Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Defending Civilization

The Romans cause a wall to be built (1857) by the Scottish painter William Bell Scott (1811-1890) .

Scott depicts here the construction of the Hadrian's Wall in Northern England. While the work is going on it is already attacked by the barbarian Scots. So it permits the people to live in peace.

Monday, December 20, 2010


The battle of Jena by Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier (1815–1891). Another of Napoleon’s great victories by the well known French battle painter.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Bitter Grief

Mourning her Brave (1883) by the American painter George de Forest Brush (1855-1941). A great symbolic painting about grief, the tragic end of a people.

Above all in it's simplicity and it's nearly abstract, two dimensional execution it's a really modern painting. It doesn't pretend to be realistic, it's a powerful impression of a tragedy.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Patriotic Death

The Swiss painter Konrad Grob (1828-1904) depicted here the heroic deed and death of his legendary compatriot Arnold Winkelried in the Battle of Sempach in 1386.

According to legend, the Swiss could not break the close ranks of the Habsburg knights. Winkelried threw himself into the pikes with the cry "a breach for liberty" facilitating the victory of the Swiss. It’s typical 19th century painting but nevertheless it’s well done, confronting very dynamically the poor armed and clad but energetic Swiss farmers with the Austrian wall of steel.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Colossus of Rhodes

The Colossus of Rhodes (1914) by the Spanish painter Antonio Muñoz Degrain (1840-1924). When he painted this Muñoz Degrain had long moved to impressionism and done several journeys to Turkey, Syria and Egypt. So the painting is less a historical but much more a reflection about light and life in the Near East.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Art Nouveau Knight

A knight errant from the beginning of the 20th century by the Austrian painter Erwin Stolz (1896-1987).

Maybe he represents Sir Galahad searching the Holy Grail. In the best Art Nouveau manner the painting reduces perspective and colors but is instead full of symbols like the divine light from above or the wild geese an old icon for wandering adventurers,

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Classical Barbarians

The Death of Viriathus the chief of the Lusitanians (1807) by the Spanish painter José de Madrazo y Agudo (1781-1859).

Viriathus was the most important leader of the Lusitanian when they resisted Roman expansion into the regions of Western Hispania, today Portugal. Viriathus fought with great success against the Romans until he was betrayed to the Romans and killed in138 BC.

So it’s not astonishing that Viriathus was discovered in the 19th century by the patriots of Portugal and Spain as a kind of early national hero fighting foreign oppressors like Napoleon in their present days. But surprising is at least the fact that Madrazo depicted the barbarian chieftain and his followers as Greek or Romans. The whole painting resembles a lot the “Oath of the Horatii” (1784) by David. The explanation is that Madrazo was a pupil of David in Paris. And as the Lusitanians are looking like their Roman enemies, the Spanish patriot painted like his French adversaries.

Monday, August 2, 2010

On The Way To Destiny

Wallensteins on his way to Eger (c.1861/62) by the German painter Karl Theodor von Piloty (1826–1886).

Piloty was the leading German history painter of the late 19th century. Here he depicted the most important General of the Catholic League during the Thirty Years War. Wallenstein on the peak of his power was on his way to Eger. There he planned to start peace negotiations on his own but was murdered by some of his officers.

It was this vicinity of power and failure, the fall from great height what Piloty fascinated. There is a mighty army moving, but in front are already waiting the gravediggers – looks like a quotation of Hamlet.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Egyptian Artist

Egypt (1902) by the American artist Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966).

Maxfield Parrish was a famous Illustrator of the Art Deco era, who worked regularly for great magazines like Colliers, Scribners or Century. He experimented a lot with new techniques and achieved above all dazzlingly luminous colors. Like many modern artists of that time Parrish renounces to paint a historical illusion. To him history is only a kind of decoration, a fantasy, so he doesn’t pretend to be realistic. His Egyptian artist is much more color, form and elegance.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Doors of Tamerlane

The Doors of Tamerlane (1872-73) by the Russian painter Vasily Vasilyevich Vereshchagin (1842-1904).

Vereshchagin served in the Russian army in their campaigns in Central Asia and participated in military actions against the Emir of Bukhara and fought with bravery in the defense of Samarkand. During these campaigns he became fascinated by the live and culture of the people there. He painted later many Central Asian warriors in their archaic look. Or he painted like here historical warriors guarding the palace of Tamerlane in Samarkand resembling their actual heirs.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Classical Ideal

View of the Acropolis in Athens (1846) by the German artist Leo von Klenze (1784 - 1864). Klenze was above all a well known architect who studied classical architecture in Greece and Italy and designed public buildings in this tradition in Munich. So he wasn’t very interested in narrating old stories but more to show how his ideal may have looked like.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Patriotic Icon

The Departure of Jeanne d'Arc

Entrance of Jeanne d'Arc at Orleans

These two romantic paintings of the national icon Jeanne d’Arc are by the French painter Jean-Jacques Scherrer (1855-1916). Scherrer did them in the 1870s after the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian war, when he left his beloved Alsace which was lost in the war.
So Jeanne is here a kind of patriotic consolation and hope for a victory in the future.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Rider on the Pale Horse

Napoleon’s Vision (1910) by the Polish painter Wojciech Kossak (1857-1942). Wojciech Kossak was the son of the famous history painter Juliusz Kossak and became well known for his battle paintings. Despite he preferred normally a more realistic depiction he shows here a symbolic interpretation of Napoleon. Napoleon appears as one of the four
Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the rider on the pale horse whose name was Death!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

A Bitter Death

The Last Voyage of Henry Hudson (1881) by the British painter John Collier (1850-1934).

The great English sea explorer and navigator Henry Hudson traveled on his last expedition in 1611 far north in search of the Northwest Passage when his crew mutinied and set him adrift in a small boat with six of his men and his young son. They were never seen or heard of again.
Collier dramatizes the moment when Hudson already knows about his certain death but has also to face this of his confident son.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Daughters of the Cid

The Daughters of the Cid (1879) by the Spanish painter Ignacio Pinazo y Camarlench (1849-1916).

Legend tells that the daughters of the famous Spanish hero, the Cid, were once expelled by their husbands the princes of Carrión. But there is nothing told of torture, nudeness and so on.

Nevertheless Pinazo y Camarlench used the subject to paint two sweet suffering nude girls during his scholarship in Rome. Interesting is that a generation earlier a painter would have used a classical subject to present his nudes, but now the artist turned more to his own national history, which was invented as well.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Nordic Kitsch

To Valhalla

Wotan takes leave of Brunhild (1892)

These two illustrations by the German painter Konrad Wilhelm Dielitz (1845-1933) are typical for the popular Nordic fantasies at the end of the 19th century so strongly influenced by Wagnerian stage decorations.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Entering Constantinople

The Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II "the Conqueror" entering Constantinople in 1453 by the French painter Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant (1845-1902).

Entrée de Mehmed II dans Constantinople (1876)

Constant where had studied in Paris and was a pupil of Alexandre Cabanel. Later he traveled to Morocco and was strongly influenced by Orientalism. Probably because of that he took here more the romantic eastern perspective than the traditional western.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Folkloristic Varangians

The Vikings who went in the 9th and 10th centuries on the great rivers to Russia were called Varangians and are considered as important co-founders of the later Russian states. Here two interpretations by Russian painters who belonged to the avant-garde of their time.

Guests from Overseas (1899) by Nicholas Roerich (1874–1947).

Volga Song (1906) by Vassily Vassilyevich Kandinsky (1866-1944).

It’s interesting to observe that Roerich as well as Kandinsky abandoned the traditional forms of "realistic" history painting and came to a more ornamental and abstract style. They didn’t pretend to narrate history "as it has been", they show history more as a kind of folkloristic aesthetic heritage.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Perfect Luxury

Preparation in the Coliseum (1912) by the Dutch painter Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912).
This was the last great painting by the famous artist. Above all it strikes by it’s details: the marble, the flowers, the silver, the furs.

Most impressive are probably the fruits and the plates on the marble table. Here a detail.

Sometimes people are quoting artwork like this as "real art" opposite to less well done modern art. But I think it’s more symptomatic of the decline of history painting in general. Almost obsessed Alma-Tadema amasses more and more of these perfectly painted details, probably to ensure the value of the painting to underline his knowledge of the past.

But a well done illusion is not already art. For example Alma-Tadema was very afraid of falsifications and introduced a special identification system together with his signature. Sure it’s an impressive painting and it’s much better than a lot of kitsch in that time, but it hasn’t for example half the power of a good illustration by Howard Pyle.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Merry Old Times

Day in a tavern (1880) by the Spanish painter Luis Ricardo Falero (1851-1896).

Above all Falero became famous for his fantasy paintings of gorgeous nude fairies and witches. Nothing against that, but it indicates that the artist painted at first what could be sold easily.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Ornamental Death

These two illustrations are by the Austrian Art Nouveau painter Carl Otto Czeschka (1878-1960) and belonged to the book "Die Nibelungen. Interpreted by Franz Keim" (Wien and Leipzig 1909)

Like in the artwork by Howard Pyle the turn to a subjective interpretation of history can be observed. Even much more Czeschka refrains from any naturalistic depictions. His illustrations are first and foremost decorative ornaments. Nevertheless are his arms and costumes much more historical than that on history paintings which pretended to be realistic. And above all he achieves a kind of neo-Romanesque style like that of medieval illuminated manuscripts.
Really great art!

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Marble Body

Death of Cleopatra (1874) by the French Orientalist painter Jean-Andre Rixens.

Like many of his colleagues Rixens shows here the dead Cleopatra bitten by an asp as it was told by Shakespeare and frequently interpreted by painters. Though there is not much new concerning the subject, it is interesting how Rixens painted the dead Queen. The body is so pale and perfect that it resembles much more a statue of marble than something of flesh and blood. Despite the theatrical gestures it’s pure art, already anticipating the upcoming Art Nouveau.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Cossacks on the March

The Caravan (1881) by the Polish artist Józef Brandt (1841-1915).

Once more Brandt shows the every day life of war. There is no glorious fighting, there’s a muddy, endless road, the southern Ukrainian steppe, which produced this kind of warriors.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Romantic Pirates

Two Pirate Illustrations by the great American artist Howard Pyle (1853-1911). They were published in the book "Howard Pyle's Book of Pirates", published in 1921, ten years after his death.

Maybe there are some art historians who think that Pyle was no real artist more an "illustrator". But I think that’s totally wrong. These two "illustrations" show the influence of Impressionism and because of that a modern treatment of history. There’s no "pseudo-realistic" treatment of history like by Alma-Tadema or Blair-Leighton. Pyle depicted colourful and bold but also subjective impressions of history.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Babylonian Princess

"Princess of Babylon" (1904-1910) by the Dutch Kees Van Dongen (1877-1968).

Kees van Dongen was a modernist painter and was counted among the Fauves ("Wild Beasts"). So it’s clear that he was something like the contrary to the traditional history painter. Nevertheless he called this painting "Princess of Babylon", referring to a historical subject. But that’s all, his Princess is a modern "femme fatale", maybe a prostitute. In modern art history is no longer tellable, it’s raw material to illustrate recent circumstances.

Friday, April 2, 2010

An American Hero

Columbus before the Council of Salamanca (1847) by the American painter William Henry Powell (1823-1879).

Powell was in his time one of the most famous history painters of the United States. He is best known for his painting "the Discovery of the Mississippi by De Soto A.D. 1541" in the Capitol Rotunda.
Here he depicted Columbus defending his plans before the Council of Salamanca. It’s one of these typical history paintings with well arranged groups of persons and an illumination like on a stage.
But the real interesting thing is that Columbus is in a very similar pose like the then so popular anticlerical heroes Luther or Galileo. His clerical adversaries rely on books, Columbus instead stands alone only supported by his maps. He’s a modern man fighting against religious ignorance. And that for Powell is claiming him as a real American hero.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Return of a dead Warrior King

Bringing Home the Body of King Charles XII of Sweden (1878) by the Swedish painter Gustav Cederström (1845-1933).

Charles XII was the great warrior king of Sweden. After the Thirty Years War Sweden had reached the absolute climax of his power. Charles waged war against Poland, Russia, Denmark and some smaller German countries. At least he found his death in battle during an invasion of Norway.

Here Cederström shows the defeated Swedish Soldiers still proud carrying home the dead body of their king. It was the end of Sweden’s imperial dreams. What Cederström conceals is that many of these men perished in a terrible winter storm.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Horned Helmets

Even though there are lots of history paintings with Vikings or Germanic warriors wearing horned helmets it is sure that this is a pure invention. Celtic warriors or some Etruscans may have had helmets with horns or wings. The few depictions in Northern Europe belong to older times, the Bronze Age, and are probably showing helmets for ceremonial purposes.

Illustration by N.C. Wyeth for the Arthur Conan Doyle story "The First Cargo", published in Scribner's Magazine, December 1910.

Germanic warriors with horned or winged helmets were a typical invention of 19th century Romanticism, probably because they look so barbarian and exotic. The creation became popular when costume designers used the idea for the heroes and gods in Wagner’s operas.

Later this pure fantasy-invention became so popular that even Danes of today put on these helmets to look like real Vikings. So it’s at least a nice example how the iconography of history painting influenced reality.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Sadistic Cain

Cains first crime (1893) by the British painter Charles Napier Kennedy (1852-1898).

I like it, despite it’s very traditional painted. A kind of mixture of biblical, historical and oriental fashion. There are Adam and Eve watching their son Cain offering a poor frog to a big marabou. To me the whole painting looks more like a big joke about the whole story.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Master of Victorian Kitsch

Two examples by the British painter Edmund Blair-Leighton (1853-1922).

God Speed! (1900)

The Accolade (1901)

Leighton pumped out these well done medieval scenes to satisfy the trivial romantic needs of the market. Because of medieval subjects some associate him with the Pre-Raphaelites, I think these were much more ingenious and inventive in their time.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Dangerous Frontier

At the Southern Border of Muscovy by the Russian painter Sergei Vasilyevich Ivanov (1864-1910).

Ivanov was a member of "the Wanderers" and very interested in politics and Russian history. Here he depicted a raiding party of Crimean Tartars ravaging Russian villages, what they did for centuries until Russia became great and united.

Sunday, February 28, 2010


Oedipus (1867) by the French painter Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904).

This histrionic painting was very popular and often reprinted. It shows Napoleon in front of the Sphinx. The hero of mankind facing destiny, trying to answer it’s questions.

This melodramatic face-to-face is furthermore intensified because Gérôme didn’t paint the pyramids which are behind the Sphinx. So it’s only man and destiny in the desert.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Great Melodrama

In 1547 the Spanish Duke of Gandia conveyed the corpse of the empress Isabel of Portugal to her burial-place in Granada. It is said that, when he saw the effect of death on the once so beautiful and charming empress, he decided to become a monk.

The Conversion of the Duke of Gandia (1884) is by the famous Spanish history painter José Moreno Carbonero (1858-1942). It’s a perfect constructed melodrama with the desolate duke in the center but concentrating with the light from the left on the casket with the dead body.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Storming Saragossa

Storming Saragossa (1845) by the Polish military painter January Suchodolski (1797-1875).

It’s interesting to compare this painting with with "The defense of Czestochowa" also by Suchodolski. Both are showing the heroic fighting on the walls with a similar dramatic illumination. A difference is that the walls of Saragossa are much more impressive. Probably this can be explained with the fact, that in Saragossa the Poles were storming – while they defended Czestochowa.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

(Too) Late History Painting

The Capture of the Pirate Blackbeard by the American painter Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863-1930).

How his name indicates Ferris was a great devotee of the French academic painter Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904). And that illustrates the problem. Ferris worked a whole generation later when history painting in the way of Gérôme and his contemporaries has long passed by.

Despite Ferris was a good artist he is missing the cool and clear composition of the neoclassic trained Gérôme. Ferris piled up a lot of nice historical details and came out as an illustrator but without reaching the high level of his great compatriots Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth, or Frank Schoonover who discovered new methods for the interpretation of history.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Ivan the Terrible

Ivan the Terrible and his Son (1885) Russian realistic painter Ilya Repin (1844-1930).

Repin depicts here how the tsar Ivan the Terrible in an attack of rage killed his only son causing the end of the old Rurik Dynasty. Ivan was already old then (1581) his foreign policy and a lot of his interior reforms had failed and he saw himself surrounded by traitors.

Repin didn’t focus here on the mighty ruler, he shows a mad man who felt victim to his uncontrolled tempers, a mad man holding his broken dreams.

Especially for patriotic Russians the death of Ivan’s son was a disaster because it marked the beginning of the Time of Troubles a long period when Russia was invaded by foreign armies and torn by civil wars.

Friday, January 29, 2010

A French Hero

Du Guesclin at the battle of Cocherel by the French painter Charles-Philippe Larivière (1798-1876).

That’s a scene from the Hundred Years War. The leader of the French forces Bertrand du Guesclin defeated at Cocherel in 1365 an Navarrese and Aquitaine army.

It’s a typical history painting of the late 19th century depicting a great event of national history. The weapons and clothes are historically very correct. Nevertheless the whole painting is pure but well done construction. There are the two adversaries staring at each other, the French triumphantly on his horse. The flying French banners and the damaged Navarrese and English ones.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Norse Mythology

The construction of a national identity is normally connected with a search for the own cultural roots. Especially in northern Europe and in Germany this led to a fascination for pre Christian Nordic mythology – Wagner is only the best known example.

In Norway Peter Nicolai Arbo (1831-1892) painted historical patriotic scenes and not least the recently rediscovered Nordic gods. Most famous he became for his big painting Åsgårdsreien (1872) which pretended to show Odin’s Wild Hunt.

Because of the barbarian subject and the obscure scenery it’s still very popular serving as a kind of pre-fantasy-painting. For example it was used as cover for the album Blood Fire Death by the Swedish band Bathory.

But at a little closer look there remains not much of that pretended reanimation of Nordic traditions. The whole composition and most of the figures derive from baroque ceiling paintings. There is nothing barbarian in it, there is nothing “Nordic”, there are the same Olympic gods hunting some naked puttis or nymphs.

The thing is even more obvious regarding Arbo’s painting Valkyrien (1865).

The cruel Nordic war spirit looks neither warlike nor awesome, it’s at last a rosy baroque angel or allegory. It’s ridiculous.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Doors of Hougomont

Hougomont 1815 (1903) by the Scottish painter Robert Gibb (1845-1932).

Gibb a popular military painter depicted here the hard fighting at the doors of the farm Hougomont in the battle of Waterloo. It’s one of the typical paintings which decorated British Officers' Clubs and country houses.