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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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CIRCLE OF HIPPOLYTE BELLANGÉ (FRENCH, 1800-1866)
May 01, 11:00 AM BST
CIRCLE OF HIPPOLYTE BELLANGÉ (FRENCH, 1800-1866)
by Chiswick Auctions
Est: £300- £500
£2400 Bids
A portrait of a Bavarian forest inspector during the reign of Ludwig I, dated 1841
May 07, 10:00 AM CEST
A portrait of a Bavarian forest inspector during the reign of Ludwig I, dated 1841
by Hermann Historica GmbH
Est: €0- €0
€9000 Bids
Heinz Heinrichs (1886 - 1957) - Kaiser Wilhelm II in the uniform of the Gardes du Corps
May 07, 10:00 AM CEST
Heinz Heinrichs (1886 - 1957) - Kaiser Wilhelm II in the uniform of the Gardes du Corps
by Hermann Historica GmbH
Est: €0- €0
€1,0000 Bids
Prussian Cuirassiers on the Attack, German, circa 1900
May 07, 10:00 AM CEST
Prussian Cuirassiers on the Attack, German, circa 1900
by Hermann Historica GmbH
Est: €0- €0
€8500 Bids
GFM Paul von Hindenburg (1847 - 1934) - a half portrait in uniform, 1918
May 07, 10:00 AM CEST
GFM Paul von Hindenburg (1847 - 1934) - a half portrait in uniform, 1918
by Hermann Historica GmbH
Est: €0- €0
€7600 Bids
Generalfeldmarschall Paul von Hindenburg (1847 - 1934) - a portrait painting by Ernst Zimmer, circa 1914
May 07, 10:00 AM CEST
Generalfeldmarschall Paul von Hindenburg (1847 - 1934) - a portrait painting by Ernst Zimmer, circa 1914
by Hermann Historica GmbH
Est: €0- €0
€9000 Bids
Civil War battle oil painting
May 02, 11:00 AM PDT
Civil War battle oil painting
by PBA Galleries Auctions & Appraisers
Est: $1,000- $1,500
$5000 Bids

Sellers Who Sell History Paintings


Hermann Historica GmbH

Hermann Historica GmbH

PBA Galleries Auctions & Appraisers

PBA Galleries Auctions & Appraisers

Chiswick Auctions

Chiswick Auctions