The Issue of History Painting
Yes, figurative, representational, realistic painting has made a comeback in the past thirty years or so. In particular, a group of revivalists has put a great deal of work and passion into recovering the lost skills, as well as the materials, craft, philosophy, and aesthetic of premodern painting. Lost traditions are being revivified as artists, students, schools, journals, patrons, and even museums dedicate themselves to this cultural movement. But the return of the realist painter to his or her old cultural perch is problematic as is the return of History painting, the central pillar of the old academy. That form has lost its function.
Painters have lost many of their old jobs. It could be argued that historically, painting had four jobs:
- decorating surfaces
- producing iconic objects of skill and wonder for reverence
- recording the appearances of the world and the things in it
- depicting stories
The first and second of these enumerated tasks are self-explanatory and unchanged.
The third was the job of recording the appearances of things, people and places in the world. We all know that there wasn’t such a thing as photography until a century and a half ago, but for us, the significance of this can be a bit hard to fathom. We take for granted the accessibility of photographic images, but until the mid-19th century no one ever saw anything except the things that they actually were in the presence of. People only visually experienced their own surroundings, except of course through the handiwork of artists. That job, which isn’t a job of artists anymore, made artists uniquely important to the broader society.
How would one know what an elephant looked like without examining one in person—an impossibility for all but a few—unless by looking at a drawn or painted representation of one? The studies of natural philosophers depended on drawings and paintings of insects, rock formations, and plants. A ship sent to explore South America would bring an artist to make drawings and paintings so that people back home could get something beyond a verbal description of the Amazon delta or the Argentine Pampas.
Another artist’s job might be to make a painting of the Infanta of Castille to send to the French court so that they might get a picture of the girl they were pledging the Dauphin to marry. The emperor’s face, the Pope’s finery, and the interior of the palace could only be seen through the efforts of an artist.
This most basic purpose, the recorder and conveyor of appearance was ripped away from artists, and the art world has been reeling ever since.
The fourth job traditionally belonging to the artist was to depict stories. Again, for us in 2017, with our endless movies and TV shows and YouTube videos, it might be difficult to comprehend that the job of making a permanent visual representation of a story belonged to the artist and the artist alone. When the people saw a battle or a hero or a massacre, unless they were in it themselves, they would be looking at the work of a painter. If society wanted or needed a picture of a scene—the representation of people interacting, fighting, loving, plotting, massacring, fleeing—it was a painter who provided one.
Now of course this is no longer true. The visual depicters of human narratives are filmmakers and TV producers. The means by which modern people are exposed to and absorb the appearance of narrative history is not oil on canvas. This is not primarily due to styles changing and cultural thrust. It is technological. For this reason, to argue for the return of history painting could be compared to an argument for the return of the longbow, or penmanship, or celestial navigation. These were all extremely important technologies, without which various societies would have perished, and their practitioners might often have elevated them to art forms. But their functional purpose has expired. No company of Welsh bowmen will arise to defeat the French, no cadre of clerks will hold the empire together with their penmanship, and no regatta of gritty navigators will inch their way around the planet guided by the stars. That is not to say that there would be no value to esoteric revivalists engaging in these marvelous ancient arts again. These lost arts, and so may others, are surely full of wonder and a thousand opportunities for a deeper understanding of the world and humanity. In this manner, history painting is certainly another marvelous, but necessarily marginal art. Because the Holy See no longer needs a squadron of artists to depict the stations of the cross for the education of the flock and the royal court in Paris no longer turns to painters for scenes of roman virtue to fortify the French backbone, history painting has become an arcane practice. This does not make it valueless, but a return of history painting to anything like its old, central status in the arts doesn’t seem possible.
Artists, as all workers do, need to satisfy a need. The world no longer needs painters for their ability to make a record of the appearances of the world. And the job of depicter of history has passed on to other artists, with another set of tools. But the world still needs decoration, and people still need beautifully made objects to wonder over.
Jacob Collins is a representational painter and the founder of the Water Street Atelier, the Grand Central Academy of Art, and the Hudson River Fellowship.