Painter and art theorist Samuel van Hoogstraten described history painting as “the most elevated and distinguished step in the Art of Painting….” It revealed, he said, “the noblest actions and intentions of rational beings,” and he ranked it above portraiture, landscape, and every other kind of subject. The term “history painting” refers to subjects taken from the Bible, ancient history, pastoral literature, or myth. In the Netherlands and across Europe, theorists and connoisseurs considered it the highest form of art because it communicated important ideas and required learning and imagination. As the Dutch said, it came uyt den gheest—from the mind. To appreciate a history painting, or to create one, entailed knowledge, not only about the stories represented but also about the conventions and symbols of art.
Though other types of pictures were sold in greater numbers by the mid-1600s (see p. 40), history painting never lost its prestige or popularity. Rembrandt’s greatest ambition was to be a history painter, and he painted religious and historical subjects throughout his career; they account for more than one-third of all his painted works. Many artists better known for other types of painting also addressed religious subjects, even Jan Steen, who was most closely associated with rowdy feasts and households in disarray.