History painting is a painting genre that is defined by its subject matter rather than its creative approach. History paintings often represent a particular and static topic, as opposed to a specific and static subject, as in a portrait.
The name is derived from the Latin and Italian words historia, which mean “story” or “narrative,” and effectively means “story painting.” Most history paintings, particularly those made before 1850, do not depict historical scenes.
In modern English, historical painting is sometimes used to describe the painting of scenes from history in its narrower sense, particularly for 19th-century art, excluding religious, mythological, and allegorical subjects, which are included in the broader term history painting and were the most common subjects for history paintings prior to the 19th century.
Famous History Paintings
1. Liberty Leading the People – Eugène Delacroix
France’s Revolution was one of the most turbulent periods in European history. The lesser-known July Revolution occurred in the summer of 1830 and witnessed less bloodshed but an outpouring of emotion on the part of the French people to depose what many perceived as an undeserved ruler.
Eugene Delacroix painted Liberty Leading the People the same year in an attempt to persuade the French people to continue their march toward complete liberty from the monarchy that had constrained their liberties for so many years.
Also Read: Paintings of the French Revolution
The artwork portrays a gallant assault by a group of common Frenchmen equipped with muskets. Their front is dominated by a lovely female figure, sometimes referred to as Marianne, who symbolizes the French Republic.
She is dressed in a gown that covers barely half of her body and holds a French flag and a gun, as if beckoning the troops to surge forward over the dead king’s warriors.
This work has long been regarded as one of the most iconic French works of art and is largely regarded as one of the nineteenth century’s most renowned paintings.
2. The Raft of the Medusa – Théodore Géricault
Theodore Géricault’s 1819 painting The Raft of the Medusa is one of the most well-known French seascape paintings. It is one of the most recognizable works of French Romanticism in history, based on a spectacular shipwreck off the coast of Senegal in 1816.
Before putting brush to paint, the artist conducted extensive study on the occurrence and spent some time considering how he would depict the bleak reality of being adrift at sea.
Géricault created a scenario inspired by two survivors of the shipwreck that portrayed a more cheerful view than what is really reported about the catastrophe.
The survivors of the French Royal Navy ship described fighting among themselves and eventually resorting to cannibalism. The subject of this artwork is the optimistic but desperate feeling of being stranded at sea.
3. Oath of the Horatii – Jacques-Louis David
Much of Jacques-Louis David’s early work was devoted to depicting the most significant tales and events from the Classical period.
While he was a student at Rome’s French Academy in the early 1780’s, he acquired an interest in some of Rome’s most renowned individuals and tales. He made a work during this time period that many critics and historians see as David’s most renowned painting in 1784.
Oath of the Horatii is noted for integrating several aspects from the Neoclassical style, including rich colors and a strong focus on historical authenticity for what was thought to be the true tale of the event.
The picture is based on a narrative from the seventh century B.C. about a conflict between two towns.
Three brothers from the Horatii family battled three brothers from another family from the opposite city, according to folklore. The lone surviving Horatii brother defeated the three adversaries.
The father of the Horatii brothers is seen in this picture clutching their swords as the brothers salute him before going to fight.
4. Guernica – Pablo Picasso
Pablo Picasso is one of the most renowned painters in history, and many of his abstract works have been interpreted as powerful metaphorical symbols by art experts and aficionados.
Guernica, one of his most famous paintings, is renowned for its brutal representations of Nazi Germany’s pre-war bombing campaign.
This artwork shows the utter devastation caused by war by depicting animals, people, and the Guernica metropolis reduced to ruins by the German bombardment.
Picasso intended for this painting to emphasize the devastating force of hate and violence, particularly against those who are innocent of the atrocities.
The picture depicts a woman lamenting the death of her kid, as well as other people and even a horse caught up in the heinous situation.
The black and white color scheme is intended to underline the horrible nature of war by reducing all life on Earth to a basic depiction of those considered to be ‘good’ and those considered to be the ‘enemy.’
5. The Night Watch – Rembrandt
Rembrandt van Rijn is widely recognized as one of history’s greatest baroque painters. In 1642, he created The Nightwatch, which depicts Captain Frans Banninck Cocq leading his Dutch men through a city during a military expedition.
The painting was initially commissioned by Captain Banninck Cocq to remember his courageous warriors who achieved victory during the mid-17th century wars.
The picture is notable for its huge scale, as well as the extreme contrast between light and dark used to show the tense moments of the troops cautiously moving through the streets, ever-prepared for conflict.
This work is generally regarded as one of the finest paintings of the Dutch Golden Age and as one of Rembrandt’s most renowned works during his career.
6. The Death of General Wolfe – Benjamin West
The Seven Years War was a deadly and protracted conflict between the French and the British for control of what were then France’s colonies.
The Battle of Quebec, which took place in 1759, is one of the most renowned conflicts of the war. Despite its brief duration of 15 minutes, the Battle of Quebec was bloody and claimed the life of British General James Wolfe.
Benjamin West remembered the event with a painting titled General Wolfe’s Death. This 1770 painting is one of the Neoclassical era’s most famous works, but it is also one of the few that is factually wrong in some of the most critical facts of real events.
Wolfe is seen in the artwork dying in the arms of his officers, although he was really killed quickly by a shower of bullets from French forces.
7. The Last Judgment – Michelangelo
The Last Judgment is a massive fresco by Michelangelo that covers the whole alter wall of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican City.
Michelangelo spent nearly four years on it between 1536 and 1541, not just because of its size, but also because of the complexity and amount of figures.
He started work on it 25 years after the completion of the Sistine Chapel Ceiling and by the time it was completed, he was 67 years old.
All of the guys were originally painted naked, but were subsequently covered with painted drapes.
Initially, the reaction was divided between acclaim and condemnation, with the nudity of some of the figures being a point of contention, as did the muscularity of several of the figures.
It is a foreshadowing of Christ’s Second Coming and God’s final and eternal punishment of all humanity.
The dead awaken and descend to their fate as assessed by Christ, who is flanked by notable saints. There are almost 300 illustrations in all.
It was commissioned by Pope Clement VII but finished under Pope Paul III, who likely impacted the final treatment with his more reformist beliefs.
The painting’s response has been varied from the start, with tremendous acclaim but also condemnation on religious and aesthetic grounds.
The quantity of nakedness and the muscular design of the body were two points of contention, as was the general composition.
8. The Birth of Venus – Sandro Botticelli
Botticelli’s Birth of Venus has long been considered as one of the most iconic paintings for a variety of reasons.
Based on the Greek goddess of love and beauty, this piece integrates a variety of other characters and metaphors to create an incredibly magnificent setting.
Botticelli completed this work in 1485, and it soon gained popularity because to the iconic character of the numerous individuals shown.
Venus is seen entering the globe through the winds and water, assuming a somewhat modest position in comparison to some of the most emotive nudes included on our list of the most renowned nudist paintings of all time.
Numerous critics refer to the terrain and trees as evidence that this image is set on the island of Cyprus. The breeze looks to be emanating from Zephyr, the wind deity, who is joined by Aura.
Additionally, the artist has included a young lady who looks to be Hora of spring, who is shown welcoming Venus into the country with a flowing robe that she appears to be using to conceal her naked body.
9. Las Meninas – Diego Velázquez
During King Philip IV of Spain’s 17th-century reign, Diego Velázquez had a close friendship with him. The artist was often commissioned to create portraits and other works depicting members of the royal family and other significant persons participating in different activities associated with the reigning family during this period.
One of his most famous paintings displays the family in an intimate manner that few painters were permitted to witness, much alone describe on canvas.
This piece, titled Las Meninas, would ultimately define Velázquez and his illustrious career as one of Spain’s most adored painters.
The painting was executed on a big canvas and depicts the king and queen, who are partly obscured in the front, as well as their children and the royal family’s closest staff.
The tiny princess is getting fitted for a lovely gown that has been painstakingly created in front of a mirror by a seamstress.
10. The Third of May 1808 – Francisco Goya
Napoleon formed an alliance with Spain’s King Charles IV in 1807 in an effort to capture Portugal.
As a consequence, France’s army massed in Spain on its way to Portugal.
However, the Spanish quickly recognized that this was a ruse by Napoleon and that his true objective was to invade Spain as well.
On May 2, 1808, in Madrid, hundreds of Spanish people rose up in revolt. By May 3rd, they had been apprehended and killed by the French, and the streets of Madrid had become bloodthirsty.
Francisco Goya paid tribute to his dead compatriots with two paintings depicting each day.
May 2, 1808 is a classic combat scenario, complete with rushing horses and mangled corpses.
However, The Third of May, 1808 in Madrid is one of the most renowned paintings in the world since it is believed to be the first really modern picture.
This is because it changes Christian imagery and is a stark depiction of man’s inhumanity against man.
A poor worker assumes the role of Christ in the picture by sacrificing himself for his nation. On closer examination, a stigmata is seen on his right hand.
It is supposed to have inspired Picasso’s painting of Guernica.