History painting as a genre term seeks to describe the subject of a work – significant historical events or moments in popular mythology and literature – rather than the stylistic aspects of a work of art. That said, paintings like this tend to have an added injection of grandeur and drama. These qualities deserve to be examined with a critical eye, especially when applied to representations of actual historical events.
At the AcadÃ©mie Royale de France, history painting was considered the highest form of art, replacing portraiture, still life, and landscape. Popular in European and American art throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, these paintings offer interesting insight into the motivations of particular artists and their patrons.
The grandeur and subject matter of history paintings could, in part, be a natural progression of a contemporary fascination with the ancient Greeks and the Roman Empire. This was certainly the case with the history paintings of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the first president of the Royal Academy in London. Reynolds, regardless of the period from which the contents of his paintings originate, endlessly rendered his figures in classical costume and surrounded them with ancient architecture.