History painting is a genre in painting defined by its subject matter rather than artistic style. History paintings usually depict a moment in a narrative story, rather than a specific and static subject, such as a portrait. The term is derived from the wider senses of the word historia in Latin and Italian, and essentially means "story painting", rather than the painting of scenes from history in its narrower sense in modern English, for which the term historical painting may be used, especially for 19th century art. Paintings almost always contain a number of figures, often a large number. The genre includes depictions of moments in religious narratives, above all the Life of Christ, as well as narrative scenes from mythology, and also allegorical scenes. These groups were for long the most frequently painted; works such as Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling are therefore history paintings, as are most very large paintings before the 19th century. The term covers large paintings in oil on canvas or fresco produced between the Renaissance and the late 19th century, after which the term is generally not used even for the many works that still meet the basic definition.
History paintings were traditionally regarded as the highest form of Western painting, occupying the most prestigious place in the hierarchy of genres, and considered the equivalent to the epic in literature. In his Della Pictura of 1436, Leon Battista Alberti had argued that multi-figure history painting was the noblest form of art, as being the most difficult, which required mastery of all the others, because it was a visual form of history, and because it had the greatest potential to move the viewer. He placed emphasis on the ability to depict the interactions between the figures by gesture and expression.
This view remained general until the 19th century, when artistic movements began to struggle against the establishment institutions of academic art, which continued to adhere to it. At the same time there was from the latter part of the 18th century an increased interest in depicting in the form of history painting moments of drama from recent or contemporary history, which had long largely been confined to battle-scenes and scenes of formal surrenders and the like. Scenes from ancient history had been popular in the early Renaissance, and once again became common in the Baroque and Rococo periods, and still more so with the rise of Neoclassicism. In some 19th or 20th century contexts, the term may refer specifically to paintings of scenes from secular history, rather than those from religious narratives, literature or mythology.
The term is generally not used in art history in speaking of medieval painting, although the Western tradition was developing in large altarpieces, fresco cycles, and other works, as well as miniatures in illuminated manuscripts. It comes to the fore in Italian Renaissance painting, where a series of increasingly ambitious works were produced, many still religious, but several, especially in Florence, which did actually feature near-contemporary historical scenes such as the set of three huge canvases on The Battle of San Romano by Paolo Uccello, the abortive Battle of Cascina by Michelangelo and the Battle of Anghiari by Leonardo da Vinci, neither of which were completed. Scenes from ancient history and mythology were also popular. Writers such as Giorgio Vasari followed public opinion in judging the best painters above all on their production of large canvases of history painting, and artists continued for centuries to strive to make their reputation by producing such works, often neglecting genres to which their talents were better suited.
There was some objection to the term, as many writers preferred terms such as "poetic painting" (poesia), or wanted to make a distinction between the "true" istoria, covering history including biblical and religious scenes, and the fabula, covering pagan myth, allegory, and scenes from fiction, which could not be regarded as true. The large works of Raphael were long considered, with those of Michelangelo, as the finest models for the genre. In the Raphael Rooms in the Vatican Palace, allegories and historical scenes are mixed together, and the Raphael Cartoons show scenes from the Gospels, all in the Grand Manner that from the High Renaissance became associated with, and often expected in, history painting. In the Late Renaissance and Baroque the painting of actual history tended to degenerate into panoramic battle-scenes with the victorious monarch or general perched on a horse accompanied with his retinue, or formal scenes of ceremonies, although some artists managed to make a masterpiece from such unpromising material, as Velázquez did with his The Surrender of Breda.