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History Paintings

For hundreds of years, history painting was the highest and most exalted form of painting. It usually served to carry the message of the state. Jacques-Louis David made a history painting of "The Coronation of Napoleon," 1807, to preserve the moment as a historic event.

Major European capitals each had an academy of the arts that provided the training in what is termed the “academic” tradition. History painting was the highest of the categories recognized by the academies. The lesser categories included portraiture, genre scenes, and still life.

History paintings required extraordinary expertise in planning and refining the image, as well as in painting the image with the highest degree of finish possible. The figures were idealized, consistent with precedents set by the Greeks and Romans, and refined from the Italian Renaissance to the then-present day. History paintings were enormous, and could only be purchased by the state or by a person with exceptional wealth.

Today, artists still paint generally historic subject matter. An American painter might show a scene of cowboys in the old American West, for example. Such paintings are widely available.


Quick Facts

  • History paintings almost never come to auction, but can be seen at the major museums, such as the Louvre, the National Gallery (either the American gallery in Washington, or the English in London), and the Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien in Vienna
  • In 2002, Sotheby’s London sold "The Massacre of the Innocents," 1611, by Peter Paul Rubens, for £49.5 million
  • History painting can draw on mythology, such as "The Apotheosis of Homer," 1827, by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

Recommended Items at Auction

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Hilda Voit - Portrait of a soldier of the 1st World War, 1918.
Dec 03, 10:00 AM CET
Hilda Voit - Portrait of a soldier of the 1st World War, 1918.
by Auktionshaus Wersching
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Reservist picture around 1914, Royal Bavarian 12th Field Artillery Regiment, Landau.
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Reservist picture around 1914, Royal Bavarian 12th Field Artillery Regiment, Landau.
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Gemälde Französische Gendarmerie zu Pferde - Oil painting mounted French Gendarmerie
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Gemälde Französische Gendarmerie zu Pferde - Oil painting mounted French Gendarmerie
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CIRCLE OF JOSEPH MARIE VIEN (FRENCH 1716-1809), LES VESTALES
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CIRCLE OF JOSEPH MARIE VIEN (FRENCH 1716-1809), LES VESTALES
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Civil War Confederate Fort Oil Painting
Dec 03, 2:00 PM EST
Civil War Confederate Fort Oil Painting
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42 Aquarelle Ordnungspolizei - 42 watercolours painted by a policemen around 1940
Dec 04, 9:30 AM CET
42 Aquarelle Ordnungspolizei - 42 watercolours painted by a policemen around 1940
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JOHN FRANCIS RIGAUD (BRITISH 1742-1810), SIR PHILIP SIDNEY AT THE BATTLE OF ZUTPHEN
Dec 14, 10:30 AM GMT
JOHN FRANCIS RIGAUD (BRITISH 1742-1810), SIR PHILIP SIDNEY AT THE BATTLE OF ZUTPHEN
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HANS PRINTZ (AUSTRIAN 1865-1925), A SET OF EIGHT SHAKESPEAREAN SCENES
Dec 14, 10:30 AM GMT
HANS PRINTZ (AUSTRIAN 1865-1925), A SET OF EIGHT SHAKESPEAREAN SCENES
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AFTER WILLIAM HOGARTH, THE HARLOT'S PROGRESS
Dec 14, 10:30 AM GMT
AFTER WILLIAM HOGARTH, THE HARLOT'S PROGRESS
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Ölgemälde Feldartillerie im Vorrrücken - Oil painting German field artillery advancing 1917
Dec 04, 9:30 AM CET
Ölgemälde Feldartillerie im Vorrrücken - Oil painting German field artillery advancing 1917
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Painting Portrait Cadet, German Empire
Dec 03, 10:00 AM CET
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JAMES RAMSAY (BRITISH 1786-1854), THE ENTRY OF THE BLACK PRINCE INTO LONDON WITH THE FRENCH KING
Dec 14, 10:30 AM GMT
JAMES RAMSAY (BRITISH 1786-1854), THE ENTRY OF THE BLACK PRINCE INTO LONDON WITH THE FRENCH KING
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GABRIEL REVEL (FRENCH 1643-1712), CLEOPATRA
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GABRIEL REVEL (FRENCH 1643-1712), CLEOPATRA
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Sellers Who Sell History Paintings


Dreweatts 1759 Fine Sales

Dreweatts 1759 Fine Sales

Berliner Auktionshaus GmbH & Co. KG

Berliner Auktionshaus GmbH & Co. KG

Auktionshaus Wersching

Auktionshaus Wersching

Connoisseur Online

Connoisseur Online