History painting can be defined as the visual commemoration of some remarkable or heroic occasion. It was an all-inclusive hybrid species of art that brought documentary forms of portraiture, topography and genre into dialogue with the poetic licence required for high art. From the period of the Seven Years War (1756–63) to the colonial wars of the late Victorian era, British historical painting played a key role in shaping British perceptions of overseas events. Initially characterised by treaty and negotiation scenes, as seen in paintings by Francis Hayman, Thomas Daniell and Agostino Brunias, it later came to be dominated by representations of heroic struggle and martyrdom by artists who also served as illustrators for the popular press.
Although seemingly objective, with some pictures purporting to be eye-witness accounts, history paintings were carefully staged to win the sympathy of audiences in Britain for the Empire. Only a few are suggestive of the social upheavals and unequal power relationships which the rhetoric of Empire sought to gloss over. From the mid-nineteenth century, photography contributed to the narratives of imperialism but, as the images of Felice Beato indicate, it also accustomed viewers to representations of warfare, eventually displacing painting as reportage.
In this short film below art historian Loyd Grossman illustrates that Benjamin West’s The Death of General Wolfe, 1779 was not reportage due to the artist glamourising Wolfe’s death through depicting him as a martyr.
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