History Painting and the Problem with Art Education by Robert Zeller
Let me say upfront that I think it’s undeniable at this point that there is an explosion of new realism across the country, and at least some signs of a revival of history painting and monumental figurative sculpture. One need only look at two recent commissions for public works of art for the painter Adam Miller and sculptor Sabin Howard to see a return to the epic Grand Manner of the Baroque and Renaissance masters. Adam Miller was chosen to paint a large scale public mural depicting the History of the Quebec Secession Movement, and Sabin Howard’s design The Weight of Sacrifice was chosen for the National World War I Memorial at Pershing Park in Washington D.C. Both are enormous in scale and feature complex compositions of over twenty figures in each.
I think it is an authentic resurgence, but we should all be aware that it’s been a slow build, with many different players involved, and that the movement is not completely formed yet. For the past forty years, artists have been picking up the lost threads of American narratives left by Edward Hopper, Thomas Hart Benton, and many others that were abandoned when Abstract Expressionism took over as the dominant force of Modernism in the United States in the 1950s. Artists as diverse as Andrew Wyeth, R. H. Ives Gammell, and Eric Fischl all contributed to this stream that has now become a torrent.
In my new book, The Figurative Artist’s Handbook, I go into great detail explaining much of this resurgence from an art historical perspective and highlighting some fantastic narrative work that some young artists are making this very moment. While we in the Figurative Realist movement are very excited to see a revival of the genre of Narrative Painting, I believe there are still several inimitable obstacles that loom in the way of seeing a large-scale revival of actual history painting. Distinctions need to be made upfront regarding narrative painting and history painting, as they are not the same thing.
First, let’s define terms. Narrative painting can be simply described as any painting that tells a story, conveys a point of view. One of the best examples of this type of painting from recent art history is Eric Fichl’s Bad Boy, an important work that marked the return of Hopper-esque narrative to contemporary art in America, albeit in a new, darker context. History painting, however, was traditionally regarded as the highest form of Western painting, occupying the most prestigious place in the hierarchy of genres, ahead of landscape, still life and portraiture. Usually, multiple figure compositions involving a narrative about religious, mythological or allegorical scenes from history. These latter images were sometimes confined to battle-scenes or scenes of formal surrenders and the like. One important requirement was/is to be epic in scale (think Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, towering over you in the Louvre), these paintings were meant to overwhelm and move the viewer on an emotional, experiential level. In short, history painting tells a big story.
One major obstacle to history painting is that painting on this level of sophistication requires enormous planning. An artist must create copious thumbnail sketches to perfect the overall composition, figure sketches to work out anatomical details, lighting, form, and color studies must be worked out globally. The ground plane and adjacent architecture require one or multiple point perspective in order to situate figures in believable space. Most importantly, to effectively depict the interactions between the figures by gesture and expression, a cohesive narrative must be present. All of this takes time and a good deal of training and education.
History painting faces another major obstacle: the present state of art education in the United States. Where can a young artist learn the skills necessary to undertake such a herculean task? To convey a narrative properly, especially on the level of something as sophisticated as history painting, an artist must have something to say and must have at least basic skills in painting and drawing to make the statement coherent. History painting demands the ability to engage in critical thinking. The American university system encourages an astonishing level of conformity in regards to the major political and social narratives of our society. Although this is never stated outright (as it would be bad for business), university students are issued narratives to mull over, internalize.
Rarely do we see young artists encouraged to study philosophy or anything resembling a serious study of objective critical thinking within a fine arts curriculum. Instead, university programs encourage art students to indulge and lazily accept various boilerplate and subjective causes du jour in place of their own narratives: gender or feminist studies, environmental and ecological issues, or the biggest cash crop of all approved politicized discourse, racism. I’m not saying that these pre-packaged narratives cannot be authentically owned by a given art student. I am saying that without the ability to engage in critical thinking, how would one know? Most telling of all is that art students are never encouraged to think about economics. Which is interesting considering that for the vast majority of art students, there is absolutely no market for their work, no real ability to make a living when they graduate. But I’ll get to more on that topic later in my essay.
Another possible option for a young artist wishing to learn the art of history painting is to throw in with the atelier system, an important arts educational movement that has thrived outside of the university establishments using the French atelier system as a model. Their main advantage is that they actually teach skills that are useful in terms of realism. Dubbed the Classical Realists by the artist Richard Lack, this movement was headed by Lack and his teacher Ives Gammell, and later by the likes of Daniel Graves, Charles Cecil, and Jacob Collins. They have focused primarily on training artist in traditional academic subjects: portraits, still life, landscapes, and simple nude figures. This “repairing of the ruins” was an incredibly important task, considering the de-skilling that took place in American universities after the triumph of Modernism, and which still continues unabated in many quarters.
I make the argument in my book that the Classical Realists are in dire need of a new name and a new focus. The phrase Classical Realism itself is oxymoronic. The Greek Classical has absolutely nothing in common with true French Realism. I think the term should be abandoned and replaced with the following, more accurate descriptors: figurative art and Figurative Realism. But whatever the movement is called, if they are to be of greater relevance in creating a revival of history painting, they will have to teach compositional narrative as an art form. I believe the solution sits directly under everyone’s nose, with compositional techniques of the great illustrators and graphic novelists. In his book, Figure Drawing for All It’s Worth (1943), the illustrator and art instructional writer Andrew Loomis introduced the basics of putting figures in perspective into a conceptual landscape or interior.
To give credit where it is due, it should be noted that while the atelier movement focused more on surface form and observational painting and drawing techniques, it was actually the 20th-century illustration market in the United States that kept the compositional techniques of the French Academy alive. Artists like Maxfield Parrish, J. C. Leyendecker, and Norman Rockwell kept compositional narrative painting alive as an American art form. Admittedly, their narratives were dictated by Madison Avenue ad men. But they were at least present, effective and relevant to modern society in a ways that cannot be said of either the university system or the atelier movement. In terms of training young artists to craft something on the scale of history painting, the compositions of contemporary graphic novels by Frank Miller, Alex Ross, Jamie-Hewlett, and many others are the true heirs to Renaissance compositional devices and should be taken seriously as such, in my opinion. The paintings of Adam Miller are as indebted to comic book artists as they are to Tiepolo, and that seems fitting in this context.
Finally, there is the pressing problem of newly minted artists, churned out by ateliers and universities alike, and flung into an art market too small or volatile to support all of them. And what of those chosen few who struggle on enough to acquire the skills necessary to find their unique voice and undertake large scale history paintings? Where are the patrons or the market for such paintings? In previous centuries, history painting was largely financed by the uniquely incestuous European marriage of Church and State. After all, these large-scale works were hardly the stuff to sit in some wealthy merchant’s parlor but rather belonged on palace walls and in grand institutions like the Louvre.
But the modern American version of that incestuous blend (with multi national corporations replacing the Catholic Church as the bedfellow of government) are hardly interested in the arts at all, much less commissioning epic public works such as history painting.
So, who will pay for these works? The two commissions I mention in this essay were privately funded if that is any indication of future outcomes. While the financials are not yet certain, it’s undeniable that the tide is indeed starting to turn, and across genres at that. Narrative painting requires the ability to tell a story, but history painting requires the ability to tell the big story, or rather, the archetypal story. There are a few artists who seem to be up to the task, and perhaps more are on the way. A new day is upon us in terms of figurative art, most certainly.