If you’re only experience with history is through classes in high school, then I recommend taking a collegiate level history class, and if you can, an art history class.
Artists are actually some of the best historians known to humankind, they captured and portrayed the lives of not only royalty, but peasants, through their work they grant us a glance at what life was like, as some continue to do so today. They worked to convey the history they themselves were very much a part of. In a class, professors break down the movements and traditions that swept not only nations, but the world and more importantly they examine hidden clues and what they reveal about the human complex.
There’s a reason an emperor might have a tons of busts of himself and not just because they might’ve been narcissistic. The busts traveled to the villages so people could know what their ruler looked like, even if it wasn’t an accurate representation of their age. (Example of an interesting fact you can learn in art history.)
Art on it’s own, be it a painting or a sculpture or a photo, is amazing in its own right, it has the power to evoke intense emotions, to capture the reality of the world, and, depending on the period, distort it and make it something it’s not. But art does something else as well, it tells a story, sometimes through its characters depicted, sometimes through its symbols present, but always through its colors, context and date.
In fact, art tells us a lot about the world during a specific era, notably how politics, religion, current events, war and love affected the art being made across a global scale. The history behind each piece, from the first stroke to the final chisel is significant in not only the piece’s history but the history of the world surrounding it.
The reason behind the historical significance of an art piece, lies mainly in the hands of its creator or in some cases creators. Artists, have always been rebellious and daring, they weren’t afraid to toe the line in order to express their views on current events, world leaders and even each other. Hence why a painting was never just a painting, especially not in the eyes of the royals, it fueled rumors and confirmed court gossip.
In 1800, Francisco Goya, a renowned Spanish painter and personal painter to the royals was asked to paint his royal highness Charles IV and his family. And so he did, but not without adding his own embellishes.
For instance, Goya did not like the queen, Maria Luisa and chose to depict her in a rather unpleasant manner through several instances in the painting of The Family of Charles IV in particular.
As as the royal painter he was the only one allowed to paint her portrait, so historians don’t know if that’s what she actually looked like or if Goya’s intense loathing distorted his replication of her. No one’s quite sure why he didn’t like her, possibly because she controlled the king in every aspect from the bedroom to the throne room. In any case, Queen Maria Luisa is depicted as a rather surly woman with a sour expression.
The second instance occurs with the faces of the younger children. Rumor has it that the queen was having an affair with Godoy, one of the king’s advisors who also appears in the painting. Goya purposely made the appearance of the younger children more akin to Godoy than to the King. A rather ballsy move on Goya’s part considering not only had he just been appointed but it was the royal family he was painting.
That is fascinating stuff, and it transcends the meaning of the painting from a simple portrait to a canvas rich with illicit affairs and strong political beliefs. It’s historical impact is thus twofold, it captures the royal family and incorporates some historical context on the side.
At the end of the day, no matter how you feel about history or art, you can not deny the importance of it. And if someone offers you the opportunity to take an art history class or to wander through the museum, take them up on it. The phrase, there’s more than meets the eye has never rang more true than when it comes to masterpieces.
An artist is never just an artist, they’re historians, rebels, politicians, and lovers and sometimes they’re super petty, but the world needs them, just like it needs their art because without art how would we convey our suffering, our passion, our beliefs and our hope, aspects that every generation throughout all of history has felt and conveyed.