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  • History Painting:Its Transformative Implications*
  • Lilien Filipovitch-Robinson

The need to record events is an integral part of human nature. Pictorial recordings find early expression in the art of the Egyptians, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, and most emphatically in Roman depictions of military campaigns. Thematically and stylistically varied and expansive, the painting of history was sustained as a major European artistic tradition throughout subsequent eras. During the 19th century a new confidence, born of the belief in the uniqueness of self and one's time1 and the inevitable connectivity between past and present heightened interest in the painting of history.2 Although in many ways France set the standards for this genre, it was internationally embraced. Prompted by contemporary epochal events as well as growing familiarity with international artistic directions, 19th-century Serbian painters, raised in the spiritual and visual tradition sustained by the Church, and who had recently turned to secular subjects, were increasingly drawn to depicting historical themes. Among them were Stevan Todorović, Đorđe Krstić, Uroš Predić, and Paja Jovanović. This study addresses their paintings as exemplars of diverse approaches and impact of a rich emerging tradition, which while singularly Serbian, finds commonality in style and message with Western European, most emphatically French, history painting.

Initially, a type of historical narrative emerged in Medieval Serbian dynastic scenes and chapel portraits including those of Serb rulers who became [End Page 113] canonized.3 These adhered stylistically to the Byzantine and post-Byzantine traditions maintained in the Orthodox Church. Regardless of a lack of domestic prototypes and technical preparation, history painting achieved an unprecedented level of national acceptance and importance in 19th-century Serbia. Its rise was timely and predictable. It was a response to a period of intense nationalism, full awareness of the tragic loss of an independent state merged with conviction that the glories of the past could be recaptured and sustained to serve as inspiration in a new Serbian state. Viewing the past—like their Western European counterparts—through a contemporary lens, artists took on the task of narrating, teaching, stimulating, and emboldening by depicting personalities and events that spanned centuries. Whether recent or in the distant past, their subjects were not only familiar but deeply imbedded in the national conscience.

That these painters of Serbian history share similarities of interest, attitude and approach with their French counterparts, in particular, is to be expected as both nations had experienced enormous upheavals and transformations. The 1789 overthrow of the monarchy, the Reign of Terror, the Napoleonic Wars, the revolutions of 1830 and 1848, the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, the rise and overthrow of the Commune (1871), and the establishment of the Third Republic marked the French experience. For Serbia, the collective memory and experience were far lengthier, encompassing the loss of its independent Medieval State4 and subsequent centuries-long enslavement and struggle for survival under the Ottoman Empire. Resistance born of the drive for Serbian independence was inspired and fortified in the 19th century by contemporary events affecting Western and Central Europe and Turkey as well as those within Serbia. It reached an overwhelmingly significant turning point5 in the 1804 First Serbian Uprising under the leadership of Đorđe "Karađorđe" Petrović (1804–13). Its impact, like that of France's 1789 Revolution, extended beyond national borders and over generations for it inspired and "…helped to direct the strategy for future national movements in the Balkans."6 International events, a failed uprising in 1814, and renewal of Turkish occupation and retaliation [End Page 114] ushered in the leadership of Miloš Obrenović (1815–39) and the successful Second Uprising of 1815. Political and diplomatic failures and successes followed over the course of much of the century, culminating in the 1882 declaration of the Kingdom of Serbia during the reign of Milan Obrenović (Prince: 1868–82; King: 1882–89). Against a dramatically reshaped political, social, and artistic landscape, history painting assumed a role of public instruction and patriotic evocation. In a period of intense nationalism, self-awareness, and the belief that a new Serbian state was at hand, painters—like Serbians as a whole—celebrated heroes past and present as models to emulate. Painting myths and...


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pp. 113-128
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