Sir Joshua Reynolds defined British historical painting (1771) in his Discourses:
- Invention in painting does not imply the invention of the subject; for that is commonly supplied by the Poet or Historian.
- With respect to the choice, no subject can be proper that is not generally interesting.
- It ought to be either some eminent instance of heroick action or heroick suffering.There must be something either in the action, or in the object, in which men are universally concerned, and which powerfully strikes upon the publick sympathy.
- An history-painter, he concludes, paints man in general.
- Reynolds narrowly defines history painting
- It did not take long for the range of fit subjects for historical painting to widen, e.g to include Shakespeare
- Cartoons for Houses of Parliament – included the works of Spenser, Shakspere, or Milton
- Its very grandness was ironically the cause of its decline in popularity: quite simply, few patrons had the walls to accommodate these imposing works.William Hogarth aptly noted that our apartments are too small to contain them
- William Makepeace Thackeray, with disdain for the pompous and pretentious in history painting, mocked the genre in an often quoted observation; these paintings, he says, are pieces of canvas from twelve to thirty feet long, representing for the most part personages who never existed… performing actions that never occurred, and dressed in costumes they never could have worn
- Painters did not abandon the subjects of history painting; instead, they made smaller pictures and approached their literary subjects in different ways, with a new focus on more intimate scenes, the minor characters, and the psychology of the characters and situations depicted.