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The Art of History

A reassessment of Paul Delaroche

Apr 5, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 28 • By HENRIK BERING
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Delaroche achieved his effects by employing elements of the stage, making the viewer a witness to the crimes. For several of his paintings he built little stage sets, complete with plaster model figures that could be manipulated into desired positions. In visits to Britain he also went to some lengths to get the historical details; for dramatic effect, however, he allowed himself certain liberties. The execution of Lady Jane, for instance, is transposed to a cramped, claustrophobic indoor setting rather than the outdoor courtyard of the Tower of London where it actually took place. To this he added an element of sacred imagery, particularly strong in Charles Insulted by Cromwell’s Soldiers, with Charles in the role of Christ. (This painting, incidentally, was also believed to be lost when Bridgewater House was bombed in World War II.) 

One quality of narrative paintings of the 19th century is that they make excellent conversation pieces—and, thus, educational tools. And rather than being judged by a cumulative effect, each painting should be assessed individually. If one of the definitions of a successful painting is that, once you have seen it you will not forget it, then Lady Jane is a successful painting. And the message Delaroche imparts—pity for the suffering individual, detestation of mob rule—are not bad lessons to pass on to the young. That the real Lady Jane Grey was not the meek, vulnerable, defenseless creature seen here, but made of considerably sterner stuff, is another matter. Similarly, Charles I was not exactly Christ, but a weak, debauched, and stubborn monarch who refused to compromise and plunged his country into civil war. One thing is certain: The thin, blood-red ring around his neck in Cromwell Before the Coffin of Charles I—where the king’s head has been sewn back on the corpse—will forever fascinate schoolchildren with its ghoulishness.

Henrik Bering is a writer and critic.

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