Article: ‘The mere relation of the sufferings of others’: Joseph Highmore, History Painting and the Foundling Hospital.
Online 8 March 2012, hard copy June 2012
The history paintings of the English artist Joseph Highmore (1692-1780) have received limited critical analysis within art-historical scholarship both past and present. As a result these works are still perceived as curiosities, or even aberrations, within Highmore’s oeuvre.
Portrait painting dominated his professional practice from 1715 to 1762 and yet the study and production of history painting was both a significant intellectual pursuit and an important creative strand within his artistic output. This article will begin by exploring the role of history painting within Highmore’s art practice and career. It will then focus on the context, purpose and creation of the three extant examples of Highmore’s history painting: The Good Samaritan, Hagar and Ishmael and an oil ‘sketch’ known as The Angel of Mercy. The biblical narratives represented within the first and second are part of the established repertoire for Western history painting. In contrast the narrative/s within The Angel of Mercy are of the artist’s invention. All three reflect ideas surrounding charity in mid-Georgian Britain and further, have direct or indirect associations with one charitable institution in particular: London’s Foundling Hospital. The analysis presented here will reveal an artist employing and adapting the tools of traditional Western history painting as a means of engaging with and reflecting these contemporary contexts and issues.