Top 10 Best History Painters
World's Greatest Exponents of Historical, Mythological, Narrative "Istoria" Painting.

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The Deposition Altarpiece (1430)
(detail) Prado Museum, Madrid
Roger van der Weyden. One of
the treasures of Biblical art
of the Flemish School.

World's Best History Painters

Introduction to History Painting

The term "history painting" derives from the Italian word "istoria", meaning narrative, or story. It is typically used to characterize any work with a moral narrative, set against a backdrop of classical mythology, or history (ancient or modern). Christian art, for instance, was a common form of history painting. The human figures depicted are almost always engaged in some form of physical and/or emotional struggle (typically heroic) - a pictorial sermon, if you like, conveying a message of recognizable value to society of the time. The events portrayed need not be historically accurate, and frequently aren't, but they are usually highly symbolic and iconographic.


The Death of Marat (1793)
Jacques Louis David.

During the Early Renaissance era of the trecento (14th century), the High Renaissance era of the early quattrocento (15th century), and the Mannerist period of the cinquecento (16th century), Christianity provided most of the settings and contexts for narrative history painting - notably the Crucifixion and Deposition of Christ, David and Goliath, and so on - a situation which endured throughout the Counter Reformation and Baroque era. From the 17th century onwards, great debates raged over how human figures should be painted (in idealistic or realistic forms, in classical or contemporary costume, what type of "pose" was acceptable), and how much drama the artist could inject through vivid colours or other effects. For a typically idiosyncratic approach see Rembrandt's Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis (1661, Stockholm) and Bathsheba Holding King David's Letter (1654, Louvre). Although the importance of such rigid conventions declined significantly during the 18th/19th centuries, sporadic attempts were made to revive them in the form of movements such as Neoclassicism and historicism.

Due to the high moral content of this type of painting, it was ranked number 1 in the hierarchy of the genres, by the Arts Academies, ahead of Portraiture, Genre-painting, Landscape and Still Life.


The Last Supper (1495-8) (detail)
Leonardo Da Vinci.

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Top 10 History Painters

This list of famous "istoria" artists has been compiled by our Editor Neil Collins MA LLB. It represents his personal view of the ten best exponents of history painting. Naturally, like any such compilation it reveals more about the personal tastes of the compiler than the narrative painters being ranked. (See also our articles: Art Evaluation and also How to Appreciate Paintings.) (See also: Famous Paintings Analyzed.)

No 10. Eugene Delacroix (1798-63)

One of the most influential figures of French Romanticism, Delacroix was one of the greatest history painters of the 19th century, whose narrative works encompassed classical mythology, medieval and modern history, Biblical scenes, and numerous literary figures, including Faust and Hamlet. An avid student of Rubens and the Venetian school, many of his works give pride of place to spontaneity, colour and action, rather than compositional line and form. In this sense he represented the antithesis of the Poussin/Ingres academic style, although he always considered himself part of the classical tradition of painting. Was one of the last great artists to produce a significant body of history mural painting, with which he decorated the Salon du Roi in the Palais Bourbon in Paris. For a contrast in styles, see Delacroix's Parisian colleague Paul Delaroche (1797-1856), the populist history painter and engraver.

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Famous History Paintings by Eugene Delacroix
Death of Sardanapalus (1827) oil on canvas, Louvre, Paris
Liberty Leading the People (1830) oil on canvas, Louvre, Paris

No 9. Francisco de Goya (Spanish, 1746-1828)

One of the great early-modern exponents of history painting, Goya was also a celebrated portraitist and principal painter to the Spanish king, Charles IV. His interest in narrative painting blossomed following the Napoleonic invasion of Spain, resulting in his innovative series of etchings entitled The Disasters of War, and later, his two masterpieces 2 May and 3 May 1808. In his later years, he produced fourteen large history or narrative murals on mythological subjects, known as the Black Paintings. This intense series of works were painted almost entirely in blacks, greys and browns, and featured mythical nightmarish scenes of enormous intensity.

Famous History Paintings by Francisco Goya
- Naked Maja (Maja des Nuda) (1800) oil, Prado Museum, Madrid
- The Colossus (1810) oil painting, Museo del Prado, Madrid
- The Disasters of War (1810-14) etchings
- The Third of May 1808 (1814) oil on canvas, Prado Museum, Madrid
- Saturn Devouring his Son (1823) oil on canvas, Prado Museum, Madrid

No 8. Jacques-Louis David (French, 1748-1825)

A deputy in the French parliament during the Revolution, later "Dictator of the Arts", and later still an ardent supporter of Napoleon, Jacques-Louis David was the foremost history painter of the neoclassical movement, which sought to reimpose classical gravitas and heroicism on the whimsical, decadence of decorative rococo, and finally cauterize the influence of the baroque. A great admirer of Raphael and Poussin, his contribution to history painting includes masterpieces like The Oath of the Horatii, The Death of Socrates, and the Death of Marat, each one exuding a heroic dignity aptly presented in an exact but understated academic style. The complete opposite of Tiepolo. Was a great influence on other French painters like Gerard, Girodet, Gros, Navez and Jean-Auguste-Domique Ingres. See also: Neoclassical Painting.

Famous History Paintings by Jacques-Louis David
- Oath of the Horatii (1785) oil on canvas, Louvre
- Death of Marat (1793) oil on canvas, Musee Royaux des Beauxarts, Brussels
- Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1801) oil on canvas, Louvre, Paris

For another successful 19th century French history painter, who was also interested in Napoleon, see: Ernest Meissonier (1815-91).

No 7. Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770)

The greatest fresco history painter of the 18th century, renowned for his rapid flickering painting technique, Tiepolo was one of the best Venetian decorators in the classical Renaissance tradition. His most famous work, executed in the rococo style, was the series of ceiling frescoes he completed (in collaboration with the architect Balthasar Neumann) for the palace of the Prince-Bishop of Wurzburg in 1750. Other glorious examples of his history painting in situ, can be seen in Vienna and Madrid), where ceilings and walls are awash with Gods, Goddesses, horses, chariots, and allegorical or mythological figures, all shimmering in a spectacle of luminous colour, action and drama. One of the most vivid and dramatic of all visual artists since the Renaissance. The last great figure in Venetian painting.

Famous History Paintings by Tiepolo
- Ceiling Frescos (Apollo/Europe/Asia/America/Africa) (1753), Wurzburg Palace
- Ceiling Frescos (c.1756) Palacio Real, Madrid
- Rachel Hiding Idols from her Father (1729), fresco, Plazzo Patriarcale, Udine

 

No 6. Caravaggio, Michelangelo Merisi da (1573-1610)

One of the most original and influential painters of the early 17th century, his unique contribution to art in general and history painting in particular rests on the revolutionary realism of his religious works (many of which were rejected for reasons of indecorum), which featured Apostles cast as coarse peasant types instead of the customary noble forms. In addition to this rejection of idealism, Caravaggio made full use of chiaroscuro (light and shadow) to add drama and dramatic lighting to his scenes. The absence of any surviving drawings or sketches has lent weight to claims that he painted directly onto the canvas. A tempestuous, loutish and short-lived artist - dubbed an "evil genius" by some contemporaries - Caravaggio was instrumental in downgrading the importance of "gracefulness" in history painting, in favour of increased reality and effect. His reputation endures to this day.

Famous History Paintings by Caravaggio
- Judith and Holoferns (1599) oil on canvas, Palazzo Barberini, Rome
- Conversion on the way to Damascus (1601) oil, Cerasi Chapel Rome
- Supper at Emmaus (1601-2) oil & tempera, National Gallery, London
- The Entombment (1602-4) oil on canvas, Vatican City

No 5. Titian (c.1477-1576)

Painstakingly methodical in his slow build-up of paint on the canvas, and in his repeated revisions, Titian was the greatest of all Venetian painters, exceeding even Giovanni Bellini, and one of the finest history painters throughout Italy. The first artist to demonstrate the full colour-potential of oil paint, his outstanding contributions to narrative art include the massive altarpiece of The Assumption of the Virgin, and the altarpieces Virgin and Child with Saints and Members of the Pesaro Family, and Death of St Peter Martyr (since destroyed), as well as countless other allegorical paintings such as Danae, and the Venus of Urbino. In 1533, he became court painter to Emperor Charles V, and later the latter's son Phillip II of Spain commissioned a series of erotic mythological paintings including Perseus and Andromeda, and the Rape of Europa, and other works, among which are some of Titian's most sublime creations.

Famous History Paintings by Titian
- Portrait of a Man (1512) oil on canvas, National Gallery, London
- Bacchus and Ariadne (1522) oil on canvas, National Gallery, London
- Venus of Urbino (1538) oil on canvas, Uffizi, Florence
- Venus and Adonis (1553) oil on canvas, Prado Museum, Madrid
- The Rape of Europa (1562) oil, Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum, Boston

No 4. Roger Van der Weyden (1400-1464)

A pupil of the renowned Robert Campin (1378-1444) the shadowy Master of Flemalle, Roger (Rogier) van der Weyden was the greatest Flemish artist of the mid-15th century. His reputation as one of the best religious history painters rests on masterpieces like the Descent from the Cross (Deposition of Christ), one of the supreme works of the Northern Renaissance. In contrast to the dispassionate realism of other masters like Jan Van Eyck, Weyden injected almost tangible poignancy and emotion into his pictures. Highly revered in Flanders (as well as in France, Germany, Spain and Italy) during his lifetime, he then faded into comparative obscurity before being rediscovered in the 19th century.

Famous History Paintings by Roger Van der Weyden
- The Deposition (1435-40) oil on oak panel, Prado Museum, Madrid
- Lamentation Before the Tomb (1450) oil on panel, Uffizi Gallery, Florence
- Adoration of the Magi (1455) tempera/panel, Alte Pinakothek, Munich

No 3. Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)

A virtuoso painter, court artist, draughtsman, designer and Flemish diplomat, Rubens was the undisputed master of the Baroque art of the Counter-Reformation, producing some of the greatest masterpieces of religious and mythological history painting. A student of the High Renaissance, his works were strongly influenced by Caravaggio, and facilitated by the efforts of pupils such as Anthony Van Dyck, Jordaens and Frans Snyders. His prolific output encompassed narrative history pictures (as well as portraits and landscapes) in all media and formats, including ceiling paintings, altar-pieces, panels, easel oils, and textiles. Not for nothing was he dubbed the "Prince of painters and the painter of princes."

Famous History Paintings by Peter Paul Rubens
- Samson and Deliah (1609) oil on wood, National Gallery, London
- Descent from the Cross (1611-14) oil on wood, Cathedral Our Lady, Antwerp
- Rape of the Daughters of Eluccipus (1618) oil, Alte Pinacothek, Munich

No 2. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)

Unlike the much younger Michelangelo who much preferred fresco to oils, Leonardo was a pioneer of oil painting, which he used to create the celebrated portrait of the Mona Lisa. In fact, his immortal history painting - The Last Supper - was executed using a mixture of plaster and oil paint, instead of fresco, as a result of which the work had already deteriorated significantly by the time of his death. Even so, this is the first work of the High Renaissance, and exemplifies Leonardo's focus on drawing out the psychological elements of a composition: an approach which perfectly illustrates his reputation as an artist-intellectual and one of the great contributors to the artistic theories of the Italian Renaissance. The countless meanings attributed to the painting, notably those in the best-selling book The Da Vinci Code, provide clear evidence of its masterful composition and enduring popularity.

Famous History Paintings by Leonardo da Vinci
The Last Supper (1495-98) fresco, Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan

No 1. Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564)

Considered by many art critics to be the greatest artist of all time (in both painting and sculpture), Michelangelo's reputation as the finest painter rests on his two monumental Sistine Chapel frescoes painted on the ceiling and altar wall of the Pope's own chapel. The first work, the Genesis fresco initiated by Pope Julius II, took four years to complete (1508-12). Working mainly alone, leaning backwards to paint under appalling conditions, Michelangelo depicted scenes from Genesis - from the Creation to the Drunkenness of Noah - which are now regarded as one of the unique masterpieces of history painting. Two decades later, he accepted the commission to paint the altar wall, originally instigated by Pope. This second narrative painting, the Last Judgment fresco, was also a biblical painting, but stands in total contrast to the optimistic divinity of Genesis. Its menacing forms and mood of wrathful desolation - no doubt reflecting the turbulent historical events of the period (the sack of Rome and the conflict between Protestantism and Counter-Reformation) - effectively repudiated the artistic ideals of the High Renaissance, and presaged the coming style of Mannerism. As a work of art, however, The Last Judgment remains one of the most powerful examples of history painting ever seen.

Famous History Paintings by Michelangelo
Genesis (1508-12), Last Judgement (1535-41) frescos, Sistine Chapel, Vatican

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• For more about the greatest history painters, see: Homepage.


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