancestors than their German neighbors.

That changed with the French defeat 1871 and the end of the Empire of Napoleon III. Also in France now appeared paintings with fierce barbarian warriors as symbols of natural, national power.

Some of the best of this kind of paintings were from the French painter Joseph-Noël Sylvestre (1847-1926). It’s clear that he is totally with the barbarians, who are cutting the Romans to pieces.

The Gaul Ducar decapitates the roman general Flaminius in the battle of Lake Trasimeno (1882)

The sack of Rome by the barbarians 410 (1890)

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


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).

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Iwo Jima Flag

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.

Monday, August 17, 2009

A Moorish Excutioner

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.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Assassination of Messalina

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.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Fighting for Slavery

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

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Siege of La Rochelle

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)

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Execution of Jane Grey

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)

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Sweet Decadence

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)