One distinction that can be made is between narrative and iconic paintings. An iconic painting is representative (it represents something) but timeless but a narrative painting is a moment in time (a snapshot). The moment depicted by a narrative painting is typically a carefully choosen point between what has been and what might be. The die is cast and we can foresee the consequences.
The other way to look at paintings are the five genres, first formulated by André Félibien(the historiographer, architect and theoretician of French classicism) in 1667. The hierarchy of genres considered history painting to be “the great genre”. History paintings included paintings with religious, mythological or historical subjects that conveyed a moral message. It is difficulttoday to appreciate why history painting was the highest genre. It was not some arbitrary imposition but it reflected the social importance of conveyinga serious, uplifting and noble moral message.
Next came, in order of decreasing worth: scenes of everyday life (called “scénes de genre”), portraits, landscapes and finally still-lifes. Notice that the key to understanding the order is the involvement of human beings because we bring meaning and morality. The hierarchy of genres had a corresponding hierarchy of formats: large format for history paintings, small format for still-lifes.
This hierarchy, maintained by the Academy, was progressively called into question during the nineteenthcentury. In his report on the 1846 Salon, Théophile Gautier already sawthat: “religious subjects are few; there are significantly less battles; what is called history painting will disappear… The glorification of man and of the beauties of nature, this seems to be the aim of art in the future”. Note that the glorification of man was the aim of history painting. What Gautier was saying was that the method used, with its classical figures and scenes from mythology had become outdated and new approaches had to be found.
The other way to look at a painting is through a sequence of analytical questions:
- State the obvious – material, artist, date, subject, patron, period produced, period depicted, relation to other images by the same artist and the same image by other artists.
- Scan the picture unconsciously and then record where you scanned.
- Examine the facture, that is, the surface finish of the work.
- Use of line and colour.
A more detailed formal analysis that can be used for painting is based on the acronym MASTERCLASS CHAP.
This is a typical history painting depicting a pivotal moment. Brutus is shown on the left in shadow and his sons’ bodies are being brought in the door behind him. His sons had revolted against his tyranny and Brutus, in his capacity as a judge, had sentenced them to death.
This a serious painting that suggests that principles must be put above personal feelings. This was very relevant at the time as it was painted the year of the French Revolution. The painting had a powerful effect and helped bring in a new fashion for elegance and simplicity, corsets were banished and hair was worn loose.
There is no narrative here but it is representational, we see a house beneath a deep red burning sun.
Sir John Everett Millais. A Huguenot, on St. Bartholomew’s Day Refusing to Shield Himself from Danger by Wearing the Roman Catholic Badge. 1852. Oil on canvas
A strong narrative painting. On St. Bartholomew’s Day, August 24, 1572, 100,000 Protestants (Huguenots) were killed in France. We know that by refusing to wear the ribbon indicating he is a Roman Catholic he is facing certain death.