History Painting and Its Changing Subjects

Traditional European history painting showed scenes from scripture or Greco-Roman history. These were the most important paintings because they showed the most important subjects. The seventeenth-century art of Nicolas Poussin was a significant model for this tradition. In the late eighteenth century, however, artists began to present contemporary subjects in history paintings. In an influential essay published in 1938, Edgar Wind argued that it was these late eighteenth-century painters who first showed present-day events outside of Europe and then turned to contemporary subjects. Soon enough, present-day events were as important as those depicted in old master history painting. This was a decisive change in how both history and art were understood. This essay collection charts the development of history painting using well-illustrated case studies discussing famous figures as well as some lesser-known artists. It features accounts of traditional history painting; discussions of the marketplace for this artistic genre in the eighteenth century; and varied examples of history painting after modernism, which allowed that any important subject whatsoever can, with sufficient motivation, become the subject of a history painting. As such, we now have contemporary history paintings showing present-day political developments, the global economy, and the concerns of ecology.