by MOLLY BRENAN
Art has always been used as a visual cue for what kind of person the artist, subject, or buyer is. In the Renaissance, portraits were chock full of details that symbolized the traits and wealth of the sitter. These days, people often base their art buying decisions on what the pieces will say about them. Never was this idea more treasured and overblown than in the late 18th/early 19th century. Furthermore, I believe the paintings that came out of this era have greatly influenced the way war is shown today.
Post French Revolutionary Europe was a world of power plays and quickly changing alliances. It had never been more useful for leaders or political groups to try and sway public opinion with art. Paintings of military subjects in particular became the most popular form of propaganda. The genre held in the highest regard by the Royal Academy and the Salon was history painting. These high detailed accounts of historical events (often Roman subjects) were meant to teach a moral and reinforce contemporary values like patriotism and loyalty. It’s probably from this that the “revisionist history painting” was born.
John Singleton Copley’s Death of Major Pierson was a 1783 painting of 1781′s Battle of Jersey. The small island of Jersey was invaded by the French in an attempt to remove the threat posed to American ships by British military presence. The hero of the painting is, of course, Major Pierson. Now here’s the thing: Pierson was shot by a French sniper before the actual battle. Yet Copley paints him dying valiantly at the moment of British victory, a point hammered home by the presence of a huge Union Jack. The painting had the desired effect. Major Pierson was celebrated and cemented in history as a national hero.