Marc Quinn:
History Painting +


Working across a range of media and materials, Marc Quinn (b. 1964) describes himself as a “chronicler” who confronts “what it means to be living now.” Quinn draws from and transforms familiar visual sources to reflect upon individual and collective human experience in the world today. Six of Quinn’s works are interspersed among the museum’s collections to introduce a visual dialogue that brings history into the present.

Installation of Marc Quinn, "Self," 1991, blood (artist’s), stainless steel, Perspex, and refrigeration equipment, private collection

Self 1991

1991, blood (artist’s), stainless steel, Perspex, and refrigeration equipment

Cast from a mold taken directly from the artist’s head, Self 1991 is made from ten pints of his blood—roughly the same volume that circulates in the human body. This “sculpture on life support,” as Quinn describes it, both invokes and upends traditional sculptural forms and methods. While the typical portrait bust is associated with idealism and timelessness, Quinn’s self-portrait points to human mortality and bodily decay—pressing themes at a time when the rate of deaths from AIDS was approaching its peak in the United Kingdom and United States.

Self 1991 is part of an ongoing series: a new portrait is made every five years using fresh blood and a newly cast mold. Through a process similar to cryopreservation, the sculptures document and preserve the aging likeness of the artist over time. 

Installation of Marc Quinn, "History Painting Emma [X] González Speaks at a Rally for Gun Control (Fort Lauderdale, 17 February 2018) RWB," Dallas Museum of Art, gift of an anonymous donor

History Painting Emma [X] González Speaks at a Rally for Gun Control (Fort Lauderdale, 17 February 2018) RWB

2018, oil on canvas

X González became an activist and spokesperson for gun control after surviving a mass school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on February 14, 2018. Seventeen students and staff members were killed by a nineteen-year-old former student with an AR-15 assault rifle. The painting, based on a photograph by Rhona Wise, centers on a brief, private moment at an anti-gun rally. The crowd recedes in a blur as González stands in sharp focus, eyes closed, pausing between words. As if suspended in time, the image conveys a sense of weariness and emotion amid an urgent moment. The meticulous photorealist surface is interrupted by gestural paint splatters, which introduce a sense of chaos and intrusion. With this defiant gesture, Quinn also disrupts the pervasive filter of news media that sensationalizes individual human experience.

The artist purchased the rights to this image (as he does with all the source photographs in the series) immediately after its circulation. In contrast to the rapid consumption of digital media, Quinn’s paintings are executed over a period of months, creating a new temporal space in which individuals are shown participating in the making of contemporary history. 

Installation of Marc Quinn, "History Painting (London, 8 August 2011) (detail)," 2011, oil on canvas, © 2022 Marc Quinn Studio

History Painting (London, 8 August 2011) ROYBWN

2011, oil on canvas

This image became synonymous with the so-called London riots, sparked by the police shooting of Mark Duggan, a twenty-nine-year-old British Black man, in Tottenham, London, on August 4, 2011. Despite a decade of legal challenges, the case remains unresolved, leaving the image to reverberate as a symbol of social conflict. In Quinn’s interpretation of the photograph (taken by Kerim Ökten [1972–2014]), the figure of the unidentified protester adopts the scale of a heroic Grand Manner portrait, shifting the basis by which a subject qualifies to be memorialized in history painting. Whereas historical portraits idealize and fictionalize their sitters, Quinn seizes a fleeting moment that points to contemporary changes in the dynamics of power and how history is constructed.

The colors flung across the carefully rendered surface act as a reminder that the raw material of paint has the potential to become any image or depict any event, underlining Quinn’s specific choice to elevate this subject as a significant juncture in history. 

Installation of Marc Quinn, "History Painting Ieshia Evans Protesting the Death of Alton Sterling (Baton Rouge, 9 July 2016) GPBWOR,"

History Painting Ieshia Evans Protesting the Death of Alton Sterling (Baton Rouge, 9 July 2016) GPBWOR

2017, oil on canvas

This painting monumentalizes a photograph that captured the world’s attention in 2016 and remains an icon of the Black Lives Matter movement. Ieshia Evans, a nurse from Pennsylvania, joined the protests in Baton Rouge after seeing a video of the killing of Alton Sterling, a thirty-seven-year-old Black man shot at point-blank range while pinned to the ground by two police officers. Although Sterling’s family eventually was awarded a settlement for a wrongful death suit in February 2021, the officers were not charged.

Jonathan Bachman, who took the picture, described it as a “photograph for the world.” In Quinn’s reinterpretation, the composition is divided across four panels, turning a single moment into an unfolding narrative sequence that can be read from multiple directions. The decisive passage of the painting converges on the point where the heavily armored officer grasps the hands of the bare-armed figure of Evans—a moment further activated by the split between the panels, as the officer appears to reach across the gap into Evans’s space.

The physical divisions in Quinn’s painting starkly reflect the gulf between state power and the power of the individual. The lone figure of Evans stands for all the protesters. By enlarging the image close to life-size, the painting transports the viewer into the scene, a reminder of the unseen line of citizens participating in the protest. 


Installation of Marc Quinn, "History Painting (Kiev [Kyiv], 22 January 2014) YGORBW," private collection

History Painting (Kiev [Kyiv], 22 January 2014) YGORBW

2014, oil on canvas

This painting captures protests that erupted after Ukraine’s then-president Viktor Yanukovych reneged on an agreement with the European Union and pursued closer ties to Russia. The photograph on which the painting is based—taken by Vasily Maximov after new anti-protest laws came into effect—memorializes a day marked by violent police action against civilians.

In Quinn’s triptych, each panel presents a distinct moment within an overall narrative of Ukrainian resistance. At left, a protester is poised to hurl an object over the burning barricade. A second protester, in the center, throws a Molotov cocktail. To the right, an intact staircase presents a powerful symbol of the city’s sovereign fabric. The skeins of paint across the image echo the throwing motions of the figures, heightening the intensity and urgency of their actions. With Russia’s aggression against Ukraine coming full circle in 2022, this modern history painting presents not only a scene of chaos but also an image of individual and collective agency.

While news outlets in 2014 defaulted to the Russian spelling and pronunciation of Kyiv, awareness has since grown that the Ukrainian language reflects the cultural and political significance of the country’s fight for democracy. 

Marc Quinn, "Thames River Water Atlas," 2017, mixed media on canvas

Thames River Water Atlas

2017, mixed media on canvas

Departing from the romanticism of seascapes and lake views by painters like J. M. W. Turner, Quinn reflects on our dependence on water and its corporate control. Commissioned as an artist’s book by Ivory Press, Thames River Water Atlas responds to the river and the unseen infrastructure of waterways beneath the city of London. The work was made directly on the streets of London, and its surface is pitted with impressions of detritus and drain covers that bear the names of the companies governing the city’s water. Unfolded, the sculpture’s curving shape suggests the meander of the river itself. In Quinn’s words, “The book becomes the shape of the subject.” 

Marc Quinn: History Painting + is on view at the Yale Center for British Art through October 16, 2022. 

All works in the exhibition © Marc Quinn studio
Photography: Richard Caspole, Yale Center for British Art
Credits: Self 1991, private collection. History Painting Emma [X] González Speaks at a Rally for Gun Control (Fort Lauderdale, 17 February 2018) RWB, Dallas Museum of Art, gift of an anonymous donor. History Painting (London, 8 August 2011) ROYBWN, courtesy of the artist. History Painting Ieshia Evans Protesting the Death of Alton Sterling (Baton Rouge, 9 July 2016) GPBWOR, courtesy of the artist. History Painting (Kiev [Kyiv], 22 January 2014) YGORBW, private collection. Thames River Water Atlas, lent by Ivory Press.