The term history painting was introduced in the seventeenth century to describe paintings with subject matter drawn from classical history and mythology, and the Bible – in the eighteenth century it was also used to refer to more recent historical subjects

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  • Sir Joshua Reynolds, 'Three Ladies Adorning a Term of Hymen' 1773
    Sir Joshua Reynolds
    Three Ladies Adorning a Term of Hymen 1773
    Oil on canvas
    support: 2337 x 2908 mm
    frame: 2902 x 3382 x 180 mm
    Bequeathed by the Earl of Blessington 1837
  • Benjamin West, 'Pylades and Orestes Brought as Victims before Iphigenia' 1766
    Benjamin West
    Pylades and Orestes Brought as Victims before Iphigenia 1766
    Oil on canvas
    support: 1003 x 1264 mm
    Presented by Sir George Beaumont Bt 1826
  • Benjamin West, 'The Last Supper' 1784
    Benjamin West
    The Last Supper 1784
    Oil on canvas
    support: 1830 x 2757 mm
    Presented by King George IV 1828
  • John Singleton Copley, 'The Collapse of the Earl of Chatham in the House of Lords, 7 July 1778' 1779-80
    John Singleton Copley
    The Collapse of the Earl of Chatham in the House of Lords, 7 July 1778 1779-80
    Oil on canvas
    support: 2286 x 3073 mm
    Presented by the Earl of Liverpool 1830
  • Sir Joshua Reynolds, 'Colonel Acland and Lord Sydney: The Archers' 1769
    Sir Joshua Reynolds
    Colonel Acland and Lord Sydney: The Archers 1769
    Oil on canvas
    unconfirmed: 2360 x 1800 mm
    Purchased (Building the Tate Collection fund) with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, Tate Members, the Art Fund (with a contribution from the Wolfson Foundation) and other donors 2005

Introduction to history painting

The term ‘history painting’ was introduced by the French Royal Academy in the seventeenth century. It was seen as the most important type (or ‘genre’), of painting above portraiture, the depiction of scenes from daily life (called genre painting), landscape and still life painting. (See the glossary page for genres to find out more).

Although initially used to describe paintings with subjects drawn from ancient Greek and Roman (classical) history, classical mythology, and the Bible; towards the end of the eighteenth century history painting included modern historical subjects such as the battle scenes painted by artists Benjamin West and John Singleton Copley.   

The style considered appropriate to use for history painting was classical and idealised – known as the ‘grand style’ – and the result was known overall as High Art.

The development of history painting

Explore the development of painting from the seventeenth to the eighteenth centuries, when history painting was at its height, through Tate artworks

The role of the Empire in history painting

John Singleton Copley, 'The Death of Major Peirson, 6 January 1781' 1783
John Singleton Copley
The Death of Major Peirson, 6 January 1781 1783
Oil on canvas
Philip Wilson Steer, 'What of the War?' circa 1881
Philip Wilson Steer
What of the War? circa 1881
Oil on canvas
support: 915 x 677 x 19 mm
Purchased 1945© Tate

During the first half of the nineteenth century history painting was one of the few ways that the British public could experience its overseas Empire. In this context, history painting became a form of documentation. Artists such as Benjamin West and Henry Nelson O’Neil became more interested in painting scenes of recent and contemporary history, depicting people in modern dress rather than the ‘timeless attire’ as seen in traditional history painting. 

The 1850s saw a shift in interest towards more human and intimate subject matter rather than a rendition of picturesque literary or grand historical themes.  Battle scenes from the military sub-genre of history painting received criticism because they could not be relied upon to be accurate, and few battle scene paintings were exhibited at the Royal Academy. Philip Wilson Steer’s What of the War? was however exhibited there, suggesting that the private responses of civilians were perhaps a more honest testimony to the loss of life provoked by overseas conflict (in this case the Sudan war of 1881).

The role of history painting was to plummet even further in the twentieth century, disappearing almost entirely from art circles following the breakup of empire after the Second World War.

Further reading

Artist and Empire
This exhibition, at Tate Britain from November 2015 until April 2016, brings together extraordinary works from the 16th century to the present day on the subject of drama, tragedy and experiences of the Empire.

5 Steps to Fighting History
Read our article which unravels history painting through battles, floods, protests, myths and propaganda from the 1700s to the present day.

Fighting History
This exhibition, which was on display at Tate Britain in 2015, focuses on the conflict, martyrdom and catastrophe found in history painting from the eighteenth century to the present day. Find out more about the exhibition themes and the artworks on display. 

History painting in context

In these two videos curator Greg Sullivan discusses works in Tate’s collection from 1760–1810, a time when history painting was at its peak, as displayed in the Walk Through British Art at Tate Britain:

The time of 1780–1810 war-like period in British History is reflected in the artworks in the room. On the one hand, there was the expansion of territory on the Indian sub-continent, and then there was twenty years of war with France.
Greg Sullivan 

In this video Sullivan talks about the foundation of the Royal Academy in 1768; painter Joshua Reynold’s use of historical references in his portraiture and Benjamin West’s preference for intellectual painting.

In this short video Greg Sullivan discusses the war period of British History and its affect on the British Empire.

History painting in detail

Watch this recording of a Tate 2003 panel discussion, to find out how history painting has influenced current approaches to painting.

Related glossary terms

Narrative, grand manner, genre, academyneoclassicism