Historical Genre

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Historical Genre


one of the major genres of the fine arts, depicting historical events and personages and socially significant phenomena in the history of society. Although generally concerned with the past, the historical genre includes representations of recent events whose social significance is recognized by contemporaries. The genre comprises historical paintings, murals, reliefs, free-standing sculpture, and graphic art. It often incorporates elements of other genres, including the representation of scenes from daily life, portraiture (as in the depiction of historical figures and historical group portraits), and landscape painting (as in the “historical landscape”); battle pieces revealing the historical significance of military events closely approach the historical genre.

The evolution of the genre was largely conditioned by the development of historical views and sociopolitical conceptions, and the periods of its flowering are associated with intensified social conflicts in presocialist societies, with the rise of class and national consciousness, and with the desire to embody in art progressive social ideals. The historical genre has often given artistic expression to dramatic conflicts between historical forces, to the view that the people are the active moving force of history, and to events from the struggle for class and national liberation.

The historical genre as it exists today was shaped by the development of scientific views on history, becoming fully formed only in the 18th and 19th centuries, although many of its distinctive traits had appeared much earlier. Its beginnings may be traced to earliest antiquity, when memories of migrations and tribal wars blended with folklore and myth. In ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, historical events were recorded either in conventional symbolic compositions (such as the apotheosis of a monarch’s military triumphs or the bestowal of power upon a ruler by a divine being) or in a series of semilegendary scenes usually recounting the exploits of a ruler or of his troops (such as reliefs and murals portraying battles, campaigns, or journeys). In ancient Greece past events were usually rendered by means of mythological images, although there were occasional idealized and generalized representations of actual heroes, models of civic valor (the group Tyrannicides by Critius and Nesiotes, 477 B.C.; the reliefs of the frieze of the Temple of Nike Apteros in Athens depicting a battle between the Greeks and their enemies, c. 420 B.C.). With the disintegration of the mythological world view, it became possible to dramatically represent recent events and heroes who had actually lived (the scene from the battle between Alexander the Great and Darius, fourth-third centuries B.C., known from a Roman copy). Ancient Roman historical reliefs portrayed the might of the state in compositions glorifying military victors and in documentary narrative friezes (Trajan’s Column in Rome, A.D. 111–114), in which symbolic and mythological figures are insignificant.

In medieval Europe, where a theological view of history prevailed, religious subjects were considered to be historical in nature, and actual events were represented rarely and conventionally, as in the Bayeux Tapestry (c. 1080) and in the miniatures in historical chronicles. In Russia the appearance of historical subjects is associated with the growth of national consciousness, for example, the icons Battle Between the Men of Suzdal’ and the Men of Novgorod (15th century) and The Church Militant (after 1552) and also the miniatures in the Königsberg Chronicle (end of the 15th century) and in the Illuminated Chronicle Compilation (second half of the 16th century). Depictions of historical battles and scenes from daily life in the past occur more often in Asian art. In China, battles and campaigns were portrayed in minute detail as early as the Han period (the reliefs of the tomb of the Wu family, A.D. 147–163). Elements of historical reality may be found in the murals and reliefs of medieval India, Indonesia, Burma, and Cambodia. Subjects drawn from daily life in the past began to appear in Chinese painting in the seventh century and in Japanese painting in the 11th and 12th centuries; from the 15th and 16th centuries historical scenes from everyday life were depicted in miniatures in Azerbaijan, Iran, Middle Asia, and India (Baburnama, end of the 16th century).

The historical genre proper began to develop as an independent genre in Europe during the Renaissance. In Italy, frescoes depicting topical events were used to propagate social ideas as early as the 14th century. In the 15th and early 16th century, battle pieces were executed by Paolo Uccello, and ceremonial events from contemporary life were painted by Melozzo da Forli, Gentile Bellini, and Pintoricchio. Andrea Mantegna (Triumph of Caesar, 1485–88) and Piero della Francesca turned to the past, mainly classical antiquity, in search of a heroic ideal and a model for contemporary society. The miniatures of J. Fouquet and S. Marmion in France attested to an awakened interest in the faithful representation of historical events. In the 16th century the Italian artists Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Titian glorified man as the hero of history, elevating historical subjects to an idealized timeless plane. The dramatic destiny of the popular masses became the subject of historical painting for the first time in the painting of Jacopo Tintoretto. There also exist anonymous 16th-century paintings on important political topics of the day (The Execution of Savonarola).

In the 17th and 18th centuries the academic artists brought the historical genre into prominence, considering it a “high” genre encompassing religious, mythological, and historical subjects proper. There also evolved a type of historical painting that was executed in the grand style and had numerous figures. Pompous historical-allegorical works portrayed monarchs as classical heroes (C. Lebrun in France); 18th-century art was also noted for its spectacular decorative treatment of historical themes (G. B. Tiepolo in Italy). Engravings depicting historical subjects were widespread. The work of the greatest artists of the 17th century reflects progressive efforts to open paths for the future development of the historical genre. In France, N. Pous-sin created noble classical heroes inspired by ethical and social ideals (Death of Germanicus, 1626–27). D. Velazquez (Spain) depicted with profound historical objectivity the conflict between two opposing forces, feudal Spain and bourgeois Holland (The Surrender of Breda, 1634). In his grand compositions full of life and movement P. P. Rubens (Flanders) freely combined historical reality with fantasy and allegory (the series Life of Constantine and Life of Maria de’ Medici, c. 1622–25). Rembrandt (Holland) recalled the heroism of the Netherlands Revolution in a scene depicting civic guards preparing to march (known as The Night Watch, 1642) and in a legendary dramatic episode from the liberation struggle of the Batavians (Conspiracy of the Batavian, 1661).

The historical genre began to develop in Russia in the first half of the 18th century, with the appearance of Russian secular art and of historical science. Patriotic enthusiasm, pageantry, and documentary precision characterize A. F. Zubov’s engravings depicting the battles and ceremonies of Peter I, the battle pieces attributed to I. N. Nikitin, the reliefs for the Triumphal Column to the memory of Peter I and the Northern War (executed by B. C. Rastrelli and others), and the mosaic Battle of Poltava (1762–64), executed in M. V. Lomonosov’s workshop.

In the second half of the 18th century, the age of Enlightenment, the historical genre became increasingly important as a means for ideological education. The deeds of ancient or medieval heroes were presented as lessons in social ethics. Advances in archaeology and interest in the history of culture created a demand for naturalness and for precision in detail. On the eve of the Great French Revolution the severe, virile paintings of J.-L. David, the leader of revolutionary classicism, depicted heroes of the ancient Roman republic and embodied the ideals of struggle against tyranny and of heroic fulfillment of civic duty. They resounded as a call to arms (The Oath of the Horatii, 1784). During the revolution, David depicted contemporary events in exalted images (The Tennis Court Oath, 1791; The Death of Marat, 1793). Subsequent developments in French political life led to the cult of the brave warrior and strong personality and to the glorification of Napoleon and his army (in the paintings of David and A.-J. Gros).

In Russia in the second half of the 18th century the historical genre was also associated with the Enlightenment and with classicism, which was propagated by the Academy of Arts. Important works included the large thematic paintings of A. P. Losenko, I. A. Akimov, and G. I. Ugriumov and the sculptural compositions of M. I. Kozlovskii, depicting heroes of classical antiquity and of ancient and modern Russian history. Under the impact of the Patriotic War of 1812, Russian artists turned to the heroic exploits past and present of historical personages and common people (the paintings of ancient Russian heroes by. A. I. Ivanov; the sculpture Minin and Pozharskii by. I. P. Mar-tos, 1804–18; the medallions by F. P. Tolstoi, 1814–36). The War of Independence in North America (1775–83) contributed to the democratization of the historical genre in American art and stimulated efforts to achieve a lifelike, faithful representation of events (J. Trumbull).

In the early 19th century the tragic side of history entered the historical genre, which portrayed the drama of revolutionary battles and popular resistance to Napoleonic aggression. The painting and graphic art of F. Goya (Spain) juxtaposes merciless, cruel force and the freedom-loving spirit of heroes from among the people (The Executions of May 3, 1808, c. 1814). The progressive French romantics T. Géricault, E. Delacroix, and A. Decamps employed the genre to protest against injustice and arbitrary authority, showing the dramatic contradictions and conflicts of the present and past with passion and vigor. The painting Liberty Leading the People by Delacroix (1830), the high relief The Marseillaise by F. Rude (1833–36), and the compositions by H. Daumier on the theme of class conflict are imbued with romantic revolutionary fervor. In these works both allegorical figures and images of typical participants in revolutionary battles are highly expressive.

Romantic currents also manifested themselves in the Russian historical genre. Tragic contemporary events and the wave of revolts in Europe appeared indirectly in K. P. Briullov’s painting The Last Day of Pompeii (1830–33), depicting the fate of classical civilization and the doom of people facing blind destructive forces. A major figure in the development of the ideals and methods of the Russian historical genre was A. A. Ivanov, whose works on religious themes posed questions of historical progress and the moral regeneration of the people and who created a method that used numerous sketches and studies from life in planning large-scale paintings.

In Germany, A. Rethel derived his inspiration from the heroism of the Middle Ages and K. F. Lessing from the popular antifeudal wars of the past. The movement for national liberation encouraged the development of the romantic historical genre in Belgium (G. Wappers, L. Gallait), Italy (F. Hayez), Bohemia (J. Mánes), Hungary (V. Madarász), Poland (A. Grottger), and Rumania (C. D. Rosenthal).

There were also many groups of conservative romantics, seeking historical and aesthetic ideals in the Middle Ages. The German Nazarenes and later the English Pre-Raphaelites attempted to revive medieval art. German artists of the Dusseldorf school created sentimental scenes from the age of chivalry. The paintings of P. Delaroche (France), with their melodramatic themes and abundance of detail from everyday life, were especially popular. Within the neoclassical tradition, the historical genre ossified into abstract classical subjects (D. Ingres) and later gave way to salon-academic pseudohistorical compositions in which the pretentious and sometimes the downright vulgar triumphed.

In the mid-19th century the rapid development of realistic art concerned with contemporary life altered the character of the historical genre, and for a time large-scale historical painting declined. There was widespread interest in paintings of the everyday life of the past in which the “color of the epoch,” the precise detail of everyday life, was evoked (E. Meissonier in France, K. Leys in Belgium, M. von Schwind in Austria). A new type of historical painting was created by A. Menzel (Germany), who depicted realistically, as if from life, the personalities and manners of the era of Frederick II. National revival and the struggle for liberation nourished the historical genre in Poland (J. Matejko), Bohemia (M. AlŠs, J. čermák), Rumania (T. Aman), and Hungary (M. von Munkacsy), in whose works romantic traditions and interest in moments of crisis and in strong, outstanding personalities were combined with realistic representation of the life of people.

With the growth of the democratic movement and the development of historical science in the 1860’s, the historical genre flourished in Russia. Russian historical painting of the latter half of the 19th century included melodramatic paintings intended to arouse sympathy for victims of violence (K. D. Flavitskii), diverting “costume” pictures of old Russian life (K. E. Makov-skii), and salon-academic classical scenes (G. I. Semiradskii). The main course of the Russian historical genre, however, was that of democratic realism. Artists took great interest in Russian history, in its dramatic contradictions and crises, and in the fate of both major historical figures and the popular masses. V. G. Shvarts was the first to convincingly depict 16th- and 17th-century Rus’ His successors, the peredvizhniki (members of the society of traveling exhibitions) N. N. Ge, N. V. Nevrev, and A. D. Kivshenko and the sculptor M. M. Antokol’skii, who was close to this group, contributed to the development of the historical genre. In the work of these artists the genre became a means for creating convincing and truthful psychological portrayals and scenes from everyday life; it took up themes of dramatic social conflict and exposed social evils. I. E. Repin attained a particularly high level of emotional power in his depiction of the tragedy of despotic arbitrariness (Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan, 1885) and the people’s strong love of freedom (The Zapo-rozhian Cossacks, 1878–91). The history of the popular masses became the central theme in V. I. Surikov’s Morning of the Execution of the Strel’tsy (1881), The Boyarina Morozova (1887), and The Conquest of Siberia by Ermak (1895). In showing how the difficult moments of historical upheaval shape the fate of a people and national character and forge heroic personalities, Suri-kov endowed his crowds with diverse nuances of feeling and brought together in a complex and rich artistic whole the popular masses, old architecture, landscape, and artistic characteristics of daily life. V. M. Vasnetsov resurrected the epic, bylina spirit of ancient Russian history (The Bogatyrs, 1881–98), and A. M. Vasnetsov re-created various periods of old Muscovy. V. V. Vereshchagin chose his themes from the history of wars and the life of ordinary soldiers.

At the end of the 19th century symbolic and generalized images, transcending everyday reality, began to appear in the historical genre (the French sculptor A. Rodin’s heroic work The Burghers of Calais, 1884–86). Timeless symbolism and styliza-tion distinguish the historical paintings of P. Puvis de Cha-vannes in France and F. Hodler in Switzerland. A growing tendency toward a lyrical perception of the past may be observed in the Russian historical genre, accompanied by a heightened interest in conveying historical “color” and in evoking the spirit of past ages (M. V. Nesterov, M. A. Vrubel’, N. K. Roerich). In the paintings of A. P. Riabushkin, S. V. Ivanov, and V. A. Serov old Russian life is depicted with profound lyricism and with a keen sense of its characteristic features, sometimes employing the satirically grotesque. The graphic art of the World of Art group (A. N. Benois, K. A. Somov, E. E. Lancere) turned from their own day to the quaint uniqueness of past ages, in which they found a source of beauty and poetry.

At the turn of the century the theme of revolutionary struggle and of the proletarian and peasant movements entered the historical genre, as in the graphic works of the German artist K. Kollwitz (The Revolt of the Weavers, 1897–98 and The Peasant War, 1903–08). Paintings by S. V. Ivanov, I. I. Brodskii, V. E. Makovskii, and A. V. Moravov were devoted to the Revolution of 1905–07 or to Revolutionaries of the past. Rejecting calm narrative detail, many 20th-century artists struggling for humanistic ideals have imparted to their historical works a direct contemporary political significance and have shown open class contradictions, employing grotesque social satire and profoundly tragic images (the antifascist works by the German artists O. Dix, J. Grosz, and H. Grundig; the murals by the Mexican artists D. Rivera, D. Siqueiros, and J. C. Orozco). Although some artists employ complex, conventionally symbolic forms (P. Picasso’s Guernica, 1937), there is a marked predilection for the direct presentation of political ideas that is characteristic of poster art (the paintings by R. Guttuso and A. Fougeron).

The Soviet historical genre is characterized by objectivity and attention to historical detail in the representation of events; by the interpretation of these events from the position of partiinost’ (party spirit) and the Marxist-Leninist conception of the laws of history in its revolutionary development; and by showing the people as the creator of history. revolutionary themes developed and held an honored place in Soviet art. During the first years of Soviet power revolutionary events were frequently depicted symbolically and allegorically, as in the paintings by B. M. Kus-todiev, K. S. Petrov-Vodkin, and K. F. Yuon. The growth of artists’ political consciousness, successes in the revolutionary transformation of the country, and the movement of art toward socialist realism contributed to the creation of the masterpieces of the Soviet historical genre. In painting, these works include A. A. Deineka’s The Defense of Petrograd (1928); B. V. Iogan-son’s The Interrogation of Communists (1933) and At the Old Urals Factory (1937); the paintings devoted to V. I. Lenin by I. I. Brodskii, A. M. Gerasimov, and I. E. Grabar’; and the paintings on historical and revolutionary subjects by S. V. Gerasimov, M. B. Grekov, P. M. Shukhmin, G. K. Savitskii, F. G. Krichevskii, and A. K. Kutateladze. In sculpture, generalized historical images prevail, as in Cobblestones, the Weapon of the Proletariat by I. D. Shadr (1927) and October by A. T. Matveev (1927).

Under the impact of the Great Patriotic War of 1941–45 artists turned to events of the courageous struggle of the Soviet people against fascism and to the heroic past of the peoples of the USSR (the paintings by P. D. Korin, the Kukryniksy, A. P. Bubnov, M. I. Avilov, and N. P. Ul’ianov). In the postwar years artists have devoted their works to V. I. Lenin and the revolutionary history of the country, to the exploits of Soviet people in the struggle for the triumph of socialism, and to the prominent figures and anonymous heroes of history. Outstanding paintings include V. I. Lenin’s Address to the Third Komsomol Congress (1950) by B. V. Ioganson et al. and works by VI. A. Serov, G. M. Korzhev, Iu. N. Tulin, I. A. Zarin’, E. E. Moiseenko, M. A. Savitskii, G. S. Mosin, and M. Sh. Brusilovskii. In sculpture, important work has been done by N. V. Tomskii, E. V. Vuchetich, Iu. I. Mikenas, E. D. Amashukeli, and L. V. Bukov-skii and in the graphic arts by V. A. Favorskii, E. A. Kibrik, and V. I. Kasiian. In other socialist countries the historical genre has been devoted to episodes from national history, to the struggle with fascism, and to the triumph of socialist social relations, as exemplified in the paintings of I. Petrov (Bulgaria), M. Lingner (German Democratic Republic), A. Ciucurencu (Rumania), and F. Kowarski (Poland) and in the sculpture of K. Dunikow-ski (Poland) and F. Cremer (German Democratic Republic). The historical genre is of great importance in inculcating patriotism and proletarian internationalism, in exposing class contradictions in the history of society, and in affirming historical optimism and faith in the triumph of communist ideals.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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