Death of history painting

At the end of the eighteenth century, art flowed along several currents. History painting, the primary current, was in its heyday and remained the undisputed champion until ‘history’ intruded into contemporary events with the French Revolution. This current continued into the middle of the nineteenth century with Delacroix.

Another important current used myth to launch the modern preoccupation with inward-looking psychology. It’s interesting that the same artists, the Neoclassicists, for instance, followed both paths simultaneously.

The academic art of the nineteenth century that the early modern artists rebelled against was from the second current (history painting died mid-century). Bouguereau, one of the preeminent 19th-century academic artists and the chief villain in the Undergraduates Big Book of Art History, painted genre and mythic subjects. He had no interest in history.

Of these currents, only the second has echoes today, although most people use ‘myth’ to actually mean fantasy and has no underlying reality.

History painting died because artists lost confidence in their political alliances. During the French Revolution, competing voices disagreed about what was worth commemorating. Then, as today, artists could be canceled for being on the wrong side of the political divide. It was worse for canceled artists then than today. David, the greatest artist of the past 250 years, barely escaped execution during the Revolution after his radical Montagnard friend Robespierre was beheaded.

David’s Death of Marat is the best example of ‘history’ intruding into current events. The revolutionary Montagnard Marat’s assassination was an important story to his contemporaries, including his fellow Montagnard David.

David’s Death of Marat

The last noteworthy current, realism, was in its infancy at the end of the eighteenth century. By realism, I mean substituting the particular for ideal beauty. Realism implies interaction with nature with the possibility of discovery.

To my mind, the immortal David’s history paintings were more successful than his myth-based paintings. David spent a lot of time on this painting and considered it one of his best. Putting aside the dreary army of 19th-century imitators, this painting lacks David’s psychological realism and dynamic design.

David’s Mars Disarmed by Venus

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