When a painter first dips their paintbrush in paint and touches it to a canvas, they have begun a story. Sometimes painters are free to choose their own subject and plot, and sometimes they are not. If painters of the past, especially, had a powerful patron bankrolling their career—a member of the clergy, a lord, an organization, or even a king or emperor—their commission would be to reproduce a certain event in a flattering light, to fit their sponsor’s sociopolitical agenda, or perhaps glorify the memory of a figure who has long been deceased. Sometimes, unrestricted by the demands of a benefactor, artists would paint independently, and create a masterpiece that showcases their own established beliefs and takes on history.
This has led to many construed and at times somewhat inexact representations of reality that remain focuses of intense study for art historians. Here are seven iconic paintings that combine historical fact and well-calculated technique to convey to viewers throughout the centuries sagas that the artists were not necessarily personally present to witness, but at liberty to absorb and interpret.
Emperor Taizong Receiving the Tibetan Envoy
By Yan Liben
As pointed out by art historian Peter Zhang, the subject matter for this piece was unconventional for its time. Ancient Chinese painters preferred to focus on more natural, aesthetically pleasurable themes “such as flowers, trees, birds or landscapes to express their sensory experiences,” but Yan Liben was unique in being both a painter and a politician. For Liben, a major achievement in his country’s legislature was an appropriate topic to represent in art. And as it is likely that, as an in-favor imperial scholar, he was present for the event, spectators can trust his accuracy and appreciate moreover his moderate simplicity as an artist.
In 634 CE the Chinese Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty held an audience with an envoy from Tibet, Gar Tongtsen Yulsung. The purpose of this historic meeting was to broker a marriage contract between the emperor’s daughter, Princess Wencheng, and King Songtsan Gampo of Tibet. This would be a match to cement peaceful relations between China and Tibet, and although Liben spaces out the two separate parties on his canvas of choice, there is a sense of harmony and unity between the figures in their levelling and in their direct eye contact as the deal is sealed. This piece is remarkable on this list for being the only painting executed on a silk handscroll rather than on a Western-style frame, making it all the more valuable for its delicacy. Art enthusiasts of this century who wish to see this work will have to travel, like the Tibetan envoy, all the way to China, to the Palace Museum in Beijing.
By Diego Velázquez
Court painter Diego Velázquez completed this Baroque-era masterpiece in 1656 and it stands today as one of the most popular draws for travellers to the Museo del Prado in Madrid, Spain. Unlike the other paintings on this list, which depict treaties, war, and major political events, the scene of Las Meninas is entirely domestic. It captures simultaneously both the disorder and the rigidity of an ordinary day at the royal court of King Philip IV of Spain. His beloved daughter, the exquisitely gowned Infanta Margaret Theresa, is waited upon by two attentive maids, or meninas, while all around her there is a bustle of hectic activity frozen in an elegant tableau.
As the brightest focal point in the painting, Margaret Theresa serves as both the central subject and the main theme: the good health and the future of the Spanish Empire, as well as the strength of the Spanish-Hapsburgs. Indeed, the petite princess at the time of the painting’s production was her family and homeland’s dearest hope, as Spain was in sharp decline as a European superpower during the 17th century, and the respect awarded to the Hapsburgs of Spain was diminishing. However, genius artists such Diego Velázquez were pivotal in the country’s redemption, generating a Spanish Golden Age of art and culture. Velázquez’s assignment from his patrons was to paint the Spanish court as more thriving and prosperous than it was. He understood it well and executed it beautifully, though those knowledgeable about European history understand that the man behind the brush, who also included himself in the painting—an unusual choice for the time—may have actually been this art work’s most glorious figure.
The Coronation of Napoleon
By Jacques-Louis David
Jacques-Louis David, a French artist who dabbled in politics, is arguably the champion of grand historical paintings. Inarguably, he is a chief virtuoso of the Neoclassical style, an 18th-20th century cultural movement characterized by ornamentation that paid tribute to the antiquities of Ancient Rome and Greece. That being said, the indomitable, Alexander-like conqueror Napoleon Bonaparte could not have been a more fitting subject for a piece so Neoclassic. Napoleon’s official coronation as Emperor of the French took place on December 2, 1804, in the Notre Dame de Paris. Joy of Museums Virtual Tours describes the event as “a masterful act of propaganda” and David’s version can confidently be described as the same. The throne room could not be more ostentatious, and the brilliant, Grecian garbs of Napoleon, his kneeling Empress Josephine, and their guests are a flaunting display of fabulous wealth and position.
David was commissioned to paint this masterwork first by Napoleon himself, and then later by American collectors who, satisfied by the original and desiring a copy, favored the themes of Revolutions and toppling age-old traditions and monarchs. Here we see Napoleon crowning his adored Josephine himself, having imperiously nudged the Pope out of the way to perform the task. Napoleon’s refusal to submit to the authority of the Catholic Church was an invitee of controversy throughout his reign, and as David demonstrates, Napoleon undertook that campaign as aggressively as his military ones. Onlookers of any century can participate as attendees at David’s version of Napoleon’s inauguration as Emperor by travelling to the Louvre in Paris, France. It’s an excellent alternative as an artistic pilgrimage if the room containing the Mona Lisa is too crowded.
The Second of May 1808
By Francisco Goya
Swords drawn. Bleeding bodies scattered. The crush of bodies as conflict reaches its boiling point. The fierce and frantic spirit of rebellion emulates from Francisco Goya’s 1814 The Second of May 1808, which faithfully captures the cruel reality of battle. It is utter chaos, and the eye, missing a source of light in this gruesome, overcast scene, just doesn’t know where to settle. Goya’s eyes, however, saw everything, and this depiction of one of the many Spanish uprisings against their French occupiers during the Napoleonic Wars can be interpreted as a genuinely honest one.
This mutiny in Madrid, Spain took place, naturally, on the second of May 1808 and stretched on into the third. The Spanish people, as Goya (a fellow citizen) knew well, were furious, as Napoleon’s aim in invading their country was to topple the ancient royal family from the throne and replace them with his own upstart relatives. In retaliation, in Goya’s painting, the rebels topple a mounted French-Mameluk official from his horse, and the message is clear: they will choose their own rulers. This painting is the friendly neighbour of Las Meninas, also situated for good at the Museo del Prado. Visitors may actually discover that witnessing this battle scene is a far less violent experience than Goya’s notorious Saturn Devouring His Son, also present in the museum.
The Maid of Orléans
By Jan Matejko
First-time viewers can be forgiven for perhaps feeling overwhelmed by this crowded monument to the French-Catholic Saint Joan of Arc, as many medieval onlookers may have felt overwhelmed by the presence of the formidable Joan. Joan is well-known for being the capable military commander who, in 1429, led a faction of the French army to lift the siege of Orléans by France’s sworn enemies, the English. In Matejko’s work, Joan is fresh from her triumph and leading the company of the Dauphin Charles to Reims for his coronation as Charles VII of France.
It’s an unusual choice of subject for a Polish painter. However, Matejko was painting in an era where Poland itself was under a long siege, split into thirds by the more powerful empires of Austria, Russia, and Prussia. The theme of liberation was likely at the core of his patriotic mindset. He presents the heroic Joan as suspended between the holy and the earthly world, already halfway between her duties in the mortal realm and the heavenly sphere after being burned at the stake. An angel with her arms outstretched is ready to welcome Joan; she is a winged symbol of Matejko’s tribute to the saint as a spiritual figure as well as a historic one.
The painting is currently on display in the Rogalińska Gallery in the Raczyński Palace in Rogalin, Poland, where visitors can for all time gaze upon the majesty of the 15th-century peasant woman who rode and fought for France. It’s impossible to miss, being Matejko’s largest known painting. Poland, unsurprisingly, has no interest in ever surrendering it to the Louvre or anywhere else other than Poland.
By Pablo Picasso
Contorted, angular bodies. Exaggerated features. Disarray and confusion. Raw, dismantling power. Those are the recognizable trademarks of Pablo Picasso, but purposely missing from his 1937 Guernica are the vibrant colours which usually alight his Cubist works, because there is nothing bright here to witness. Like Goya, the subversive Picasso had no interest in highlighting the “glories” of war. It was the true and honest horrors he chose instead, presented in bleak monochrome.
On the 26th of April 1937, the town of Guernica was bombed by the allied Nazis and Fascists of Germany and Italy—in support of the Spanish Nationalists—at the height of the Spanish Civil War, leading to community-wide devastation and the bloody deaths of innocents. Picasso was commissioned to paint the work by the Spanish Republic in a campaign to collect funds for the war effort from foreign sympathizers, and the work was first exhibited at the 1937 Paris International Exhibition for this very purpose. Historians such as Picasso’s biographer Gijs van Hensbergen have devoted entire portions of their careers just to this painting, which Hensbergen has expertly deconstructed while challenging the reader with provocative questions as to the nature of the artwork’s violent symbolism: “It is the horse that takes centre stage in this apocalyptic knacker's yard where nothing seems to make any sense. Are we in a bull ring, a village square or a plywood theatre set?” The Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid, Spain has the honour of permanently hosting Guernica, as an everlasting memorial to tragic casualties of war.
National Language Class
By Chua Mia Tee
Chua Mia Tee’s work is a union between traditional art forms and the progressive theme of modern multiculturalism in the 20th century. An emigrate to Singapore from China and a refugee from the Sino-Japanese War, Chua found a permanent home in his art, and National Language Class reflects his success in accepting his circumstances with grace and constructive finesse. The subjects of his work, painted in the styles of classical realism borrowed from both European and Asian origins, are a group of 1950s Chinese-born students studying Malay, the national language of Singapore. There is a tone of ease and comradery between the students in this compact, cozy classroom setting that could be easily mistaken for a family living room.
Historian Kennie Ting claims that Tee’s objective was a work of art that demonstrates Singapore’s “long-awaited attainment of self-governance,” hard-won from Japanese occupation. There is certainly a sense that this is a group of people who are comfortably in control of their own lives. Also, according to Ting, Chua painted this piece while he was a member of the nationalist and anti-colonist Equator Art Society, which suggests that he was working under a voluntary political timetable. An argument could be made that this is not the universal experience of immigrants adapting to a new culture and a new language, but it is the one that the proud Singaporean Chua felt moved to depict. It currently hangs in the National Gallery Singapore.