Art Term

History painting

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

Sir Joshua Reynolds, ‘Three Ladies Adorning a Term of Hymen’ 1773
Sir Joshua Reynolds
Three Ladies Adorning a Term of Hymen 1773

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.

John Singleton Copley, ‘The Death of Major Peirson, 6 January 1781’ 1783
John Singleton Copley
The Death of Major Peirson, 6 January 1781 1783
Philip Wilson Steer, ‘What of the War?’ c.1881
Philip Wilson Steer
What of the War? c.1881

The role of the Empire in history painting

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.

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Selected artists in the collection

Selected artworks in the collection

History Painting at Tate

  • Tate Britain


    Artist and Empire

    25 Nov 2015 – 10 Apr 2016

    This autumn Tate Britain presents a major exhibition of art associated with the British Empire from the 16th century to ...

  • Tate Britain


    Fighting History

    9 Jun – 13 Sep 2015
    This Tate Britain exhibition focuses on the conflict, martyrdom and catastrophe found in history painting from the eighteenth century to ...