(Re)Contextualizing History Paintings (LS-ME-714)

This museum learning scenario explores the role of history paintings in formulating our knowledge and perceptions of national revolutions (18th-19th c.) and identities, by encouraging participants to (re)contextualize them as representations and sources of information.

Why this learning scenario

I decided to design this learning scenario at the end of 2021 — the year which marked the Bicentennial Anniversary of the outbreak of the Greek War of Independence (1821-1829). During that year, public and private institutions in Greece and abroad participated in the so-called Initiative 1821-2021, which was set up with the aim to highlight the anniversary of the Revolution as an occasion for self-reflection, and a source of inspiration for the future. The participating organisations offered a rich program of events and activities, including physical and digital museum exhibitions, such as the exhibitions 1821 in Painting at the National Gallery of Greece, Revolution ’21 Reframed at the National Historical Museum, and 1821 Before and After at the Benaki Museum. Iconic history paintings and their reproductions (depicting key historical events and figures) had, of course, a prominent place in these exhibitions and their catalogues, as well as in academic publications, conference presentations, documentary series and educational programs that were also created in the context of this anniversary.  

As is the case with all anniversaries and celebrations, the Greek War of Independence was represented as a unique historical event with great national and international significance and impact — and indeed, it is a unique event, as is the case with all revolutionary and transforming events in human history. However, the Greek Revolution of 1821 belongs to the Age of Revolution (late 18th – mid 19th c.), and hence, bears similarities to other significant revolutionary movements that occurred in Europe and the Americas from 1765 through 1848. These similarities, along with the differences, can also be found in their representations in history painting — the dominant genre of academic painting in the various national academies at that time.  

Greece Expressing Gratitude by Theodoros Vryzakis, SearchCulture.gr, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

History paintings, especially the ones that depict subjects and scenes from secular history (such as The Entry of Emperor Franz I in Vienna after the Peace of Paris on June 16, 1814 by Johann Peter Krafft, and Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix), are small windows into the past that give us a glimpse of what it might have been like. They also give us clues about ideas and qualities that some people value. However, they are also interpretations by painters of specific nationalities for specific national audiences; and as such, they selectively depict, exaggerate or omit certain aspects of the historical events (sometimes, in a frankly propagandistic fashion). This means that, in order to use them to build our knowledge and understanding of the past, we need to contextualize and challenge them as sources of information and inspiration. This museum learning scenario encourages participants to do so (a) by exploring and comparing iconic history paintings, (b) by imagining how they would look like if they were created by painters of different nationalities, and for exhibitions in other places and times, and (c) by articulating arguments for their inclusion in the section of a history textbook about modern history.

Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix, Louvre, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Adapting this learning scenario to your needs

History paintings and drawings can be found in many museum collections around Europe and beyond, not only because of the popularity of this genre during the 18th and 19th centuries, but also because of the existence of a large amount of high quality reproductions that were made at that time, due to the constant invention of new printmaking techniques, that permitted their production at a relative low cost, and therefore, their wide distribution and access.

This means that it is highly likely your own museum holds original history paintings and/or reproductions that can be used to enrich this learning scenario, based on your own national context, and the educational aims you want to achieve. But you can also complement the Europeana and other resources with avant-garde artworks that explicitly reject history painting, political cartoons and/or contemporary artworks in order to highlight the different ways art movements, genres, styles and forms depict, nuance and criticize historical events, political contexts and collective identities.

Would you like to know more about this learning scenario? You can download it below:

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CC BY-SA 4.0: the featured image used to illustrate this article has been found on Europeana and has been provided by the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere.

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