Artistic Licence: Moments in History

After scholarly research (according to The Independent) has solved the mystery behind a famous painting by JMW Turner, attention turns towards those works of art which point to a specific moment in time. Investigative work over a long period of time has now found that the Turner painting does not in fact represent the burning of Westminster but the Tower of London. Insights changed over the last 100 years to reveal the interpretation which was announced recently. This is not the first time that artwork covering a moment in history has been surrounded by questions. Yet where Turner paints a scene with descriptive detachment, others choose much more shocking interpretations.

Back In Time to Ancient Rome

From the ancient world, stories of Roman mysteries, wars and conquest are a common feature of Western Art of the last few centuries. Thomas Cole’s painting ‘The Course of Empire: Destruction’ from 1836 is just one example. Using gory detail to illustrate the Vandals’ sack of Rome in the fifth century, this one of five paintings shows distorted bodies, decapitation, suicide and blazing fires in its illustration of one of the darkest moments of Roman history.

In fact, the attack of the Vandals is usually regarded as the point at which the Empire ended. Just three years earlier, in approximately 1833, Karl Briullov painted his image of ‘The Last Day of Pompeii’ and its volcanic eruption. Rich tonal contrasts underline the intense portrayals of terror in one of the most famous moments in time, where an estimated sixteen thousand local residents were caught in the blast and lost their lives. The eruption super-heated ash and gas to around five hundred degrees Fahrenheit and it was here represented the personal pain of an individual family as representation of the bigger picture.

Chronologically earlier, even artists in the seventeenth century were using Roman stories as material for their paintings. ‘The Rape of the Sabine Women’ by Pietro da Cortona uses the term rape in its ancient meaning as a form of abduction as opposed to its modern sexual interpretation, but nonetheless shows the strain on women of being taken to live with their new husbands without consent.

The New World

American history is filled with conflicts and moments ripe for portrayal in artworks of all kinds, continuing to inspire artists even today. 2004 saw the unveiling of ‘The First Minnesota’ painted by Don Troiani, showing the sacrifice made by the volunteers at Gettysburg. American Civil War era interest has been at an all time high, but many historical works look to grand-scale depictions of the conflict in its entirety.

Here, a more realistic approach feels more personal and immediate, using techniques imitable by aspiring artists everywhere. With a basic kit of art supplies, the photo-realistic approach to contemporary art is one that is growing in popularity but which does not sacrifice any of the emotional resonance or symbolic depth in its pursuit of clear tonal variation and complex definition. Perhaps as an example is the place to head to see where your inspiration might lead.

Moments both international and personal can be immortalised in artwork. Exploring all the options can help create the balance between accurate reporting and artistic licence.