Art II: American History Painting
Art II: American History Painting
Innovations. As successful and wealthy artists, both Benjamin West and John Singleton Copley turned to history painting, which was considered the highest branch of art, where ambitious artists might secure their critical reputation and financial success. Over the last decades of their careers they completed many large, impressive canvases depicting scenes from English history. History paintings portrayed real persons and events, but they typically did so by using neoclassical conventions to transform historical moments into timeless lessons that taught ideal behavior: characters would wear Roman and Greek costumes while impersonating the stoic attitude and heroic virtues exemplified by the ancients. In mastering
a genre of painting already weighed down by stylistic and thematic traditions, West and Copley’s most noteworthy works are striking for their modification of reigning precepts and ideals of European history painting. Coming from provincial colonies that seemed devoid of history, they helped to bring a freshness, energy, and innovation to history painting that now seem peculiarly American and at the time profoundly changed the manner and themes that Western painters had brought to the genre.
The Death of General Wolfe. One of the most significant paintings by an American was completed in 1771 and exhibited in London to immediate critical and popular success. Benjamin West’s scene portrays the last moments of the British hero’s life, which coincided with Anglo-American victory in the French and Indian War. West dressed his hero in then-current fashion, and for the first time he invested a contemporary event on the American continent with historical significance. Equally as daring was the pose and expression of General Wolfe in the painting, which emphasized the hero’s particular experience and humanity: this was a hero with whom late-eighteenth-century people could identify, whose suffering invited viewers to sympathize with Wolfe’s personal feelings of pain and dejection instead of teaching them to face death stoically and without self-pity. West revolutionized history painting by portraying the nobility of an ordinary mortal in real circumstances and giving an event of modern history a moral drama and epic dignity that had previously been reserved for biblical, mythological, or classical figures and stories. With West’s paintings, contemporary events and people, as well as the American past itself, became legitimate subjects for the realistic portrayal of historical truths—models of timeless virtues and values to whom future generations would look for guidance and inspiration.
Copley in England. Copley’s innovations in history painting were also significant. After he came to London in 1775 seeking to escape the political tensions in Boston and to perfect his technique, he completed a series of history paintings that continued the break with the tradition begun by West. In Watson and the Shark (1778) Copley portrayed recent events with human figures in contemporary dress. In Death of the Earl of Chatham (1779–1781) Copley brought history painting together with portraiture, recording a scene for posterity that included the portraits of fifty-five of England’s leading aristocrats. Copley’s finest history painting was the Death of Major Peirson (1782–1784), which like West’s General Wolfe depicted the tragic moment of a military hero’s death in the midst of victory. This scene is especially striking for its contrasts of light and dark and for its composition, with an especially dramatic focus and clarity to the extraordinary energies being expressed in the scene. While Copley did not have students, his large history paintings influenced John Trumbull’s series of war scenes of the American Revolution. They may have also influenced the French Neoclassicism of Jacques-Louis David, whose Oath of the Tennis Court (1790–1791) also records a contemporary moment by including dozens of individual portraits.
James Thomas Flexner, America’s Old Masters: First Artists of the New World (New York: Viking, 1939);
Robert Hughes, American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America (New York: Knopf, 1997);