Illustrating National History

Peter Burke

Where older generations studied the history of “historiography”, in the sense of studies of the past written by scholars, a new and broader approach focuses on the history of “historical culture”, in other words the history of different attitudes to the past or visions of the past, whether expressed in writing, speech or images (De Groot, 2008; Lowenthal, 1985; Thomas, 1983; Woolf, 2003). In similar fashion, the discipline of art history was used to focus almost exclusively on works of art produced by important artists, but in the last few years, this approach has been challenged by an alternative, Visual Studies, concerned with images of many different kinds in a variety of media. The chapter that follows is situated at the meeting point of these two relatively new approaches, concerned as it is with pictorial expressions of historical culture in an age of nationalism.

Early Modern Paintings and the Long Nineteenth Century

The great age of historical paintings in Europe and the Americas was the nineteenth century, especially a long nineteenth century running from 1789 to 1914, from a rise linked to the celebration of the French Revolution to a decline

This essay is a revised and expanded form of what was originally a paper given at conferences in Mexico and Brazil, published as “Pintores como historiadores na Europa do seculo 19”, in Cornelia Eckert, Jose de Souza Martins and Sylvia Caiuby Novaes (eds.) O imaginario e o poetico nas Ciencias Sociais, Bauru (Edusc) 2005, 15-32. My thanks to listeners in Mexico City, College Park Maryland, Caxambu and the University of Uppsala for their questions and comments.

P. Burke (*)

History Department, Cambridge University, Cambridge, UK © The Author(s) 2017

M. Carretero et al. (eds.), Pagrave Handbook of Research in Historical Culture and Education, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-52908-4_8

following the horrors of the First World War. This was not, of course, the first age in which such images were produced. From the Renaissance onward, scenes from ancient history, especially the history of ancient Rome, were frequently represented, usually as moral examples for moderns to try to imitate.

Andrea Mantegna painted Roman triumphs, for instance, while Veronese represented the clemency of Alexander the Great toward the family of his enemy King Darius. The seventeenth-century artist Charles Lebrun, working for Louis XIV, painted the same scene in a series of episodes from the life of Alexander. In the Dutch Republic, Pieter Lastman painted Coriolanus (1625), while Rembrandt chose as the subject for a painting intended to decorate the new town hall of Amsterdam the Batavian Claudius Civilis planning rebellion against ancient Rome (1662). At the end of the eighteenth century, Jacques- Louis David illustrated some memorable moments from Roman history, from the Oath of the Horatii (1785) to The Lictors bring to Brutus the Bodies of his Sons (1789).

Subjects taken from medieval and modern history were less common, but they can also be found in Italy and elsewhere. In Renaissance Florence, both Leonardo and Michelangelo painted battle scenes from the recent history of the city in the council chamber of the Palazzo della Signoria. Raphael decorated the Vatican with scenes from the early history of the popes. The Doge’s Palace in Venice was filled with scenes of battles that the Venetians had won and other historical events in which Venice or Venetians played an important role: the visit of Pope Alexander III to Venice, for instance, or the conquest of Constantinople by Venetian forces. Less well known, but precious evidence of public interest in post-classical history, are paintings such as Caesar van Everdingen’s Duke Willem II of Holland granting privileges (1655) or Charles- Joseph Natoire’s Clovis Besieging Bordeaux (1737).

Despite this long tradition, it is generally agreed that the great age of history painting runs from 1789 to 1914 (Paret, 1997: 65), especially the second half of the nineteenth century, whether we define “great age” by the famous artists who specialized in the genre (Paul Delaroche in France, for instance, John Millais in England, Adolf Menzel in Prussia or Jan Matejko in Poland) or whether we define it by the sheer numbers of historical paintings produced at that time. Dissenters, like the scholar who has written of the “death” of history painting around the year 1808 (Prendergast, 1997: 197), are relatively rare. After 1900, and still more obviously after 1914, historical painting declined in importance, threatened on one side by the rise of the new media of photography and film and on the other by a reaction against the glorification of war, a glorification to which many artists had contributed.

In the case of France, Britain and Germany, historical painting has been studied in considerable detail. However, the genre was practiced much more widely in the nineteenth century from Central and Eastern Europe (Gyula Benczur in Hungary, Theodor Aman in Romania, Ilya Repin and Vasily Surikov in Russia) to the New World (Alberto Urdaneta in Colombia, for instance, Martin Tovar in Venezuela, Felix Parra in Mexico, John Trumbull in the USA or Pedro Americo de Melo in Brazil). Italians such as Stefano Ussi and Domenico Morelli, Spaniards such as Jose Maria Casado del Alisel and Antonio Gisbert Perez, Netherlanders such as Nicolaas Pieneman, Belgians such as Louis Gallait and Swedes such as Gustaf Cederstrom and Carl Gustaf Hellqvist all made important contributions.

Looking at the rise of the genre from within art history, this appears to be a case of the French leading and others following. It is clear, for instance, that the work of the Frenchman Paul Delaroche made a great impact in Italy and Spain, on Ussi and Morelli, for instance, and on Casado and Gisbert (Reyero, 1989).

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