Visual Arts: Painting History into a Corner

Article excerpt

You need a real sense of history to appreciate the work of Paul Delaroche. First, you have to try to imagine what made his paintings so popular in the 1800s; then, you have to supply most of the footnotes yourself

In the Wallace Collection, last weekend, an old lady and her friend stopped in front of Paul Delaroche's famous painting, Edward V and the Duke of York in the Tower. They took in the scene for a while - the two boys huddled together in their cell, the ominous shadow cast underneath the door, the little dog who has sensed the intruder. Then the old lady said sadly to her friend, "A mysterious death." And then, shaking her head, "Terrible. . . terrible."

Overhearing other people's comments in art galleries is an easy way to feel superior, and at that moment I did feel myself to be more sophisticated than my fellow viewer - assuming that her "terrible" referred, not to the painting, but to the fate of its protagonists. But, on the other hand, she was right. That is the sort of response that Delaroche's work asks for. If you come away from this picture without your concern for the little princes quickened, then it's wasted on you. It's 200 years since the artist's birth, and to mark the occasion the Wallace Collection has put together a small exhibition of its Delaroche pictures called "Death and Devotion". There are only a dozen paintings and watercolours, and a few prints, but it's enough to give you the general idea. It's a revival bid. In his heyday, the 1820s and 1830s, Delaroche was one of the most celebrated painters in France. But for most of those 200 years his reputation has been very low. They're not the sort of pictures we admire any more. Well, I say "we", but that's clearly presumptuous. The picture of the little princes has remained a favourite with many, and the National Gallery's The Execution of Lady Jane Grey is a favourite, too. Go there now, and you'll see a crowd around it that the other pictures in the room - by David, Ingres, Courbet, Daumier, even Puvis de Chavanne's far more dramatic Execution of John the Baptist - signally fail to draw. That crowd doesn't need its interest revived. No, "we" has to mean we sophisticated viewers: we who know how to use the words "sentimental" and "anecdotal", we who can only, and at best, find Delaroche's work "interesting". Still, we can at least do that. And we can learn something about the tastes we lack. Oddly enough, we'd probably like it more if it was more violent. Delaroche's typical subjects certainly promise drama: political murder, the death of kings. "The court painter to all the beheaded Majesties," the poet Heine called him. But he stages them with a deliberate lack of drama. His pictures belong to a class called "historical genre" - historical episodes treated from an everyday-life angle. Delaroche avoids the public spectacle for the private glimpse. He avoids the moment of crisis for the uncertain moment before or after crisis. And this way he gets his own sort of drama, by holding the famous historic action at bay, by letting it hang over the scene, bear down on it, and fill it with implications. In those terms, his scenarios can be very good. Take a picture not represented in this show, Cromwell and Charles, which shows the General alone with the dead king's coffin, lifting the lid, brooding solemnly over the body. There's no action, nor is the incident itself strictly historical. But it focuses plenty of historical reflection. It asks you to imagine what is going through Cromwell's mind, to supply his interior monologue - thoughts about the enormity of regicide, about the power and responsibility that now devolve on him, about the king at peace and the struggle ahead. It's not hard to read all this in it, the scene provides the perfect cue. But the picture itself says nothing: a human encounter that, without its title, would be almost inarticulate. So the pictures don't tell stories. …