Beware the Artists

I think a lot about the intentional and the unintentional rewriting of history. I love history, and I write historical fiction. Real events and occasionally real people are part of the story, even if they aren't THE story.

As I go through my final manuscript edits, I check and recheck dates and people time and time again. For example, in Le Chevalier, the Marquis de Lafayette was shot at the Battle of Brandywine. I must have looked up the date of that battle ten times to make sure I had at the right point in my timeline.

I dug up the military hospital they would have taken him to. (Most likely Bristol, although I don’t remember the source where I eventually found this. Maybe in Lafayette or in Guide to the Battles of the American Revolution both of which are in my permanent collection.) I researched how long it would have taken my main character, Mont Trignon, to get to his former commander on horseback. How far is Bristol from Philadelphia? How many miles can a horse travel per day? What is the terrain like between Philly and Bristol? Was there any British held territory he would have had to circumvent?

Then I made it purposefully vague in my story so the inevitable miscalculations wouldn’t be obvious to any horse riding, east coast living, military enthusiasts who might happen to pick up a romance novel.

Perhaps a little rewriting of history is inevitable. The further we get from actual events, the more things will be distorted.  But as a fiction writer, I try to do as little damage to history as possible.  The same is not necessarily true for all artists.

Take the painters…

Declaration of Independence
Artist: John Trumbull
First, there’s John Trumbull's famous painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Never happened. Not that the Declaration wasn’t signed, but the first person to sign it, John Hancock, did so with only his secretary as witness because the 2nd Continental Congress had adjourned and gone home. The others would gradually add their signatures later.

Then there’s the famous Crossing of the Delaware. Would you stand up in a fishing boat while navigating an icy river? Not me, and I doubt Washington would risk it either.
Washington Crossing the Delaware
Artist: Emanuel Leutze

And how about this painting of Napoleon crossing the Alps? That beautiful white horse of his wouldn’t have made it up the first foothill. Unless you have a 747 handy, your best bet for crossing the alps is a donkey. Not having a jumbo jet handy, my understanding is that the Little General made use of the next best thing. Of course, what self-respecting future emperor would have himself painted on a donkey?
Napoleon Crossing the Alps
Artist: Jacques Louis David

Perhaps it’s natural to give painters a little more leeway. Before the modern age, they were paid to distort the truth. (Now, we just do it ourselves with Photoshop.) And perhaps authors should be held to a different standard. Since reality isn’t the theme of our work, for a fiction author, at least, that which touches on reality should be as close to the truth as possible.

What do you think?


Note: Wikimedia Commons is the source for all of the images in this post. Each of them is in the public domain in the United States because the terms of their copyright has expires.


  1. Love your analysis of those very famous paintings.

    As a reader, I personally prefer it when writers distort the past as little as possible. I'd have no issue with you getting the distance from Philly to Bristol slightly wrong - your hero could have had a very fast horse (or a very slow one if I felt the trip took too long). Those sorts of small distortions don't bother me as a reader. But major distortions of historical events (e.g., the battles in "Braveheart") bug me, break my willing suspension of disbelief and yank me out of the story. That's not what I want as a reader. I want to be immersed in the story and convinced, even if only while I'm reading it, that the world the author has built is cohesive.

    While I'd agree at some level that "art is art" and we should hold visual artists to the same standard that we hold literary artists, it's pretty well known that a lot of art is propaganda. I don't hold it against Leutze that he painted Washington that way. The painting was done more than 50 years after the event, during a time of revolution in Germany when the painter was hoping to inspire German leaders to follow the American example. That's art with an agenda, and I think that's okay, but it's not what I look for in recreational reading.

    Create a coherent historical universe, with beloved characters who live in your readers' imaginations long after they finish your book, and your readers will forgive you any small mistakes.