Gad, I love this picture; behold the wonders of 19th Century Academic Art in all its glory. Be warned, though: the current art establishment believes The Execution of Lady Jane Grey to be little better than kitsch, and admiration for Delaroche’s technical virtuosity, theatrical sense and incomparable draftsmanship a sign of antiqued and louche taste.
Paul Delaroche’s (1797-1857) remarkable drawing and sense of composition, the picture’s almost licked finish, and its sense of history tinged with Romanticism is everything that Modernism has rejected. Delaroche, in fact, was too brilliant too late. The very earliest proponents of Modernism began to disdain his achievement – Van Gogh called Delaroche one of the “very bad history painters” and affected to hate his work. If we make a riposte to Van Gough through the mists of time, we must make sure to address his good ear…
The Execution of Lady Jane Grey was bequeathed to the Tate Gallery in the early 20th Century, and had been banished to storage by 1928. In 1974, the picture was resurrected for show at the National Gallery. And there, something quite remarkable happened. The public, neither interested in, nor gulled by, mainstream art historians discovered the picture and lined up to see it. Delaroche’s work has proven so popular that the wooden floor before it must be polished far more often than other spots in the gallery.
And no wonder. Look at everything that Delaroche does in this picture. There are only five life-size figures, and they are superbly and dramatically placed within the frame. Lady Jane Grey was the great-grand-daughter of Henry VII, and, at 17, she was named successor to the throne of England by her cousin, Edward VI. The plan, at least, was that the crowning of Protestant Jane would shore up Protestantism and keep Catholic influence at bay. However, her claim on the crown was too weak, and she reigned for a scant nine days, after which she was deposed and executed for treason by the rightful monarch, Edward’s half-sister, Mary Tudor. Delaroche sets his scene in the Tower of London on the morning of the execution, February 12, 1554.
The girl (little more than a child) is behaving with magnificent poise, which makes the emotional scene more poignant. She is on the scaffold and dressed only her undergarments. Her clothes are piled beside her lady-in-waiting, who has collapsed in grief against the left wall. Her other handmaiden faces the wall, the horror to come too much to bear.
Grey, blindfolded, reaches out for the chopping block where, moments later, her head will be cleaved from her body. Sir John Brydges, the lieutenant of the Tower, gently guides her to her death; his heart-breaking solicitude increases the emotional pitch of the picture. Even the executioner directs his gaze away, awed by the enormity of the sin he is about to commit. Look at how he shifts his weight to one leg, his right hand almost releasing the axe. Delaroche manages to depict different emotional reactions from the players of this tragedy, inspiring a multitude of emotional responses from us, the viewer.
If yesterday’s picture, The Children of Edward, fills us with melancholy, Jane Grey is deeply, wrenchingly, viscerally moving.
Wisely, Delaroche keeps the representation of their surroundings to minimal gray-tones and subtle stone carvings. The bare stage, if you will, maintains focus on the figures and the deeply human connection is never lost. The one non-human touch of any significance is the straw surrounding the block; this, if nothing else, underscores the horror to come when we realize that it is there to soak up the young girl’s blood.
If we wonder how or why Delaroche was able to connect so viscerally with this particular historical incident, it would do well to remember that only a scant 40 years earlier, Delaroche’s countrymen cut off the heads of their own aristocracy.
By any cultural yardstick, this is a magnificent and moving painting.
More Delaroche tomorrow.