Saturday, August 29, 2009

Barbarian Ancestors

Rome was the ideal pattern for Empires and because of that there was mostly a close relation in France between French - i.e. Napoleonic history - and ancient Rome. So the French needed much more time to discover their sympathies for their barbarian ancestors than their German neighbors.

That changed with the French defeat 1871 and the end of the Empire of Napoleon III. Also in France now appeared paintings with fierce barbarian warriors as symbols of natural, national power.

Some of the best of this kind of paintings were from the French painter Joseph-Noël Sylvestre (1847-1926). It’s clear that he is totally with the barbarians, who are cutting the Romans to pieces.

The Gaul Ducar decapitates the roman general Flaminius in the battle of Lake Trasimeno (1882)

The sack of Rome by the barbarians 410 (1890)

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


On the first look it seems to be a normal religious painting, a crucifixion. But after a few seconds you will notice the other crosses more in the back. And maybe then you will remember that you have heard of slave revolts in Rome - probably you have seen the film Spartacus! So the tortured slaves (the working class) take here the place of Christ.

The Damned Field, Execution place in the Roman Empire (1878) by the Russian painter Fyodor Andreyevich Bronnikov (1827-1902).

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Iwo Jima Flag

The photo "Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima" taken on February 23, 1945, by Joe Rosenthal is probably the most reproduced photograph of all time. It was the only photograph to win the Pulitzer Prize for Photography in the same year as its publication, and it became in the United States one of the most important national icons.

Nevertheless it’s a photograph and no painting! But the crucial point is, that it depicts not the first flag-raising. This happened some hours earlier and was photographed by Staff Sergeant Louis R. Lowery.

Later there was a big discussion and Rosenthal was accused that he "could not resist reposing his characters in historic fashion." Meaning that he arranged his photograph like a history painting! Rosenthal and all the surviving witnesses always denied that he did so. But they became all famous because of the photograph and had therefore a lot to loose.

But anyhow that’s not very important in our context. Our crucial question has to be: Why became Rosenthal’s photograph an icon and a million seller and that of Lowery was nearly forgotten? The answer is simple: Because Rosenthal shot a perfect history painting whether accidentally or not. It fulfilled all the esthetic requirements (formed by 19th century paintings) but could be accepted as "realistic".

The poster of the film "Flags of Our Fathers" (2006) by Clint Eastwood is even optimizing this history-painting-effect by adding to the dramatic action and the pyramidal group the typical illumination. It’s clear, Eastwood refers to a painting, a monument, an icon, not to a realistic photograph.
Recently appeared the painting "September 11th" by the American contemporary artist Jamie Wyeth. Now the history painting is quoting a photograph, which was quoting history paintings. The circle is closing. Once history painting pretended to be realistic and failed, now it seems that it returns more to the roots, wanting to be an icon.

Monday, August 17, 2009

A Moorish Excutioner

Execution Without Hearing Under the Moorish Kings in Granada (1870) by the French painter Henri Regnault (1843-1871).

One art historian wrote about this painting, that "the painter had played with the blood of the victim as if he were a jeweller toying with rubies." I think, that hits the nail on the head. Regnault was primarily interested in orientalistic and exotic subjects. He was inspired to this painting by old legends during his stay in Spain.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Assassination of Messalina

The death of Messalina by the French painter Georges-Antoine Rochegrosse (1859-1938).

Rochegrosse was a well known history painter, who turned more and more to oriental subjects. But often he mixed historical and oriental sceneries to dramatic exotic paintings.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Fighting for Slavery

The Polish military painter January Suchodolski (1797-1875) depicts here a very problematic episode of the Napoleonic wars. Many exiled Poles served Napoleon as soldiers, but when the Emperor made peace with Austria, Russia and Prussia he wanted to rid himself of these problematic allies. So he sent them in 1801 to Haiti to suppress the slave revolt there. So the Poles, who once fought for their freedom ended as mercenaries of French slaveholders. Most of them perished in that absurd and cruel war.

Polish troops on Haiti

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Siege of La Rochelle

The French Henri-Paul Motte (1846-1922) was a student of the famous Gérôme and became a very experienced history painter, whose paintings were frequently as illustrations in books and magazines.
Here he depicts the great Cardinal Richelieu at the Siege of La Rochelle the last Huguenot stronghold in France. To block the seaward access to the city Richelieu ordered a long fortified seawall to be build.

Cardinal Richelieu at the Siege of La Rochelle (1881)

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Execution of Jane Grey

The famous French history painter Hippolyte Delaroche (1797-1856) depicts here the Execution of Lady Jane Grey, who had been queen of England only for nine days, when she was deposed by the Catholic Mary I, who became later known as 'Bloody Mary' for her persecution of the Protestants. Delaroche concentrates totally on the personal drama, the poor and helpless queen, the weeping court ladies, even the executioner seems touched.

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey (1833)