Wednesday, 24 February 2010

First Impressions: Painting History: Delaroche and Lady Jane Grey

by Kathryn Hadley

‘Painting History: Delaroche and Lady Jane Grey’ opens today, February 24th, at the National Gallery. The exhibition charts the career of the French artist Paul Delaroche (1797-1856) and highlights in particular his masterpiece The Execution of Lady Jane Grey (1833), depicting the death, in 1554, of the 16-year-old who had been Queen of England for just nine days. Following its rediscovery in 1973, the painting was first exhibited at the National Gallery two years later.

The exhibition is unique in two respects. Featuring a series of the artist’s preparatory drawings, as well as a selection of comparative drawings and prints by his contemporaries, the section entitled ‘Lady Jane Grey’ reveals the work and sources behind his masterpiece. The exhibition also brings together seven of Delaroche’s other great historical paintings on loan from collections across the world, revealing some of the major influences and themes of his work.

Delaroche first visited England in 1822. He returned to London five years later to prepare for his work on The Princes in the Tower (1830). It is believed that he visited the Tower of London itself and that his visit inspired his two further Tower compositions – The Execution of Lady Jane Grey and Strafford on his Way to Execution (1835). In the aftermath of the French Revolution, English history was a powerful muse to represent and reflect upon recent events in France. Delaroche notably depicted numerous scenes of imprisonment and execution from the British past to draw parallels with recent upheavals in French history.

Lady Jane Grey (1537-1554) inherited the crown following the death of Edward VI on July 6th, 1553, but her reign ended on July 19th when her Catholic cousin Mary led a successful counter-coup. ‘The Nine Day’s Queen’ was tried for treason and sentenced to death. She was imprisoned in the Tower and beheaded on February 12th, 1554. Within six months of her death, however, she was reinvented in the Protestant propaganda of the time as a martyr and victim of Catholic tyranny.

Delaroche’s depiction of Jane Grey is based on a contemporary eye-witness account. It is immensely tragic and heavily influenced by the theme of martyrdom. The 16-year-old is blindfolded and supported only by Sir John Brydges, the lieutenant of the Tower, as she fumbles for the block. Her white dress vividly stands out against the sombre background of the painting, highlighting her innocence and vulnerability, and the tragedy of her execution is further emphasised by the gestures of her swooning and distraught ladies in waiting.

Martyrdom is a prevailing theme throughout Delaroche’s work. A similar use of symbolism and light to depict the tragedy of martyrdom is notably evident in his later depiction of Marie-Antoinette, who was condemned to death on October 16th, 1793, in Marie-Antoinette before the Tribunal (1851). His painting was, once again, based on contemporary drawings and documentary reports and, similarly to Lady Jane Grey, all that stands out against the dark background is the martyr’s silver grey hair, white shawl and pale face.

A second major influence on the artist was the theatre. The influence was two-fold. From the 1820s, there was a general fascination with period reconstruction in France and a growing tendency in French theatre to draw on pictorial forms with plays divided, for example, into ‘tableaux’ as well as acts. Several of Delaroche’s works, including Lady Jane Grey and The Princes in the Tower, were notably recreated on the stage. But Delaroche was also himself influenced by the cultural trends and theatrical conventions of the time. In Lady Jane Grey, for example, the queen is depicted with outstretched hands in accordance with the conventional theatrical gesture used to portray female martyrs. It is believed that the artist may even have used an actress, Anaїs Aubert with whom he had become romantically involved, as a model for the queen.

Multiple facets of Delaroche's career are put forward in this fascinating exhibition. From the influence of contemporary artists and the cultural context of 19th-century France, where English history was used as a medium to comment upon contemporary political events, on his grandiose historic paintings, to Delaroche's own subsequent influence on artists in France and abroad, 'Painting History' also offers a glimpse of the man himself and his intimate relationship with Anaїs Aubert through a display of some of his letters to the actress.

Painting History: Delaroche and Lady Jane Grey
February 24th – May 23rd
The National Gallery
Trafalgar Square
London WC2N 5DN
Telephone: 020 7747 2885

- Paul Delaroche, The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, 1833
© The National Gallery, London
- Paul Delaroche, Portrait of Mademoiselle Anaïs, 1832
Private Collection
- Paul Delaroche, Marie-Antoinette before the Tribunal, 1851
The Forbes Collection, New York

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