History Painting: A Lecture by Jon Clarkson

How much Prior Knowledge do you need to understand art?

The term History painting refers to artwork created between the 16th and 19th century. The artworks were usually commissions illustrating historical moments. They contained complex figurative forms and convey a recognisabke message.

Should a narrative painting communicate a story to the viewer or do the viewers need to know the story first to understand the painting.


Titian – Badus Ariadne 1522-3
What is happening in the painting?
Mythology, incorporates god like figures. Man leaping out of a chariot, women right on a cliffs edge/fearful. Ultramarine blue clothing mark out the woman as important. Bacus Is the god of wine and drunkenness. Ariadne was the kings daughter. She’s about to throw herself off the Cliff. Bacus was about to kill her off before she could, but in attempting to, he falls in love with her. He makes a star constellation for her as a love gesture/wedding ring.

Is the painting meaningless if you don’t know the story?

You can sort of decipher the painting, but not the rigid story. The look of love is significant but you are not sure what role it plays in the story as a whole.


Jacques – Louis David, The Death of Marat 1792

How does the painting explain Marat’s death?

He was a french revolutionary. The Letter he’s holding Is written to the woman who assassinated him (Charlotte Corday). A stark image with an abstract background. Darkest next to light skin produces a maximum contrast. Peaceful face, shown as a marta. Died in a just cause, painted for his funeral – propoganda. Carried with the coffin stabbed. The painting portrays the story quite clearly.

A more contemporary example of a story being portrayed within a piece is Jeremy Dellar’s Battle of Orgreave, 2001 where he restaged the battle. Some of the people were former miners that were there.

Does the work attempt to explain the Miner’s strike? As Davids painting explains Marat’s death?

Jeremy Dellar did not document any of this restaging himself. Some Miner’s wanted to put the record straight because the news covered the story inaccurately and changed the narrative. Really, the police charged forst but the news did not portray that. They know the re-enactment isn’t real but the memories are reawakened and unforgiven feelings come out again.

Anselm Kiefer  Eisen-Steig   (1986)

Anselm Kiefer – Eisensteig 1986
Barren landscape, the railway line to autschwitz. Olive oil branches used as a symbol of piece. Includes unconventional materials.


Kiefer – The Morgenthau Plan 2012
Does the painting express a view on the Morgenthau plan, or does it just reference it?
A fantasy of Germany as a westland. Wild/untamed. Suggests the plan maybe did not go to plan.


Anselm Kiefer – Let a Thousands flowers Bloom 2012
Let voices be heard, People get to voice their opinions and those of others that were against typical political views but it was a trap, and all the people doing so were got rid of.


Lottie Davies – Lou’s story 2008-2009
What is happening?
Reference to Psul Delaroche’s painting – The execution of Lady Grey. In the painting, she is portrayed as an innocent. Based on a dream, After reading Lou’s story, the image looks different. It is like the story and different from it too. No bodies on the floor etc. There is a sense of fear and impending doom within the image. She has used a process of selective reading.


Lottie Davies – Viola as Twins
Creepy element – Mother not able to deal with the idea of twins.

What happened when you start making images from stories that no one else knows?

I found this lecture really interesting. It made me consider the fact that I make up my own narratives for a lot of artwork without knowing the story. I think that I like the fact that I do not know the actual story because It allows my imagination flow, to be inspired and to create my own interpretation of an image.