Paul Delaroche (1797- 1856
DELAROCHE, HIPPOLYTE, commonly known as PAUL (1797—1856), French painter, was born in Paris on the 17th of July 1797. His father was an expert who had made a fortune, to some extent, by negotiating and cataloguing, buying and selling. He was proud of his son’s talent, and able to forward his artistic education. The master selected was Gros, then painting life-size histories, and surrounded by many pupils. In no haste to make an appearance in the Salon, his first exhibited picture was a large one, Josabeth saving Joas (1822). This picture led to his acquaintance with Géricault and Delacroix, with whom he remained on the most friendly terms, the three forming the central group of a numerous body of historical painters, such as perhaps never before lived in one locality and at one time.
From 1822 the record of his life is to be found in the successive works coming from his hand. He visited Italy in 1838 and 1843, when his father-in-law, Horace Vernet, was director of the French Academy. His studio in Paris was in the rue Mazarine, where he never spent a day without some good result, his hand being sure and his knowledge great. His subjects, definitely expressed and popular in their manner of treatment, illustrating certain views of history dear to partisans, yet romantic in their general interest, were painted with a firm, solid, smooth surface, which gave an appearance of the highest finish. This solidity, found also on the canvas of Vernet, Scheffer, Leopold Robert and Ingres, was the manner of the day. It repudiates the technical charm of texture and variety of handling which the English school inherited as a tradition from the time of Reynolds; but it is more easily understood by the world at large, since a picture so executed depends for its interest rather on the history, scene in nature or object depicted than on the executive skill, which may or may not be critically appreciated. We may add that his point of view of the historical characters which he treated is not always just. Cromwell lifting the Coffin-lid and looking at the Body of Charles is an incident only to be excused by an improbable tradition; but The King in the Guard-Room, with villainous roundhead soldiers blowing tobacco smoke in his patient face, is a libel on the Puritans; and Queen Elizabeth dying on the Ground, like a she-dragon no one dares to touch, is sensational; while the Execution of Lady Jane Grey is represented as taking place in a dungeon. Nothing can be more incorrect than this last as a reading of English history, yet we forget the inaccuracy in admiration of the treatment which represents Lady Jane, with bandaged sight, feeling for the block, her maids covering their faces, and none with their eyes visible among the many figures. On the other hand, Strafford led to Execution, when Laud stretches his lawn-covered arms out of the small high window of his cell to give him a blessing as he passes along the corridor, is perfect; and the splendid scene of Richelieu in his gorgeous barge, preceding the boat containing Cinq-Mars and De Thou carried to execution by their guards, is perhaps the most dramatic semi-historical work ever done. The Princes in the Tower must also be mentioned as a very complete creation; and the Young female Martyr floating dead on the Tiber is so pathetic that criticism feels hard-hearted and ashamed before it. As a realization of a page of authentic history, again, no picture can surpass the Assassination of the due de Guise at Blois. The expression of the murdered man stretched out by the side of the bed, the conspirators all massed together towards the door and far from the body, show exact study as well as insight into human nature. This work was exhibited in his meridian time, 1835; and in the same year he exhibited the Head of an Angel, a study from Horace Vernet’s young daughter Louise, his love for whom was the absorbing passion of his life, and from the shock of whose death, in 1845, it is said he never quite recovered. By far his finest productions after her death are of the most serious character, a sequence of small elaborate pictures of incidents in the Passion. Two of these, the Virgin and the other Manes, with the apostles Peter and John, within a nearly dark apartment, hearing the crowd as it passes haling Christ to Calvary, and St John conducting the Virgin home again after all is over, are beyond all praise as exhibiting the divine story from a simply human point of view. They are pure and elevated, and also dramatic and painful.
Delaroche was not troubled by ideals, and had no affectation of them. His sound but hard execution allowed no mystery to intervene between him and his metier, which was always intelligible to the million, so that he escaped all the waste of energy that painters who try to be poets on canvas suffer. Thus it is that essentially the same treatment was applied by him to the characters of distant historical times, the founders of the Christian religion, and the real people of his own day, such as Napoleon at Fontainebleau, or Napoleon at St Helena, or Marie Antoinette leaving the Convention after her sentence.
In 1837 Delaroche received the commission for the great picture, 27 metres long, in the hemicycle of the lecture theatre of the École des Beaux Arts. This represents the great artists of the modern ages assembled in groups on either hand of a central elevation of white marble steps, on the topmost of which are three thrones filled by the architects and sculptors of the Parthenon. To supply the female element in this vast composition he introduced the genii or muses, who symbolize or reign over the arts, leaning against the balustrade of the steps, beautiful and queenly figures with a certain antique perfection of form, but not informed by any wonderful or profound expression. The portrait figures are nearly all unexceptionable and admirable. This great and successful work is on the wall itself, an inner wall however, and is executed in oil. It was finished in 1841, and considerably injured by a fire which occurred in 1855, which injury he immediately set himself to remedy (finished by Robert-Fleury); but he died before he had well begun, on the 4th of November 1856.
Personally Delaroche exercised even a greater influence than by his works. Though short and not powerfully made, he impressed every one as rather tall than otherwise; his physiognomy was accentuated and firm, and his fine forehead gave him the air of a minister of state.
Bann, Stephen. Paul Delaroche. Princeton Univ Pr; September 29, 1997.
Duffy, Stephen. Paul Delaroche, 1797-1856: Painting in the Wallace Collection. Antique Collectors Club; (January 1998).
Gould, Cecil Hilton Monk. Delaroche and Gautier : Gautier's views on the Execution of Lady Jane Grey and on other compositions by Delaroche. National Gallery.
Rees. Delaroche. London, 1880.
Source: Entry on the artist in the 1911 Edition Encyclopedia.