Category Archives: Depicting history – neo-classicism, Romanticism and realism

Benjamin West

For the exercise ‘Analyse a painting of a Historical Event’  I chose this painting by Benjamin West, The Death of Nelson which is on display at Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery.  It is a painting I have seen many times but never realised that it was painted by an Anglo-American artist so I thought I’d do some research on him to find out more.

Benjamin West was born in Pennsylvania in 1738 which at that time would still have been a British colony.  In 1763 he came to Britain on his way back to America from a visit to Italy and stayed until his death in 1820 and is buried in St Paul’s Cathedral.  He became the 2nd President of the Royal Academy in 1792 after the death of Joshua Reynolds a post he held until he resigned in 1805 but was re-elected the following year and held the post until his death.



Gustave Courbet

For the exercise on ‘Annotating a Realist Image’ I chose an image by Gustave Courbet and as I didn’t know a lot about him I did some research.

He was a French artist who led the ‘Realist’ movement which bridged the ‘Romantic’ movement and ‘Impressionism’.  He was considered an innovator and also made bold statements about social issues in his work such as the conditions the poor of his country worked in.

WARNING Explicit material follows so if you are in the least prudish look away 🙂

I was surprised to see that some of his work was very explicit especially for the times he lived in.  Although we think of the 19th century i’e Victorian era as very prudish the more I read and see about the period it wasn’t as straight laced as we are lead to believe.   He did this painting in 1866 but it was not publicly exhibited until 1888.


In 2008 I went to John Moores 25 at The Walker Art Gallery here in Liverpool and this was one of the painting exhibited.


It just shows that there is nothing new in art it has all been done before in some shape or form and in my opinion much better by Courbet.  You wouldn’t want either one on your wall though in polite company.


Exercise: David & Neo-Classicism

Jacques Louis David was the most influential painter of the Neo-Classical style in France in the late 18th century.  His style of painting was austere as well as being ethical and captured the moral climate of the era of revolution and change.


David set out to record the event that took place in the first few days of the French Revolution when the National Assembly as the group called themselves took a solemn oath never to disband until the constitution was established.  The oath was an act of revolution and was asserting that political authority derived from the people and their representatives and not from the monarch.

The painting he did appears to be a copy of the etching but it was never completed as these were turbulent times in France.

  • Is the man at the centre of the painting trying to get everyone’s attention so he can read from the piece of paper he is holding?
  • Looks as if not everyone could get into the building as there are people leaning in at the windows on either side.
  • The majority of the crowd look well dressed so none of the hoi polloi were represented!
  • It doesn’t really look as if anyone is taking an oath as I would recognize – one man at the front even appears to be praying.

This page from the University of Oregon shows an annotation of the etching.


Research Point: Enlightenment

The Enlightenment is also known as ‘The Age of Enlightenment’ and ‘Age of Reason’ and was a cultural movement in the 18th century primarily to reform society based on reason and not religious belief.   There was a belief amongst the educated classes that recent achievements in science could through acquiring knowledge lead to social, intellectual and moral reforms.

There were 4 main areas where change took place:-

  1. Religion – where the Catholic faith was questioned leading to the tolerance of Protestantism.
  2. Intellectual – schools became independent of religious allegiances also leading to more tolerance and individual inquiry.
  3. Economic – the move away from feudal land ownership to a more wealthy and educated middle class.
  4. Political – a move towards nation-states ruled by Kings and parliaments and away from religious rule.

In other words people started to think for themselves and challenge ideas that where grounded in tradition and faith.

This site gives a congested review of ‘The Age of Enlightenment’.