I know I’ve touched on ideas of art and truth before, but it’s something I frequently find myself returning to.  I suppose as someone who’s read “The Origin of the Work of Art” three times now it’s fairly well ingrained in my mind.  This time I’ve been thinking about history paintings and truth.  History paintings were a huge source of commissions for artists for a long time.  Yet for many of the subjects being depicted the artist was not present or even alive at the time. So how can these pieces contain the truth?

            Indeed it seems almost impossible for these paintings to contain the truth.  They were created by people who weren’t even there and often commissioned by people who planned to use the piece in some way to promote their own personal and/or political agenda.  Doesn’t sound like there’s much truth there.  I think the key lies in the difference between “truthful” and “the truth.” So yes, many of these paintings are not “truthful.”  They may represent people and events that actually existed/occurred, but the scene itself is the invention of the artist’s imagination.

            But this does not mean that the painting doesn’t still contain “the truth.”  A good history painting, while perhaps not historically accurate, should still capture the spirit and essence of the time/scene/event it is representing.  And it is there in which the truth lay.  Did Washington really look like that crossing the Delaware?  Probably not.  But does the painting capture the spirit of the American Revolution?  Absolutely.  There’s an essence to that painting that captures the truth of the time.  It is not truthful, yet it still contains the truth.

            The danger arises (and I suppose I’m getting a bit Platonic here) when people take these pieces as historical fact.  The truth of the spirit gets confused for the truth of the scene/historical accuracy.  Appreciate art for capturing the truth of its time.  But don’t assume the piece is truthful.  It seems that far too few people really know/understand how much and for how long art has been used as personal and political propaganda.  Even when not intended as propaganda, as long as it’s being produced by a human being, every piece of art carries with it some kind of bias.  And it’s so important to remember that when looking at art.  Not that these biases necessarily take away from the truth the piece may contain, in fact it may even add to it.  But it can effect and possible take away from the truthfulness. 

Washington Crossing the Delaware, Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, 1851, oil on canvas.

“Almost done with this painting?  I’ve got places to be!”

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