My Daily Art Display today is all about a 19th century French painter and a 16th century Queen of England, who reigned for just nine days. The painter in question is the French Academic painter Hippolyte Delaroche, better known as Paul Delaroche, who was to become one of the most popular History painters of his time. He was brought up in a wealthy household and began his artistic career under Antoine-Jean Gros, the French History and neoclassical painter, famous for his life-size historical paintings.
Delaroche exhibited his first painting at the age of twenty-five and it was at this exhibition he met and became friends of Théodore Géricault and Eugene Delacroix. These three artists were to form the great triumvirate of Parisian historical painters. The historical works of Delaroche exuded drama which was so popular with the French people. His paintings depicted historical events which occurred in his homeland and portrayed great characters in French history such as Joan of Arc (Joan of Arc in Prison), Napoleon, Napoleon abdicating at Fontainbleau (1845) and Marie Antoinette (Marie Antoinette leaving the Convention after her sentence) as well as historical events which took place across the Channel in England such as Elizabeth I, Death of Queen Elizabeth (1828), the execution of Archbishop Laud, Strafford Led to Execution (1836) and The Execution of Lady Jane Grey (1833), today’s featured painting.
On June 30th I featured a painting by Claude-Joseph Vernet and looked at the Vernet artistic family tree. A person on the lower branch of the tree was the artist’s grandson Horace Vernet and it was his young daughter, Louise, whom Delaroche married. Anne Elizabeth Louise Vernet, some seventeen years his junior was to become the love of his life and Delaroche went on to paint many portraits of her, including Head of an Angel (1835). Tragically, in 1845, Louise died of a fever at the age of thirty-one and Delaroche never recovered from his loss. He made a beautiful but haunting graphite sketch of his dead wife entitled Louise Vernet on her deathbed (1845), which is now housed at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. It is a wonderfully poignant drawing in which we see Louise laying blissfully in profile. The pale skin and her lifeless body signifying she has died and although her body had suffered the ravages of fever, Delaroche’s portrait offers us nothing but an angelic beauty.
The paintings of Delaroche were soon turned into reproductive prints which allowed his great works, which had been exhibited at the Paris Salon, to be circulated internationally. Delaroche died in Paris in 1856
Today’s featured painting is entitled The Execution of Lady Jane Grey which he completed in 1833. The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, which is depicted in this work of art, occurred almost three hundred years earlier. It was first exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1834 where it caused a sensation. It is very large oil on canvas painting almost 250cms x 300cms. During the 1820’s and 1830’s in France, a kind of “Anglo-mania” swept the country and this interest in English history had, in part, been fuelled by the novels of Sir Walter Scott and his tales of the battles and conflicts between Roundheads and Cavaliers during the Civil War, which in some ways mirrored what happened during the violent and turbulent times of the French Revolution. The setting for the painting is the morning of February 12th 1554. The painting depicts the last moments in the life of the seventeen-year old Jane Grey, who was the great granddaughter of Henry VII and who was proclaimed Queen of England upon the death of young King Edward VI, a Protestant like herself. She was young, intelligent and a political pawn whose destiny was out of her control and her reign only lasted for nine days in 1553. Due to the plotting of the followers of Henry VIII’s Catholic daughter, Mary Tudor, she was convicted of high treason and sentenced to death in the Tower of London.
The painting has a few historical inaccuracies as we know that Lady Jane Grey was actually executed outdoors on Tower Green and not inside a chamber of the Tower of London. She was also not dressed in a white satin dress along with the depicted whalebone corset and for a beheading her hair would not have been allowed to fall to her waist but instead would have been tucked up high above the head. However let us not quibble about historical accuracy and rather just let us feast our eyes on this very dramatic painting.
In the painting we have five figures. The central character of the painting is the tragic figure of the blindfolded Lady Jane Grey, in her under garments, who has just knelt down on a cushion behind the block where soon her neck will rest. On either side of the block we see iron rings to which her wrists will be bound. Look how she gropes with her outstretched arms, her hands in front of her, trying to locate the wooden block. She is being gently guided to the executioner’s block by the elderly Lieutenant of the Tower, who at the time, was Sir John Brydges. We get the feeling that he feels sadness for the young girl’s plight and his attentiveness and concern as depicted by Delaroche adds more pathos to the painting. His hulking figure attired in a black coat, lined with orange-brown fur, looms over her and is a perfect contrast to the white attire of his charge ,which would soon be splattered with her blood. Her sad figure with its golden-red hair is being illuminated from above. It is a very dark painting with the exception of this lighting, which highlights the young girl and is in some way like a spotlight on a dark stage focusing light on an actor. To the left we see two of her ladies-in-waiting, beside themselves with grief. One, who is so distraught, has slumped to the floor, her eyes closed, her head turned away from her mistress. She is clutching the outer garments of her mistress. The other, who cannot bear to witness the execution weeps uncontrollably. Her hands are above her head, grasping the grey column. Her face is pressed hard against the stony structure. The executioner stands in his blood-red hose to the right, the fingers of his left hand loosely holding the handle of the axe. A pile of straw painted in the finest of detail, lies before the executioner’s block, in readiness to catch and soak up the victim’s blood. Look how the artist has cleverly painted the straw which looks like it is almost falling out of the painting. We can almost imagine that by leaning forward we could pull out a piece.
As we look at the painting we experience a myriad of feelings – horror of what is about to happen, compassion and pity for the fate of the young girl, despair that such a thing could take place in a civilised society. The way Delaroche has painted the scene makes us feel that we are there, standing in front of the victim. We are actual witnesses at the execution. We are simply voyeurs who cannot change history. We cannot prevent the neck of the young girl being severed by the executioner’s axe. It is interesting to note how none of the five figures in the painting look towards us. They are not aware of our presence.
Whether the painting is factually inaccurate does not lessen its greatness nor does it any way diminish the standing of the artistic genius who has created a work that tugs at our emotions.