History-painting was established in the late seventeenth century as the most prestigious of the academic genres. Originally the topics were all from classical or biblical antiquity. In the late eighteenth century, topics from post-classical history became gradually more popular alongside the enduring classical/biblical register.
Initially these modern topics were either dynastic in nature and painted for royal patronage, or else from any famous episode in European history, without marked national preference. From the 1820s onwards, there has been a marked trend towards choices from one’s own national-collective history.
History-painting follows trends also encountered in historical drama and in public sculpture: the choice of topics, from biblical/classical to national, follows a similar trajectory in drama over roughly the same timespan, and in sculpture we see a similar trend from the dynastic to the national-collective.
Historical analyses (noticeable among them Monica Flacke’s collection Mythen der Nationen, 1998) have highlighted both the Europe-wide popularity and the ideological function and importance of this art form in nineteenth-century national consciousness-raising.
History-painting was a popular genre throughout Europe until the decline of academic painting in the late nineteenth century. The samples gathered here reflect its popularity in many European countries. The chosen examples are all selected for their national themes. Classical antiquity, biblically-themed imagery or scenes from religious history have not been included (but scenes glorifying the resistance of native ‘ancestral’ tribes against Roman invaders have been). Also, the selection offered here has excluded historical genre-paintings (generic ‘knights-errand on horseback’, often illustrative of fictional themes from medieval romance, e.g. Arthurian or Nibelungen); nor does it cover the closely related genre of military battle scenes from recent history (within living memory).