In the final decades of the eighteenth century the phrase ‘history painting’ is common currency in the writings of certain distinguished neoclassical artists. The literary output of artists such as Joshua Reynolds, James Barry and Henry Fuseli captures a significant aspect of the professional aspirations of ambitious London-based painters. A history painting was typically a large work, usually in oil, based on classical or biblical literature. Over the years such pictures also focused on significant historical events or notable moments in modern literature – the works of Shakespeare and Milton were common sources for artists in eighteenth-century Britain. However, despite eloquent treatises, lectures and campaigning pamphlets by celebrated artistic figures it is apparent that history painting was an extremely problematic genre. History paintings were generally not popular with the wider public. Nor were they commercially viable as most wealthy British patrons wanted portraits by contemporary artists such as Reynolds and Gainsborough or cherished works by the Old Masters like Raphael, Titian and Rubens.
A fascinating aspect of the writings of James Barry, one of the most compelling advocates of history painting, is his address to the audience. His writings, in large measure, constitute a search for spectators. In essence, Barry tried to create an audience for the kind of art he aspired to create. Yet this appeal to the public illustrated the extent to which the classical rhetoric of art, refined by Barry's Renaissance predecessors, was displaced by the modern vernacular of aesthetics.