We close this weeklong look at the pictures of Paul Delaroche with a scene that happened (at last!) after an execution. Here is Oliver Cromwell gazing at the body of his nemesis, Charles I.
As we remember from yesterday’s picture, Strafford Led to Execution, we know that Charles was a hard-headed practitioner of real politik, who did not hesitate to cast longtime friends to the wolves in the name of political expediency. Charles fought the armies of the English and Scottish parliaments in the English Civil War. He was defeated in 1645, and surrendered to a Scottish force that handed him over to the English Parliament. Charles refused to accede to demands for a constitutional monarchy, and escaped in 1647. He was re-imprisoned on the Isle of Wight, where he forged an alliance with Scotland. However, Oliver Cromwell had control over England by 1648, and then Charles was tried, convicted and executed for high treason in 1649. The monarchy was abolished and the Commonwealth of England began (lasting a scant year, when the monarchy was restored to Charles’ son, Charles II).
It’s important to remember that Delaroche was among the most popular and highest paid painters of his generation. It was a generation that brooded upon the French Revolution decades earlier, and had lost much of its optimism. Instead, Delaroche had a particular affinity for history’s victims. One critic claimed he specifically chose subjects “that attack the nervous system of the public.”
Delaroche regularly synthesized French history through the prism of English history; and after the defeat of Waterloo there was a great interest in English history in France, and in the works of Walter Scott, Shakespeare and Byron. Delaroche was drawn to the Civil War, which he saw as a forerunner of the French Revolution, where he cast Charles as a proto-Louis XVI and Cromwell as a less-dapper Napoleon.
Delaroche paints Cromwell Before the Coffin of Charles I with the Lord Protector—“brutal as fact” in the words of the poet Heinrich Heine—standing over the body of his defeated enemy. Though Delaroche would deny any specific connection, it is impossible not to interpret this work as a comment on recent French history.
Delaroche does not trust this man; preparatory drawing of Cromwell
Ever theatrical, Delaroche paints a tableaux. We witness the horrible crimes of history, and watch the victors and victims saddled with their aftermath. For greater verisimilitude, Delaroche built little stage sets, including plaster model figures, to help his artistic imagination. More important, he never let actual history get in the way of a good story – in fact, the scene depicted above is apocryphal. There is no record of Cromwell gazing at the corpse of his vanquished enemy, but Delaroche had heard the story and knew it contained all the artistic truth his history needed.
The important thing is that Delaroche always gets the big picture right: pity the suffering, despise the powerful and corrupt, and be deeply suspicious of the mob.
The Cromwell of today’s picture does not seem to be the hero of English parliamentary law, but, rather, yet another politician ensuring that a powerful enemy was out of the way. One hand rests by the hilt of his sword, the other holds open the coffin. The tiled floor suggests, to me, a chessboard, and Cromwell has certainly outmaneuvered the King. There is deep satisfaction on his face, but what does he look at so intently?
Look closely at the corpse of the dead monarch, and you will see the bloody stiches around the dead man’s neck, where the king’s head had been sewn back on the corpse. Nor is the dead man attired in kingly robes befitting his office, but a simple shroud of white, no different from that wrapping any dead commoner. He does not lie in state, but his simple coffin is propped on a chair.
I do not think Delaroche believed Charles to be a good man (or monarch); in fact, his sympathetic painting of Thomas Wentworth before execution, a mean and deadly trick Charles played on a key ally, makes that fairly plain. But, neither, does Cromwell seem to capture the painter’s admiration.
In fact, after painting so many history pictures with executions, betrayals and excess of power, I believe Paul Delaroche knew politicians for what they are.