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Conventionally, history paintings were based on a literary or historical source familiar to educated viewers. The artist’s role was to select from the story a crucially significant moment that would convey a sense of nobility and moral certainty.

The success of this strategy of course depended on the viewer knowing the story, and so knowing what would happen next. Fuseli, however, admitted that he invented the saga of Percival and Belisane shown here. His paintings tended to emphasis spectacle and sensation rather then the noble themes and moral lessons which Reynolds’s view of the ‘great style’ demanded.

September 2004