Today we start a weeklong look at the work of Hippolyte Delaroche (1797-1857), also known as Paul Delaroche. Paul came from an artistic family; his father was an art dealer who made his fortune buying, selling and cataloging art. His father encouraged young Paul and worked hard to advance his artistic education, sending young Paul to work with Baron Antoine-Jean Gros (1771– 1835) in 1818.
Paul studied landscape painting at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and he made his first appearance in the Salon with an oversized picture, Josabeth Saving Joas (1822). This picture met with great success and, as a result, he soon became the friend of such luminaries as Géricault and Delacroix. In fact, the three of them were the center of the historical painting scene of the era.
Following his debut, Paul spent most of his life as an active (and prolific) artist. He visited Italy in 1838 and 1843, when his father-in-law, Horace Vernet (1789-1863) was director of the French Academy. His studio in Paris was in the rue Mazarine, where he built a reputation for patient industry.
The great love of Paul’s life was Louise Vernet. They married in 1835, the same year he exhibited Head of an Angel, for which she served as a model. Paul never recovered fully from the shock of her death 10 years later, aged only 31. After her loss he created a series of small, exquisite pictures based on the Passion of the Christ, focusing his attention on the story’s dimension of human suffering.
Paul was extremely adept at history paintings – meaning not only pictures depicting historic events, but also mythological or biblical pictures, scenes from great literature and allegorical paintings.
The key to Paul’s enduring success was that he had a dramatist’s eye and sense for the key moment of heightened tension. His pictures depicting past events were not, perhaps, always scrupulously accurate in the representation of the actual historical moment, but were always intensely dramatic and psychologically true.
With that in mind, let’s look at one of his great pictures, The Children of Edward (1831). The scene is, of course, familiar to anyone who has seen Shakespeare’s Richard III. Two princes, held in the Tower of London, are about to be smothered on the order of Crooked-Back Richard, their uncle and usurper of their rights (and, eventually, the throne of England). Knowing the fate of the children as we do, the sense of dramatic suspense is remarkable.
The two children, pale with terror, cling to one another on a four-poster bed in a dark room. Edward V, and his brother Richard, children of the late king, Edward IV, have heard a noise and stopped reading. The king gazes sadly at us, the gaze of his younger brother is drawn to the door, where his eventual murderer will enter. The dog sees the shadow of a foot in the light under the door….
When this picture debuted at the Salon in 1831, it was a riotous success. It was immediately purchased by the administrators of the Royal Museums; indeed, it was the inspiration for Casimir Delavigne to write a play, The Children of Edward (1833), which is little-performed today.
With this picture, Paul renders the subject in a manner both natural and emotional. The children are quite real, and the dog emphasizes the tragic pathos of the moment. There are few warm colors in evidence, and Paul’s inherent sense of dramatic romanticism is contained – such a moment did not need embellishment.
The scene can be found in Richard III, Act 4, Scene 3, where it is described in the words of Sir James Tyrell, who had commissioned their murder from Dighton and Forrest:
The tyrannous and bloody act is done -
The most arch deed of piteous massacre
That ever yet this land was guilty of.
'O thus', quoth Dighton, 'lay the gentle babes';
'Thus, thus', quoth Forrest, 'girding one another
Within their alabaster innocent arms.
Their lips were four red roses on a stalk,
And in their summer beauty kissed each other.
A book of prayers on their pillow lay,
'Which once', quoth Forrest, 'almost changed my mind.
But O, the devil' -- there the villain stopped,
When Dighton thus told on, 'We smothered
The most replenished sweet work of nature,
That from the prime creation e'er she framed.'
More Delaroche tomorrow.