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Monday, November 8, 2010

Painting History

In a time when we can push a button on a remote control and see the sparkling color images of history being made 24/7 on cable network news, it is difficult for us to realize what it must have been like when the only visual chronicler of history was the highly skilled history painter with his contrived, painted strokes of pigment and binder on a massive framed canvas displayed at an annual salon. Not exactly Brian Williams with the Nightly News.
When one reads about the strong governmental domination of the art academies in France, England, and many other European countries, we may ask ourselves, in light of our twentieth-century art scene, why would the government care much what artists painted? The answer of course is that history painting was deemed the highest realm to which an artist could aspire, and what these painters put on canvas, to a great extent, determined how people viewed history.  In other words, history painters were something on the order of today's "spin doctors". Governments have always had a stake in how history is recorded, thus, you better believe, they cared very much what these artists painted.  
One such history painter was the American-born, Benjamin West. West lived from 1738-1820, and though he began his art education in Philadelphia, he studied mostly abroad, in Italy and England where he lived most of his life.  West didn't forget his American roots however. Though a founder of the Royal Academy, his studio in London was a haven for Colonial artists studying there. His friendship and encouragement benefited American artists such as Gilbert Stuart and John Singleton Copley, among others, who studied at what was in effect, an "American Academy"  
Death of General Wolfe,
1770, Benjamin West

West's most famous history painting was the Death of General Wolfe, painted in 1770. By history painting standards, the work is not all that large, measuring some 5 by 7 feet. It depicts a scene from the French an Indian War and is formal, yet stark, noble, and human. Even while the painting was still a "work in progress", King George III let it be known he would not purchase a painting wherein British heroes were depicted in modern dress. No less than the godlike Sir Joshua Reynolds, then president of the Royal Academy, tried to prevail upon West not to continue such an "aberration of taste". Undaunted, West continued work on it. When it was displayed at the 1770 Salon, it was met with great critical acclaim. Reynolds apologized for his "error of judgment" and in effect, so did the king.  He ordered a copy for the royal collection, inasmuch as the original had quickly sold. In fact, West actually painted  four replicas of the original. Added to that, he collected royalties form hundreds of engravings based upon the painting. It wasn't the "evening news" perhaps, but the pay was good.

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