History as the Subject: The Importance of Art Inspired by Historical Events

It is understood without dispute that art is a depiction- an immediate image presented ready for the observers opinion. Throughout time, the simplicity of this function has been used to depict historical events. Despite the changing medium – tapestry, oil paintings or photographs they effectively portray landmark events which don’t just chronologically mark time passing but the evolution and transitional nature of different artistic movements and styles. Yet the very accumulative nature of art itself jeopardises the steadfast chronology as each masterpiece is a product of all things past and present. The role of the artist in this position is sceptical as the necessity for the ultimate historicity in their work is questioned. Does art then transcend the bibliographic nature of history? Looking at Jacque – Louis David’s The Death of Socrates of 1787 in some aspects regards it to. He, like a myriad of other artists, uses historical events advantageously as inspirational rather than factual. Socrates, the white focal pivot amongst a canvas of dark hues displays the transcendence of Socrates’ wisdom rather than the historically accurate monotony of his death.


The Death of Socrates: Jacques-Louis David - 1787

As art is rarely separate from the artist, the subjectivity entailed in artistry differentiates it from the objective verificationism of a historical account. Thus one assertion of the artist’s duty in regards to history is using this subjectivity to stimulate emotions in the observer about a particular event. This is vital as it vivifies the mathematic reductionism of records and reports of an event into a resonating reflection for the observer. Francisco Goya’s commemoration of The Third of May 1808 is a painfully poignant example of this with the imminence and immediacy of death brooding throughout every corner of the scene. This ensures that the figure of 23,000 French soldiers is as fearful in this painting as it was in Spain at the time of Napoleon. Without the personal feelings of the artist contemporary to the event inflicted onto it, it permits modern observers to let their feelings dictate the art rather than let the art dictate their feelings. This urge for a lack of autonomy in art stems from the potential danger that modern observers can then look back on history and take their own emotions and opinions as the truth of a significant event which they weren’t present for.

Francisco Goya: The Third of May - 1808

If art transcends the bibliographic and chronologic nature of history then the ideas that artists portray through ancient Gods and invented personifications are equally as effective as a historical account. The attribution of characteristics to pagan Gods and the persistent interplay of relationships between them show that there is more at play than just the painting, it becomes a multifaceted piece of art. These characters are vivacious and they can be understood complexly in all their might, majesty and beauty stimulating perhaps a less poignant but almost a more metaphysical understanding of the human emotions that cause the historical events previously mentioned. The immortal nature of the Gods and mythology consolidates that the ideas are transcendent of history rather than a chronological part of it. Due to the exoticism of these paintings, it has a truer sense of creating a separate entity. This creation is a different world to the historical accounts and world which we live in. Therefore these grandiose paintings of Zeus, Athena, Venus and the likes are not to teach a lesson of behaviour but to understand human behaviour. Instead of Imago Dei the artist makes the painting of these Gods in Dei Imago. Botticelli’s Venus and Mars exacerbates the human tendencies of love and war by having them personified visibly on the canvas, yet more covertly it exploits the human attribute of betrayal as Venus lies composed after making her husband Hephaestus a cuckold.


Detail of Boticelli's Venus and Mars - 1485

Both depictions of historical events and mythological scenes expose a truth about the reality of human nature. The historical brutally explains a significant event through expressive mediums which permits a different angle to approaching the same situations which have been reduced to reports. Thus art of historical events are vital as it repeatedly induces a specific emotion associated with landmark happenings in the chronology of humanity. When artists resort to mythology they depend on an accumulative summarisation of independent knowledge about human nature and why it works the way it does. They then translate this into an exotic world of beauty to make it seem imperial, sublime and elite. Instead of the observer being faced with a mirror of life like in historical accounts, the artist has through myth created a place which the observer can adhere, respond and aspire to.


Written by Emily Quli


If you are interested in writing for the Blog Team email our current editor Rosie at editor.normanrea@gmail.com

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