Lines and Colors art blog

Paul Delaroche

Hippolyte Paul Delaroche
Hippolyte (Paul) Delaroche was a French academic painter who helped set the standards for late 19th Century history painting.

Though denigrated in subsequent times (and at the time by upstarts like the Impressionists), history painting was the core of mainstream academic painting, then the artistic establishment; and Delaroche, along with Eugéne Delacroix and Théodore Géricault, was among its chief proponents.

Delaroche was a student of Antoine-Jean Gros, and a teacher of many notable artists, including Charles-François Daubigny and Jean-Léon Gérôme.

His highly refined and smoothly rendered history paintings, often large scale tableaux with life-size figures, were dramatic portrayals of scenes from both distant times and recent events.

Very popular in his day, his paintings represented what many find appealing, and others find objectionable, about academic art — superb draftsmanship and flawless technique, but, despite their drama, little investment of emotion or passion on the part of the artist.

Delaroche is known for his monumental work, 88 feet (27 metres) long, around the inside curve of a wall of the hemicycle (circular chamber) of the award theatre of the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris (image above, top and middle). The painting was a commission from the architect of the school and portrays 75 great artists from various points in time, focused on three thrones on which the creators of the Parthenon sit, flanked by muses, representing their chosen arts of architecture, sculpture and painting.

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey (images above, third down and detail, bottom), was unusual and caused great interest when it debuted. It was essentially the start of a new genre of painting, combining the refined painting technique exemplified by Ingres with the drama of history painters like Delacroix. It was an event from English history portrayed, in striking scale and realism, by a French painter. It shows the moments just before the beheading of Lady Jane Grey, who, at the age of 16, was Queen of England for only 9 days before being deposed and later executed by her half-sister Mary.

Other paintings of similar subjects, by Delaroche and other French history painters, would follow. These history paintings, particularly involving subjects like the wresting of crowns from one hand to another, along with such juicy subjects as beheadings (you know — entertainment), would prove very popular with the French audience, who saw many parallels to their own history of clashing monarchs.

This painting, perhaps Delaroche’s most famous, and several notable works on loan, are part of an exhibition at the National Gallery in London, Painting History: Delaroche and Lady Jane Grey, that is on display until 23 May, 2010.

There is a nice big zoomable version of the painting here as part of the online material for the exhibition (detail above, bottom); be sure to use the “expand” button (rectangle with 4 arrows) to make the zoomable image full screen.


4 responses to “Paul Delaroche”

  1. “… others find objectionable, about academic art — superb draftsmanship and flawless technique, but, despite their drama, little investment of emotion or passion on the part of the artist.”

    Very well put, Charley! This reminds me of that damning praise offered to certain artists like this: superb technician. We tend to say this when the technical skill outpaces the investment of emotion or passion. Conversely, we tend to credit an artist with full-blown genius when his or her technical skill is just a reflection of the passion driving the artist.

    One tends to view artists like Delaroche with great respect (for the technique) but not with much admiration. You get the impression you are viewing a tableau full of actors rather than the actual event being portrayed. In this regard he was brilliant at painting what he saw and rather poor at summoning what he wanted to feel.

  2. Thank you so much for bringing Delaroche to my attention. This blog is truly a public service!

  3. Bill Bedford Avatar
    Bill Bedford

    Jane Grey was a cousin of Queen Mary not a half sister.

    There was a political agenda behind this and other Delaroche paintings. See for a fuller essay.

  4. I have seen some of Delaroche’s paintings in Louvre. He was a marvelous artist. Most of his critics (some of which are painters, too) could not paint a decent likeness even if his life depend on it.

    Contemporary critics have become so accustomed to incompetence and mediocrity that they simply assume it is the norm.

    History painting should be evaluated within its historical context. For history paintings, particularly in 19th century, a sense of drama was essential. Look at Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus or Gericault’s Raft of Medusa. Are those pieces melodramatic?
    Mawkish? Silly?

    I do not know why people like Jonathan Jones (*) have problems with history paintings. I assume they are simply not educated enough.

    (*) Those are the same people that regard Damien Hirst’s polka dots as high-end art.