In the hierarchy of genres, as was developed over centuries, the highest form of oil painting depicted historical or allegorical subjects. As epic poetry was upon the highest pedestal of literature, as was the display of epic narratives on canvas. Often referred to as ‘the grand genre’, history painting established itself through the use of pure imagination and the ability to conjure up otherworldly imagery. This was an entertaining and impressive spectacle, especially for the era in which it was created. History painting was favoured by art critics for its need for creative talent, as well as the aristocracy and royalty of the day, who could use such divine imagery to enhance their own status upon the walls of palaces and stately homes.
Above: a detail from Bacchus and Ariadne by Titian (1520-1523)
Our easel painting conservators at Fine Art Restoration Company have had experience in restoring history paintings from across centuries from the Renaissance through to modern works. In this article we will look more closely at the themes in this genre and the risks these antique oil paintings may face.
Above: our team discussing conservation treatments for various artworks requiring restoration
Understanding classical history paintings
Before the 19th century, it should be noted that ‘history’ in this context refers to mostly mythological or literary works. The most common themes come from classical antiquity and the pantheon of gods, whose academic connotations brought a secondary understanding of the painting. As such, a history painting cannot always be taken at face value, as each figure or item may have an association with a specific virtue, sin, mood, or background story.
Above: a detail from Entry of Alexander into Babylon by Charles Le Brun (1664)
In some paintings allegorical notions overtake any realism, making the narrative almost entirely dependent on subtext. It was assumed that the viewer would know their classics and understand this in-depth genre, this excluded those who did not have the education or artistic analysis to be able to fully understand what they saw, but nonetheless these paintings would have been spectacular to behold.
Above: Primavera by Botticelli is a renaissance masterpiece which uses mythological stories and figures to represent spring, all of the characters in this painting have background stories which give the piece a deeper meaning
Although religious art may also fall under the category of history painting, for the simplicity of this article we will focus on those which depict mythological and classical literary scenes.
Famous classical history paintings
A selection of famous history paintings are pictured below: Diana and Actaeon by Titian (top left), An Allegory of Truth and Time by Annibale Carracci (bottom left), Jupiter and Io by Correggio (centre left), Venus and Adonis by Rubens (centre right top), The Intervention of the Sabine Women by Jacques-Louis David (centre right bottom), Justice and Divine Vengeance Pursuing Crime by Pierre-Paul Prud’hon (right top), Death of Sardanapalus by Eugène Delacroix (right bottom)
Pictured below in details: A Dance To The Music Of Time by Nicolas Poussin (left), The Origin of the Milky Way by Tintoretto (centre left), The Chimera by Gustave Moreau (centre right), Perseus Freeing Andromeda by Paolo Veronese (right)
Popular topics in history paintings
There are many scenes from classical mythology and epic literature which have been produced time and time again in art history. Many of these popular subjects have a fantastic degree of emotion or intrigue and the artist will often find their own way to present the subject matter, sometimes shifting the focus to produce an original reading and composition. There are many scenes you may come across in history painting, but these are a few to give an idea of their complex nature.
Above: a detail from The Golden Apple of Discord at the wedding of Peleus and Thetis by Jacob Jordaens (1633)
The story of Venus (also known as Aphrodite) is a common depiction of love, lust, and beauty. Scenes associated with this goddess may be Venus and Adonis, Venus and Vulcan, or the birth of Venus, which many will recognise in Botticelli’s masterpiece of the same name. Each depiction of Venus has different associations depending on how she is presented and who she is with. For example, a scene with Adonis has connotations of unrequited love, but a scene with Vulcan has a theme of infidelity or erotic desire. By contrast, popular scenes of the goddess Diana (or Artemis) have the overriding subtext of her chastity. Diana is often shown hunting a stag, but with classical context this is in fact a man named Actaeon who she has turned into the creature after he spied on her bathing.
Above: a detail from Venus and Adonis by Titian (1550)
Scenes from epic literature also prove to be popular subjects, especially those surrounding the famous Trojan war and later the founding of Rome. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey inspired many nautical artworks, which you can read more about here, as well as Virgil’s Aeneid. There are also mythological scenes associated with these classical tales, including the ‘Judgement of Paris’, in which a young man chooses between three goddesses to decide who is the fairest and the most deserving of a golden apple. The goddesses offer him bribes to win the apple, Hera (Juno) promises to make him the king of Europe and Asia, Athena (Minerva) offers him skill in war, and Aphrodite (Venus) offers the love of the most beautiful woman in the world. Paris chooses Aphrodite’s offer, and his affair with Helen of Troy would go on to spark the conflict. This scene has been depicted many times in art history, by artists such as Peter Paul Rubens, Jacob Jordaens, Sandro Botticelli, Paolo Veronese and Raphael.
Above: a detail from The Judgement Of Paris by Alessandro Turchi (1640)
Classical history painting restoration and risks
The age of history paintings is often a central factor in their deterioration, although oil paintings are a very robust form of art, their surrounding environment over a course of centuries could lead to instability and loss.
Above: our conservator retouching small areas of missing paint on a classical painting
Our conservators approach each painting with an understanding of its age and the issues it may have come across over the course of its life. This includes being displayed above a fireplace, or being kept within a smoke filled room, as was often the case prior to the 20th century. Many artworks are darkened not only due to this soot and smoke, they may also begin to yellow due to nicotine in the atmosphere or due to the natural decay of the varnish layer.
Above: examples of history paintings which have been in our studio, including a deteriorating paint layer before restoration (left) and a painting half way through varnish removal (right)
The different levels of temperature and humidity over many centuries or decades could have weakened the structure, affecting the wooden stretcher bars and rusting any metal joins. Mould and moisture may have also built up, as well as cracking upon the paint layer itself. Whilst a thin level of cracking is normal for an old painting, wide and unstable cracks are cause for concern.
Above: our frame conservator stabilising a painting in the back of an antique frame, this is also important for the longterm health of the artwork
An older painting may have faced damage over the years, including tears and punctures to the canvas. These may have been restored in the past with historic methods, leaving them vulnerable to fail as time goes on. The painting may have also been retouched historically with an unsympathetic amount of over-painting, disturbing the original details and composition.
Above: our conservator assessing an oil painting, here you can see an area of historic over-painting under UV lighting
Our conservators first assess the surface of a painting, looking for damage under various lighting and angles. They then use a UV torch to search for old repairs and unoriginal elements which may be on the surface, such as old over-painting. A treatment plan is then proposed, outlining the various methods which our team will complete in order to bring stability and integrity back to the painting.
Above: a restoration of an Old Master oil painting and frame completed by our team, in the middle you can see it halfway through a varnish removal – this painting was rumoured to be by Tintoretto and was completed in our London studio
Each treatment is tailor-made for the artwork by our conservation team. They ensure each chemical is tested before cleaning the surface and treating the artwork to a varnish removal. This will clear away the build up of contaminants and will also remove any areas which are not original to the artwork.
Above: a tailored solvent and varnish is created by our conservators in studio for each oil painting they treat, this ensures it is appropriate for the sensitive antique materials
If the painting has a tear, this can then be carefully restored thread-by-thread over a course of hours, stabilising surrounding the paint. This gap is then filled to even out the surface of the artwork, as well as other uneven spots where required.
Above: a landscape painting before and after a tear repair and sensitive restoration of the paint layer completed by our conservation team
Next, the painting is varnished with a new UV-protective coat, before being carefully retouched with colour-matched pigments. These colours are completely reversible and will only be used sparingly to maintain the artist’s original intentions. A final coat of varnish is then applied to allow for an even finish.
Above: an oil painting receiving a new varnish layer from our conservator in our studio
Restoring The Death Of Dido by Carlo Francesco Nuvolone
In summer 2021 our conservator restored a wonderful example of a history painting, entitled The Death Of Dido.
Above: details from The Death Of Dido by Carlo Francesco Nuvolone with the full painting in the middle
Dido was the classical Queen of Carthage, a Phoenician city-state located in what is now Tunisia. She has a starring role in Virgil’s Aeneid, as a wise and noble leader who had fled her original home after her brother killed her husband. A tragic character, Dido falls in love with the main character Aeneus, due to the influence of the goddesses Juno and Venus playing tricks. Her husband, who is an illegitimate son of Jupiter, finds out about the affair and prays to his father. As a result, Aeneus is sent back on his journey.
Above: a selection of paintings featuring Dido, including artwork by Lorenzo Pasinelli, Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, Andrea Sacchi, Rutilio Manetti and Pompeo Batoni
Due to the ethereal love which has been placed upon Dido by the goddesses, she cannot bear to let him go. She builds a fire to burn all of his belongings, but as she watches his fleet leave the harbour, she climbs onto their burning bed and pushes herself onto his sword. Her sister Anna, seen beside her in this painting, rushes to her side and the people of Carthage mourn. Juno sends the goddess Iris down from the sky to release Dido’s soul. Later in the story, Aeneas goes to the underworld and meets Dido and asks forgiveness, but she does not look at him.
Above: this painting of Iris, who takes Dido’s soul in the story, was coincidentally restored at the same time in our studio – this beautiful piece is from the Versace collection
The artist, Carlo Francesco Nuvolone, was an influential painter in Lombardy during the 17th century. His artwork is so familiar to that of Guido Reni that he was called ‘the Guido of Lombardy’. As is displayed in this painting of Dido, he was known for his use of light and dark and paying a close attention to facial expressions. Nuvolone is also known to have painted several versions of The Death of Lucrezia which have a very similar composition and theme as this piece. The striking difference is the use of the chaotic crowd surrounding the heroine, compelling a sense of shock and upset.
Above: in this video our conservator checks the surface of the painting for an historic repairs and over-painted areas
Our conservator first assessed the painting under UV light to check for any overpainting, of which a few areas were found. Once the varnish layer had been removed it was clear that small areas were in need of sensitive retouching. The painting was very large, measuring 144 by 120 centimetres, so this process took a number of weeks, over the course of many hours, to ensure that no uneven gaps were left and that the painting was completely stable. Only the smallest brushstrokes were used, some carefully retouching areas the size of a pin head. Once fully retouched and secure, the painting received another layer of conservation-approved varnish to protect it for decades to come.
Above: our conservator cleaning The Death Of Dido in our studio, each swab is swapped out and this is completed over a course of hours
How can we help?
If you have a classical history painting which has been damaged, or is in need of preventative conservation or restoration work, please contact our team for swift and helpful advice.
To get in touch please email us via [email protected] or call 0207 112 7576.