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

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  • 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

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  • 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
    support: 2515 x 3658 mm frame: 2790 x 3920 x 160 mm
    Purchased 1864

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The term ‘history painting’ was introduced by the French Royal Academy in the seventeenth century to describe the most important of the types, or genres, of painting. The others in descending order were portrait; genre (scenes of everyday life), landscape, and still life.

The term in fact referred to subject matter drawn from ancient Greek and Roman (classical) history; classical mythology, and the Bible, though towards end eighteenth century modern historical subjects were introduced, for example in Britain by artists Benjamin West and John Singleton Copley.

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