Art History

Renaissance and Mannerism (c.1400 - c.1600)

Altdorfer: The Battle of Alexander at Issus Since the Renaissance is held responsible for the redisco very of the antiwuity, it is also regarded as kind of the beginning of modern historiography and thereby also of history painting.

On closer inspection, however, the change is much less radical. Saints and historical figures are shown as before in contemporary costumes. Sometimes there is indeed a kind of "classical architectural background" which seems to indicate a distant time or culture, but in the end it only corresponds to the prevailing taste of the Renaissance.

Moreover, it seems the interest in the past is largely confined to the classical myths and the stories of the Old Testament. The artists used the historical mainly as an excuse to satisfy the apparently very strong demand for female nudes. Because of that there are so many representations of the Judgement of Paris, of Danae, Bathsheba or Susanna and the Elders.

And even if a real historical event became the subject of a painting like in Altdorfer's Battle of Issus (1529) the only historical is at last the explanatory text. Darius' chariot looks like an alien element in that 16th century battle.

Despite the new interest in history there is still little "historicized." This was certainly partly due to the extremely poor knowledge about the past. But first of all the artists didn't want to show people from long bygone times, but universal examples in their ideal form. History was only as a mirror through to reflect on the eternal problems of mankind.

Cranach the Elder , Lucas (1472-1553)
Altdorfer, Albrecht (c.1480-1538)
Massys, Jan (c.1509-1575)
Brueghel, Pieter (c.1525-1569)

Baroque (1600-1750)

Rembrandt: Batavians Concerning the interpretation of history there is not so much difference between Renaissance and Baroque. Still the myths of antiquity and the Old Testament provide by far most of pictorial motifs. Nevertheless, it can be noticed that that historical knowledge is slowly gaining broadness. Homer's epics, the Aeneid of Virgil and the works of other Roman authors became popular. In addition a better knowledge of ancient architecture and clothing.

For history painters of the era, it became nearly mandatory to decorate the backdrop with some classical architecture and to dress up the depicted figures in costumes which were imagined to have been worn by the ancient Romans. Partly the enthusiasm for the ancient architecture goes so far that some painters as for example Claude Lorrain used historical subjects more as an excuse to depict more and more classical fantasy buildings.

The love of classic decor could even go so far that some artists such as Rubens thought it appropriate to present current rulers in an ancient ambience. History, i.e. then exclusively that of the ancient world, became an ideal role model after which the actual world is depicted. Furthermore the old classical myths became increasingly important, as allegories of human virtues or abstract concepts they became integral parts of the iconography.

In a way, some generations ahead of his time seems to be Rembrandt with his painting "The Conspiracy of the Batavians". Here he left not only the sphere of the Greco-Roman antiquity, but also invoked the "national" history of the Netherlands, which began at this time their War of Independence against Spain.

Barocci, Federico (1528-1612)
Lorrain, Claude (1600-1682)
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669)
Bourdon, Sébastien (1616-1671)

Rococo (1750-1789)

Rococo painting by Boucher Often, the existence of an independent Rococo era is denied. Instead it is called "Late Baroque" where the once monumental and theatrical is modified into the lightness and easiness. Which means, of course, that the austerity and the simplicity of the classical forms and their heroic contents are abandoned to a general shallowness and banality. In short, many consider Rococo as the cheap and cheesy brother of Baroque.

History paintings with their main objective in the theatrical representation of a great past, are therefore rare exceptions. But this doesn't mean that love and interest in history have vanished in general. It is rather the exact opposite. For many of the festivities and ceremonies at court the classical antiquity was the favoured decoration. The Rococo also strengthened enormously the popularity of the classical myths and gods, which gained more and more space once occupied by the Christian religion and its pictorial representations.

History in its mythical representation is ubiquitous. It's used to decorate the palaces, classical temples are constructed in the gardens and the nobility is fond of to be portrayed as ancient heroes or deities. In this process real historical persons, myths and legends are mixed generously. Alexander the Great and Perseus, Cleopatra and Venus, in the end everything is just exotic material that will provide the desired glory.

This focusing on the playfulness and the decorative finds its counterpart in the style of painting. Compared to the often very formal and dramatic chiaroscuro effects of the Baroque the Rococo painters rather prefer the loose structures, bright colors and soft pastels.

Many take all this for kitsch, and the Rococo frequently was condemned by the posterity. Nevertheless, one should perhaps pay some attention to the strong impact which the Rococo had on the art of the late 19th Century. The playful and exotic approach to history and the appropriate aestheticizing style had probably a far stronger influence on history painting than the appellative formalism of Neoclassicism. For example modern fantasy painting - maybe the most important offspring of history painting - has its strongest roots in Rococo.

Tiepolo, Giovanni Battista (1696-1770)
Natoire, Charles-Joseph (1700-1777)
Boucher, François (1703-1770)