An illustration by the
French artist Paul Lehugeur (1854-1932?) for “Histoire de France en
cent tableaux”, Paris, 1886. There is the Gaul chieftain Brennus
weighing the Roman ransom money in 387 BC. According to Livy, during
a dispute over the weights used to measure the gold, Brennus threw
his sword onto the scales and uttered the famous words "Vae
victis!", which translates to "woe to the conquered!"
Le droit du
Seigneur (1874) by the Russian painter Vasily Dmitrievich Polenov
(1844-1927). It's highly probale that this medieval right ever
existed. Nevertheless the artist made up a real spectacle where an
old man brings his young daughters to their feudal lord.
History painting dates back to the Renaissance and was long considered to be the "grand genre". Nevertheless it has its peak in the 19th century forged by Neoclassicism and Romanticism. There it became the artistic contribution in the process of the construction of National Identities of the European and American nations.
At the same time history painting under the influence of historism pretended to be "realistic", to show history how it has been. Above all it was this pretension that led to the great failure of History painting AND Realism at the end of the century.
When artists and their public realized that telling history always will be subjective and a painting will always be an illusion Realism and history painting lost their ground to modern painting.