Tuesday, April 28, 2009

La primera misa

Besides the foundation by a Spanish conquistador a popular subject in Latin American historical paintings is the Christianization. It symbolizes the arrival of modern civilization and the importance of Catholicism.

But because of this these paintings are only typical for countries whose leading classes are strongly linked to Europe and are regarding themselves as whites. Normally the painters attended some years European art academies with the result that style and composition resembles a lot European academic painting.

The first divine service in Brasil (1861) by the Brazilian painter Victor Meirelles (1832-1903).

The first divine service in Chile (1904) by the Chilean painter Pedro Subercaseaux Errázuriz (1880-1956).

Saturday, April 25, 2009


This is one of the typical paintings which can be found in many Latin American public buildings and museums. It depicts the foundation of a town, which means now that of a whole nation.

Here we see the “Foundation of Buenos Aires” (1910). It’s a work by the Spanish painter José Moreno Carbonero (1858-1942) and went as an official present from the Spanish king to Argentina.

Later Moreno Carbonero painted a second version which can be seen in his native city Málaga.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Joanna the Mad

One a the great European history paintings is "Juana the Mad holding vigil over the coffin of her husband, Philip the Handsome" by the Spanish artist Francisco Pradilla y Ortiz (1848-1921).

There is no bright spanish sun or happy dancing and wine drinking people. It's a hard cold land. And there's this queen, pregnant and half-mad, beside her broken dreams.

I think the painting could only be understand by a look on the situation in Spain in the time of its creation. It was painted 1878 few years after the miserable end of the First Spanish Republic. Spain fought internal wars againts the Carlist insurrectors, and outside in Cuba, where it defended the small rest of the once so spledid empire.

So there was no time for optimism or happiness. To remain standing and to endure was the best to hope for.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Leif Eriksson

Leif Eriksson Sights Land in America (1893) by the Norwegian painter Christian Krohg (1852-1925). This is one of the grat national icons. It depicts how the Viking Leif Eriksson discovered America.

Because that adventurer could be claimed as a Norwegian it's not surprising that the painting still got his place in the National Gallery in Oslo.

Even better, later the U.S.Senate bought a copy by Per Krohg, the son of the artist. This could be seen in the United States Capitol building in Washington.

I like the painting because Krohg painted Leif Eriksson as a sailor an not as a Wagnerian Viking with a horned helmet, like so many did.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Story and History

The (modern) problem with history painting is, that most European languages doesn’t make any difference between "story" and "history". In French its only "histoire", in Italian "storia" and in German "Geschichte". The meaning is that likewise there wasn’t any difference telling or in our case painting a story if this was about things what had really happened or about religious or mythological subjects.

Important is that history paintings are "narrative", that means they want to tell something. Therefore it is crucial that the contemplator of a painting already knows the story so that he can understand the signs and symbols. The artist gives only a new interpretation of a well known story.

Because the artist and his audience are dependant of that common knowledge history painting was long dominated by religious subjects. Later when with the Renaissance Greek and Roman mythology became better known, paintings with these topics became popular. But still nearly nobody painted medieval heroes or battles, just for the simple reason that theses were not known at all.

But even when historical subjects (in a modern understanding) were painted they were normally taken from literature. Cäsar, Richard III were known because of Shakespeare and not from history books. Medieval Italy was known because of Dante. Later national heroes like Joan of Arc or William Tell could only become subjects of art because they were already known by literature.

It was then in the 19th century when history became a science with the pretension of objectivity, that some started to make a difference between history, religious and mythological paintings. But despite that history painting improved in many historical details like costumes and weapons it continued idealizing and romanticizing, in short it continued telling stories.

A typical Renaissance history painting. Salome with the head of John The Baptist. It was a well known story then. That the costume wasn't "historical" at all was of no importance.

A romantic 19th century painting. The princes in the tower. The painter made a good work in the historical details, but nevertheless the story is pure Shakespeare fiction.

Its still a story only in better costumes!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Great Defeats: Visby

This painting depicts how the Danish king Valdemar IV - called "Atterdag" is ransoming the town of Visby on Gotland in 1361. The people has to bring a large amount of money otherwise their town will be burned.
Later this was regarded as a black day in Swedish history. The Swedes are symbolized by the mayor and his family in the center. They resemble the holy family. On the right the bad cruel king can be seen.
In spite of the lot of historical details the painting isn't very historical at all. The artist Carl Gustaf Hellqvist (1851 – 1890) painted it 1882 in München impressed by German medieval architecture and museums. So the houses are looking more like medieval Nürnberg than Visby.

But finally it is a construction similar to that of Royer's Vercingétorix. Hellqvist and his public knew that Sweden will defeat Denmark one time and that Gotland will be part of Sweden.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Great Defeats: Alesia

In 1899 exposed the French artist Lionel-Noël Royer (1852-1926) his most famous painting: "Vercingétorix throws his weapons to the feet of Julius César". It shows the blackest day in the (newly discovered) Gallic history. The crushing defeat of the Gallic rebellion in Alesia 52 BC.

t looks strange that a painting depicting a defeat was such a success. But it was the time of French revanchism. Vercingétorix may be defeated - as the French was 1871 - but he appears like a proud victor. The time of revenge will come.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Realistic Symbolism

I know that there's nothing like "Realistic Symbolism" but it's the only characterization which matches this painting. It's one of my favorites and by the French battle painter Louis-François Lejeune (1775-1848).

It depicts the bloody carnage in the fighting for the monastry Santa Engracia in Saragossa of February 8, 1809. Lejeune took part in the fighting himself and should be probably the wounded soldier near the center.

The fighting in Saragossa is considered one of the most brutal battles of the Napoleonic Wars. It is known for its extreme brutality and ferocity of the street fighting.

Lejeune depicts in this detail fanatical monks and women who are heroical resisting the charging french troops.

So far, so good. Lejeune as an witness and an experienced painter gives a detailed depiction of that battle (The painting is from 1848). But all is arranged far beyond any realism. At first there are the two well arranged groups, which are confronted in an diagonal line. Then there is the spectacular (divine) light from above, which is illuminating like a spotlight the Pietà in the center.

And that's the Symbolism, in the face of the lamenting Mother with her dead son, men are slaughtering each other without any mercy!

Thats a great message and a great painting but it's not realistic. The Pietà is an pure invention of Lejeune as can be seen on the older engraving.

But that wasn't enough. Leujeune replaced even the gothic roof decorations by statues of vultures. I like especially that detail! But thats why I call it Realistic Symbolism.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

More Martyrs

Als an extremely successful artist Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904) exploits the same subject as Siemiradzki.

The Christian Martyrs Last Prayer (1883)

Sure this painting pretended to show martyrdom. But at least its an well aranged spectacle (even the sky fits) where the viewer could feel a kind of pleasant horror.

Nero’s Torches

When Roman decadence has become a popular subject artists discoverd christians martyrs. It wasn't the old martyrs well known from religious paintings. Know art favoured a morbid horror show. Here the viewer of the painting is more absorbed by the roman side, he is not suffering, he is watching the spectacle.

This painting "Nero’s Torches" (1876) by Henryk Hector Siemiradzki (1843-1902), shows how christian martyrs are burned alive on stakes. But just as important (or even more) are the roman costumes, all the exotic details and the half naked slave girls.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009


Once people were prepared to see Rome as a decadent nation they started to enjoy this decadence. Roman chariot races, christian martyrs and above all the great show in the arena.

The first picture is the most famous by the French painter Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904). He called it "Pollice Verso" (1872), what means "thumb down". He's glamorizing the bloody spectacle as usual in his paintings.
But nevertheless its a great work and Ridley Scott said that he was convinced by it to make his movie Gladiator.

This painting is called "The Spoliarium" (1884) and it's by the Filipino painter Juan Luna y Novicio (1857–1899). It has not that glorification in Gérôme's style.
Luna didn't want to entertain at first, he wanted to critizize the abuses of the colonial rule in the Philippines.