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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 October 2014

Institute for Comparative Studies in Literature, Arts, and Culture, Carleton University E-mail:


This essay extends my previous investigations of distance to a genre of art that took distance (or elevation) as its essential signature. In a landmark article Edgar Wind argued that Benjamin West created a “revolution in history painting” by substituting distance in time for distance in space. I argue that a wider and more plastic understanding of distance can help to guide our studies of historical representation, visual as well as verbal. Temporal distance, I suggest, is mediated by at least four basic modes of distance, which I identify as formal, affective, ideological, and conceptual. Understood in these terms, a heuristic of distance and redistancing provides grounds for analyzing the various schools and genres that make up the field of historical representation—neoclassical and nineteenth- century history painting among them.

Forum: Closeness and Distance in the Age of Enlightenment
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2014 

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1 Aglionby, William, Choice Observatins Upon the Art of Painting (London, 1719)Google Scholar (variant title: Painting Illustrated in Three Dialogues), unpaginated.

2 It is important to stress that I take “distance” to be a relational term that refers to the full spectrum of positions, near as well as far. For this reason, I use “distancing” or “distanciation” to mean putting something at a distance. See Phillips, On Historical Distance (New Haven, 2013), 67Google ScholarPubMed.

3 For reasons of space I have chosen to focus on West and Wilkie and more generally on the secular and nationalist dimension of history painting. In a wider survey one would want not only to give some account of Haydon, but also to examine the rather different histories of Turner, Danby, and Martin.

4 I have discussed this theme at length in Society and Sentiment: Genres of Historical Writing, 1740–1820 (Princeton, 2000); as well as in On Historical Distance, chaps. 3–4.

5 For some striking variants on this idea see Fuseli, Henry, The Life and Writings, 3 vols. (London, 1831) 2: 156–79Google Scholarpassim; and Hoare, Prince, “Examination of the Various Offices of Painting,” in Hoare, ed., The Artist, 2 vols. (London, 1809–10)Google Scholar, 2: 6–26, 255–73. On the latter, see my discussion in On Historical Distance, 161–4.

6 Reynolds, Joshua, Discourses on Art, ed. Wark, R. (New Haven, 1997), 59Google Scholar.

7 Ibid., 60.

8 Ibid., 171.

9 Galt, John, The Life, Studies, and Works of Benjamin West Subsequent to His Arrival in This Country (London, 1820; first published 1816), 47–8Google Scholar. For Galt's relation to West see Prown, Jules David, Art as Evidence: Writings on Art and Material Culture (New Haven, 2001), 274 n. 4Google Scholar; and Rather, Susan, “Benjamin West, John Galt, and the Biography of 1816,” Art Bulletin, 86 (June 2004), 342–5CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 Wind, Edgar, “The Revolution of History Painting,” in Anderson, J., ed., Hume and the Heroic Portrait (Oxford, 1968; first published in Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 1938), 88Google Scholar. For the continued currency of Wind's proposal see Bindman, David, “Americans in London: Contemporary History Painting Revisited,” in Payne, Christiana and Vaughn, William, eds., English Accents: Intersections in British Art (Aldershot, 2004), 928Google Scholar.

11 For a fuller discussion see my Society and Sentiment, as well as On Historical Distance.

12 Barry, James, The Death of General Wolfe, 1776, New Brunswick Museum, CanadaGoogle Scholar.

13 Reynolds, Discourses, 57

14 West, Benjamin, Discourse Delivered to the Students of the Royal Academy . . . to which is Prefixed the Speech of the President to the Royal Academicians, on the 24th of March, 1792. (London, 1793), ivGoogle Scholar.

15 For Wilkie, I am especially indebted to two fine studies: Tromans, Nicolas, David Wilkie: The People's Painter (Edinburgh, 2007)Google Scholar; and Errington, Lindsay, Tribute to Wilkie (Edinburgh, 1985)Google Scholar.

16 See Wilkie's letter to Sir George Beaumont, 9 Oct. 1806: Cunningham, Allan, The Life of Sir David Wilkie, 3 vols. (London, 1843) 1: 125–6Google Scholar.

17 The newspaper has been identified as a radical Edinburgh publication. Contemporary commentary emphasized peasant presumptuousness as its target. For an earlier example, see Edward Penney's The Gossiping Blacksmith (1769, Tate). I am grateful to John Brewer for this reference.

18 Cunningham, Wilkie, 1: 112–13. In a longer discussion I would want to consider Wilkie's Alfred, which he explicitly calls a history. See his remark to Beaumont that “the principal object in an historical composition is to lead the mind back to the time in which the transaction happened,” coupled with the recognition that the mind is “always ready to associate elevated ideas with antiquity.” Cunningham, Wilkie, 1: 125–6.

19 I have chosen not to include the reminiscences of Benjamin Robert Haydon, another contemporary. Haydon's conflicted friendship with Wilkie and his deep self-regard require another kind of discussion.

20 For Burnet's relation to Reynolds's thought see his The Discourses of Sir Joshua Reynolds; Illustrated by Explanatory Notes (London, n.d.).

21 Burnet, John, Practical Essays (London, 1848), 11Google Scholar. Burnet continues, “and had they been painted of a large size, decorating the halls or palaces throughout the kingdom, as in Rome, or Venice, or Florence, they would ere now have been engendering in the minds of the people the most beneficial results.” Instead they are only known from engravings, which have saved them from being entirely lost.

22 Ibid., 34.

23 Ibid., 37

24 Ibid., 41

25 Ibid., 41.

26 Ibid., 44, quoting from Cunningham, Wilkie, vol. 3.

27 There are other works of course from both periods that might be included. Amongst the earlier works, there are a number that seem more conventionally historical, including the Alfred and the Neat Herd's Cottage and the Philip Sydney; among the later ones, The Peep O’ Day Boy's Cabin (1836), Napoleon with Pope Pius VII (1836).

28 Nor were the selections always alike.

29 Cunningham, Wilkie, 3: 479.

30 Ibid., 3: 501.

31 Ibid., 3: 506. A further complexity lies in the distinction between painting passions and manners. “When he had to record manners rather than sentiment, Wilkie made faces equally expressive, but of a lower meaning, serve his purpose.” His paintings depicting the latter concerned “honest homespun peasants” and their affect was domestic and humorous. Ibid., 3: 502.

32 Ibid., 3: 502.

33 Ibid., 3: 502.

34 Tom Taylor later composed a similar account of Haydon. On the sentimental element in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century biography see Phillips, Society and Sentiment, 131–46.

35 Cunningham, Wilkie, 2: 6.

36 Ibid., 2: 29. Emphasis added. The term “national” is frequently applied to Wilkie's works. It is a usage that—like the emphasis on customs and manners—speaks to a wider sense of what constitutes a nation's history.

37 Ibid., 2: 13.

38 Ibid., 2: 51.

39 Ibid., 2: 51.

40 Ibid., 2: 66, 68, 68–71,72 successively.

41 Phillips, On Historical Distance, chaps. 1 and 2.

42 See my Society and Sentiment.