PRIME-TIME HISTORY

TODAY The Home Forum begins a series called, ``Prime-time History: fact and fiction in popular culture.'' It explores the processes by which artists and writers transform the facts, impressions, and ``truths'' of history into mass-audience art or entertainment - and historians' reactions to these transformations. In the series, Ernest Kinoy discusses the challenges in adapting Gore Vidal's ``Lincoln'' into a television miniseries. Patricia Talbott Davis explains why she has abandoned conventional history in favor of Regency novels. On this page Ted Berkman talks about writing biographical films and novels and watching as one of these novels was shaped into a Kirk Douglas-John Wayne movie.

Tomorrow, Richard Nelson Current and Robert Toplin look at the mass-audience products from the historian's perspective. Later in the week, network television executive Alfred Schneider discusses the problems of keeping a docudrama historically accurate. The series also looks at costume design.

At the same time, reproductions of the history painting of some 200 years ago - the ``prime-time history'' of that era - will show how painters faced the same kinds of issues then that writers and television executives face today.

The painting on this page, for example, is one of the most famous of the genre, a masterpiece by Benjamin West. ``The Death of General Wolfe'' depicts the triumphal final moments of British Gen. James Wolfe, who died just after learning that his troops had won a victory over superior French forces on the Plains of Abraham outside Quebec.

The first history paintings were frequently death scenes, the ``piet`as'' of a secularizing world. The central figure's attitude is similar to those of earlier ``Descent from the Cross'' paintings.

This work stirred controversy in its day. It was too factual. At this period most artists held that there were three kinds of truth: simple truth, what we might term ``factuality''; ideal truth, a selective combination of beautiful parts; and perfect truth, which combined elements of simple and ideal truth and thus became ``more true than truth itself.''

People in West's time did not believe that perfect truth could show a scene of this import using contemporary dress. King George III of England, a great friend and admirer of West's, is reported to have laughed when he heard that the artist intended to show Wolfe dying in the sort of clothes he actually wore.

Sir Joshua Reynolds implored West to adopt the much more fitting ``classic costume of antiquity.'' West firmly maintained that ``the same truth that guides the pen of the historian should govern the pencil of the artist.''

Good for Benjamin West, we say. He struck a blow for truth. Still, an artist has to make a living. In fact, Wolfe seems to have died with only three men near him. A number of other officers apparently convinced West that they should be included in his work. West obliged them by adding their figures at 100 each, quite a lordly sum in 1770.

West made five copies of the painting. When one was claimed by George III, now persuaded of the rightness of coats and breeches, West's reputation was made.

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