From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
History painting is the painting of scenes with narrative content from classical history, Christian history, and mythology, as well as depicting the historical events of the near past. These include paintings with religious, mythological, historical, literary, or allegorical subjects--they embodied some interpretation of life or conveyed a moral or intellectual message. The historical events chosen would be iconographic, not only depicting important events, but ones of particular significance to the painter's society, as for instance, the signing of the declaration of independence in American history painting. The event, if suitable, does not need to have actually occurred, and artists have frequently taken great liberties with historical facts in order to portray the message desired.
The gods and goddesses from the ancient mythologies represented different aspects of the human psyche, figures from religions represented different ideas, and history, like the other sources, represented a dialectic or play of ideas. For a long time, especially during the French Revolution, history painting often focused on depiction of the heroic male nude; though this waned into the 19th century.
Other artists depicted scenes, regardless of when they occurred, in classical dress. When, in 1770, Benjamin West proposed to depict "The Death of General Wolfe" in contemporary dress, he was firmly instructed to use classical attire by many people. He did depict the scene in clothing that had occurred on the scene. Although George III refused to purchase the work, West succeeded both in overcoming his critics' objections and inaugurating a more historically accurate style in such paintings.
In the mid-nineteenth-century there arose a style known as historicism, which marked a formal imitation of historical styles and/or artists.
Another development in the nineteenth century was the blending of this genre with that known as genre painting: the depiction of scenes of everyday life. Grand depictions of events of great public importance were supplemented with scenes depicting more personal incidents in the lives of the great, or the everyday life in historical settings. The artists who depicted them sometimes connected the change with the moral messages conveyed by the public events; they asserted that moral messages were also instructive in the ordinary life, and indeed, were even superior because more people would be able to apply the lesson implicit in a depiction of family life than in one of a heroic death on the battle field.
A history painter is not only a painter of historical motifs but depicts, in a "grand" style, man in general, and particularly the great events of Greek and Roman fable and history, the capital subjects of scripture history, a scene from a great literary work, or a famous event in the life of a baroque potentate. The subject commonly ought to be either some eminent instance of heroic action or heroic suffering, with characters painted in classical poses.
History painting was the dominant form of academic painting (the painting that came from the various national academies) in the 19th century, in particular, but also in the post-revolutionary France as well. As such, history painting was a target for later movements. The Impressionists rejected all historical subjects and tableau. In other nations, such movements as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in England focused on subjects from national literature and myth, rather than classical subjects. At the turn of the 20th century, it was possible to see paintings emerging from the official national academies depicting Nausicaa at the same time that other painters were leaving the studio to paint in available light and focus only on humble subjects and pure sensation. History painters like Antoine-Jean, Baron Gros, Jacques-Louis David, Claude Joseph Vernet, Carle Vernet, Pierre-Narcisse Guérin and others attracted a following of students among younger painters several of whom developed the Romantic movement in the early 19th century. Artists including Théodore Géricault, Eugène Delacroix, and Paul Delaroche initially were considered History painters.