Let This Be a Lesson

In fall 2013, the Gallery presented Let This Be a Lesson: Heroes, Heroines, and Narrative in Paintings at Yale, a semester-long lecture series with John Walsh. The public course took a close look at eleven important paintings from Yale’s art museums that represent scenes from history, myth, scripture, or literature.

Lecture Series

In fall 2013 John Walsh, Director Emeritus of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, presented a popular semester-long public lecture series that took a close look at eleven important paintings from Yale’s art museums that represent scenes from history, myth, scripture, or literature. In every case the artist intended to do more than delight and entertain the audience. The paintings depict situations in which moral issues are at stake, usually acts of heroism of one kind or another. The lectures traced the tradition of “history painting”—the category to which all of these works belong—from the Renaissance on through its rise to official dominance, its fall from privilege in the eras of Realism in the 19th century and abstract art in the 20th, and its reappearances in the 21st. A recurring question is whether for a modern audience these works still pose moral questions that we ought to take seriously. Visit the page for each week below to learn more and to watch lecture videos.


Lecture 1

Introduction to History Painting

Friday, September 13, 2013, 1:30 pm

For six centuries, history painting—pictures based on stories from myth, scripture, and ancient and modern history—was the most prestigious work a painter could do. Renaissance artists and writers laid down the …

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Lecture 2

Unintended Consequences: Antonio del Pollaiuolo’s Hercules and Deianira (ca. 1475–80)

Friday, September 20, 2013, 1:30 pm

The Gallery’s best-known Renaissance painting shows Hercules about to shoot a centaur who is abducting his bride. Everybody admires the vigorous action and vast landscape. What about the subject? In the myth, …

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Lecture 3

Darkness to Light: Garofalo’s The Conversion of Saint Paul (ca. 1525)

Friday, September 27, 2013, 1:30 pm

In this painting, a recent acquisition, a gifted Renaissance artist portrays a critical moment for the early Church. We look at how Garofalo treats what happened to Saul on the road to Damascus and what that might signify.

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Lecture 4

“But, Lord, He Stinketh!”: Marco Pino’s The Resurrection of Lazarus (ca. 1570)

Friday, October 4, 2013, 1:30 pm

Pino was the most important painter in southern Italy during the later Renaissance. We examine his career and have a thorough look at this little-known but superb work, focusing on how he presents a frequently …

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Lecture 5

Against Nature: Peter Paul Rubens’s Hero and Leander (ca. 1604)

Friday, October 18, 2013, 1:30 pm

This painting is a showpiece of Rubens’s youthful brilliance and ambition. To picture the climax of the story, he paints a fierce storm and invents a large supporting cast of sea nymphs. What did these famous lovers …

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Lecture 6

“To Paint the Way the Spartans Spoke”: Gavin Hamilton’s The Death of Lucretia (1763–67)

Friday, October 25, 2013, 1:30 pm

Hamilton, a gifted Scotsman working in Rome, was an art dealer, excavator, tour guide, and pioneer neoclassical painter. His scene of a virtuous woman and her resolute avengers, taken from Livy’s history of the earliest days …

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Lecture 7

Truth to Power: Benjamin West’s Agrippina Landing at Brundisium with the Ashes of Germanicus (1768)

Friday, November 1, 2013, 1:30 pm

One of West’s great masterpieces, this work depicts an act of piety and defiance by a Roman matron. We discuss the American-born West’s remarkable career (he was Historical Painter to George III) and how he managed …

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Lecture 8

John Trumbull and Historical Fiction: The Battle of Bunker’s Hill, June 17, 1775 (1786)

Friday, November 8, 2013, 1:30 pm

Most of us know this famous image of an inspiring American defeat and a noble death. Trumbull was there that day. We examine what he knew about what actually happened at Bunker Hill, what he chose to paint, and what he wanted to say about the combatants’ values.

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Lecture 9

Find the Hero: Ary Scheffer’s The Retreat of Napoleon’s Army from Russia in 1812 (1826)

Friday, November 15, 2013, 1:30 pm

The painter of this little-known Romantic work, a new acquisition by the Gallery, shows the remnants of the Grande Armée in the greatest defeat in military history. What sense does he make of the event? The questions …

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Lecture 10

Handwriting on the Wall: John Martin’s Belshazzar’s Feast (1820)

Friday, November 22, 2013, 1:30 pm

A painter of fantastical and catastrophic events, Martin was a master scenographer and a Victorian celebrity. In this Old Testament episode, set in a dizzy vision of Babylon, a blaspheming king gets some bad news.

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Lecture 11

History at the Academy and the Salon: Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Ave Caesar! Morituri te salutant (1859)

Friday, December 6, 2013, 1:30 pm

During Gérôme’s career, history painting continued to be popular, even as it was being undermined by new ideas for subject matter. We look at his frequently reproduced picture of gladiators in an ancient Roman arena in …

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Lecture 12

History Painting after Two World Wars: Anselm Kiefer’s Die Ungeborenen (2001)

Friday, December 13, 2013, 1:30 pm

Kiefer’s moving work of 2001 reaches deep into myth and science to help make sense of recent history, particularly in Germany. Other 20th-century artists have tried to revive historical consciousness and to find a moral role …

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About John Walsh

John Walsh, B.A. 1961, is Director Emeritus of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. He was a paintings curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. He received a Ph.D. from Columbia University. He has taught history of art courses at Columbia, Harvard, and more recently at Yale.