Painting History. Delaroche and Lady Jane Grey

London, National Gallery, from 24 February to 23 May 2010

Paul Delaroche loved England and English history. In turn, the British have known how to express their appreciation. Most of the literature on the artist has been written by English authors and the National Gallery is now highlighting his work with an exhibition which falls somewhere between a special case study of The Execution of Lady Jane Grey (ill. 1) and a retrospective, since this study is brimming with paintings, engravings and drawings which allow us to get a better grasp of his art as a whole.

1. Paul Delaroche (1797-1856)
The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, 1833
Oil on canvas - 251 x 302 cm
London, National Gallery
Photo : National Gallery

2. Paul Delaroche (1797-1856)
Charles I Insulted by Cromwell’s Soldiers, 1837
Oil on canvas - 284 x 392 cm
Private collection
Photo : National Gallery

This event also provides the chance to present a painting to the public for the first time, a work which had long been thought to have been destroyed during the blitz, Charles I Insulted by Cromwell’s Soldiers (ill. 2). Rolled up after the fire caused by the German bombing, the canvas has just been rediscovered, in rather good condition despite the war’s mishaps, poked through in a few places. It is on display in a first floor room, before going off to be restored.
This story parallels in many ways that of the Jane Grey painting which is the focus of the exhibition. The work, one of the most prized in the National Gallery collections and surely one of its most popular [1], was hung in the museum only in 1973, after it resurfaced by chance when an art historian looking for a John Martin painting found the two rolled up together in the storage rooms. At the time it was thought to have been completely ruined by the flooding of the Thames in 1928 while on deposit at the Tate Gallery.

3. Charles-Marie Bouton (1781-1853)
Room of the XIVth Century
at the Musée des Monuments
, 1817
Oil on canvas - 114 x 146 cm
Bourg-en-Bresse, Musée de Brou
Photo : Didier Rykner

4. Paul Delaroche (1797-1856)
Portrait of Miss Anaïs, 1832
Coloured chalk - 28.5 x 25 cm
Private collection
Photo : All rights reserved

The first room of the exhibition offers some aspects of historical painting in France when Paul Delaroche’s career was starting which influenced his taste. Scenes from the troubadour genre developed under the Empire and Restoration periods at the same time as the trend for large paintings at the Salon. The characteristics of the historical genre are well known : episodes from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, even as far as the 17th century, small formats, very smooth and minutely detailed style inherited from the Dutch Golden Age… Of all the works on display, the only one which can be linked in a strict sense to this current is that by Charles-Marie Bouton (ill. 3) showing Charles VI and Valentine de Milan. The action takes place in the 14th century room of the Musee des Monuments francais and, as pointed out by the catalogue entry “This would be considered anachronistic unless interpreted as a theatre scene”. This should be underscored : Delaroche with Edward’s Children, also on display in London, was very influenced by theatrical art and Jane Grey is no exception especially since the model who posed for the figure of the queen was an actress with whom the painter was having an affair, a fact explained at length in the exhibition (ill. 4). Two other paintings, that by the Lyon artist Claudius Jacquand (Thomas More, Great Chancellor of England, Lyon, Musee des Beaux-Arts) and by Henriette Lorimier (Jeanne de Navarre and her Son, Malmaison) could also qualify as troubadour works but their large size (especially the Lorimier) reflects their ambition to go beyond that. Jacquand, in fact, is from the generation following the founders of this genre.
Delaroche was quickly described as an artist of the “juste milieu” along with Horace Vernet and some others. The expression is a poor one and does not express the reality of his painting, as if we needed to define it in negative terms, not Romantic, not Classical but somewhere in between these two schools. This reduces the image of French painting in the first half of the 19th century to a simplistic definition which the catalogue authors spend little time discussing.

Several of Delaroche’s large paintings for the Salon on the theme of British history are included in the exhibition. They can be found already in the second room with, for instance, the two English history canvases of the Salon of 1831 which face each other here : Edward’s Children from the Louvre and Cromwell Discovering Charles I’s Coffin, placed on deposit by the government at the Musee de Beaux-Arts in Nimes. Other works are evoked by means of engravings or drawings, notably Queen Elizabeth’s Last Moments (Louvre) and The Taking of the Trocadero (Versailles) where Delaroche is inspired by John Singleton Copley and his Taking of Gibraltar. We also point out Joan of Arc Being Interrogated in Prison by the Bishop of Winchester, a painting held in Rouen (highlighted in a case-study exhibition in 1983), represented here by an engraving and a watercolour (Oxford, Ashmolean Museum). Some drawn studies for costumes and a portrait of Casimir Delavigne underscore once again Delaroche’s interest in the theatre.

5. Paul Delaroche (1797-1856)
Study for The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, 1832
Pencil and red chalk - 23 x 20 cm
Private collection
Photo : RMN

Despite the reevaluations in the last few years, Paul Delaroche’s art often continues to be underestimated by art critics. Still, it would be hard to deny that this artist, besides an exceptional technique both in his paintings and his drawings (ill. 5), instills them with a veritable lyrical air. There is no doubt that The Execution of Lady Jane Grey deserves all the attraction it holds over crowds of museumgoers. A less well-known painting, although its composition has been often reproduced in engravings, is held in a private art collection but is displayed here : Lord Strafford on his way to Execution (ill. 6) is another masterpiece. The Saint Cecilia at the Victoria & Albert Museum, a pure Raphaelesque piece, proves that Delaroche did not limit himself to one style but knew how to adapt it to the subject at hand. His religious paintings are also represented with The Young Martyr, often copied and reproduced, and his Saint Veronica [2].

6. Paul Delaroche (1797-1856)
Lord Strafford on his Way to Execution, 1837
Oil on canvas - 284 x 392 cm
Private collection
Photo : National Gallery

7. Paul Delaroche (1797-1856)
Saint Cecilia and the Angels, 1836
Oil on canvas - 202 x 162 cm
London, Victoria & Albert Museum
Photo : Didier Rykner

8. Louis Gallait (1810-1887)
The Last Honors to Counts Egmont and Hoorne, 1855
Oil on canvas - 69 x 98.5 cm
Antwerp, Musée Royal des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Didier Rykner

Finally, one room presents, alongside the Study for the head of Christ for the Church of the Madeleine acquired recently by Edinburgh (see news item of 5/9/07), works by French and other foreign artists close to Delaroche’s art. This is a very brief selection which could have been much fuller. Next to Louis Gallait (ill. 7), for example, for Belgium, the show could have added Nicaise de Keyser. Germany could also have been represented with Karl von Piloty, Russia with Karl Brjullov and Spain with Federico de Madrazo…Paul Delaroche’s influence on European painting could alone be the subject of an exhibition. It is highly unfortunate that this has not been done yet in France [3]. We may console ourselves by soon visiting the retrospective on Jean-Leon Gerôme, a student of Delaroche, and one of his most direct artistic heirs.

Stephane Bann and Linda Whiteley, with John Guy, Christopher Riopelle and Anne Robbins, Painting History. Delaroche and Lady Jane Grey, 2010, National Gallery Company, 168 p., 19.99 pounds. ISBN : 9781857094794.

The catalogue accompanying the exhibition, written by the foremost English specialists, offers several stimulating essays and very complete entries of all the works in the exhibition. Among recent discoveries incorporated into the analysis of the works, readers will be sure to notice that Delaroche’s trip to England in 1822 is now an acknowledged fact [4].

Visitor information : The National Gallery, Trafalgar Square London WC2N 5DN. Tel : +44 (0) 20 7747 2885. Open every day from 10 to 18.

Version française

Didier Rykner, mercredi 28 avril 2010


[1] The catalogue tells us that the floor in front of the painting needs to be redone regularly, a sign that visitors stop here for a long moment.

[2] Both of these paintings are at the Louvre.

[3] True, a Paul Delaroche retrospective took place in Nantes and Montpellier in 2000. However, Jane Grey, Lord Strafford and Saint Cecilia and, more notably still, Charles I Insulted by Cromwell’s Soldiers were not presented there.

[4] See S. Duffy, “French artists and the Meyrick Armoury”, Burlington Magazine, number 274, May 2009, pp. 284-292.

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