Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

The Space of Time: Delaroche's Depiction of Modern Historical Narrative

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

The Space of Time: Delaroche's Depiction of Modern Historical Narrative

Article excerpt

In 1857 when Theophile Gautier considered the career of the painter Hippolyte (known as Paul) Delaroche he recognized that the literary aspects of Delaroche's art had been an important factor in his success: "Chez un peuple litteraire avant tout, il n'a pas peint, il a ecrit ses tableaux."' For some people (even some of the artist's supporters) these literary aspects were an indication of a loss: that Delaroche had decreased visual address (appreciated by an dite audience of aesthetes) in order to guarantee legible content for a mass audience, who considered art objects transparent conduits for subject matter and were uninterested in the pictorial manner with which that subject matter had been presented through color choices, brushwork, impasto and the like. Others, however, accepted the preponderance of literary over pictorial aspects as the price of a modern historical painter's success in representing historical truth. The artist's pupil and friend Henri Delaborde wrote:

      En faisant une part si large dans Fart a l'element historique, a
   l'etude philosophique du fait, M. Delaroche courait risque
   d'amoindrir d'un autre cote la portee pittoresque de ses travaux,
   et de remplacer par des procedes en quelque facon litteraires les
   moyens d'expression qui appartiennent au pinceau. (14)

Delaborde recognized that the literary quality of Delaroche's historical paintings was more significant, more subtle and more complex than a feigned transparency of "story." It was a philosophical analysis of the event, linked to "the historical element": to the nineteenth-century understanding of historical truth and historical time, put into visual terms.

The "literary" aspects of Delaroche's art and, more specifically, their balance between theatricality, narrativity, and visuality has been a central issue in critical commentary to the present day. When Gautier called Delaroche's lane Grey (Fig. 1) "cette scene dramatique et melodramatique" on its first exhibition in 1834, Gautier made it clear not only that he perceived theatrical influences on the artist's approach to composition in historical painting but, more specifically, that by "theatrical" he meant modern drama and melodrama (whose tendency was toward the spectacular and a corporal demonstration of plot and character) rather than classical tragedy (whose orientation was toward catharsis through the presentation of a moral action). Recently Paul Duro made a similar point when he has stated that Delaroche's use of trompe l'oeil and figural demonstration of meaning in Joan of Arc (1824) establishes a dramatic reconstruction of an event "but the historicizing presentation has less to do with the norms and expectations of traditional history painting than with capturing a moment in a very human melodrama" (698).

"Capturing a moment" was of central importance for nineteenth-century historiography and historical fiction as well as theatre and painting. How did Delaroche's paintings engage with this directive to "capture a moment"? Were his representations of the past attempts to re-enact the past? re-enter the past? extrapolate moments from the past? How did he make his approach to temporality visually evident in his paintings? How did Delaroche's historical approach relate to contemporary literary presentations of history?

Before examining the complicated topic of temporality and "literary" painting let us first consider its subset "theatrical" painting: commonly understood as that in which the moment onstage of the dramatic tableau vivant--a climactic pause in the ongoing action--is transferred without alteration to the static "moment" on the canvas, or vice versa. Certainly Delaroche's Death of Elizabeth, Cromwell and Charles I, and Jane Grey inspired contemporary dramas and similar dramatic tableaux vivants. Casimir Delavigne's Les Enfants d'Edouard (1833) was dedicated to Delaroche. (2) But tragedy, drama, melodrama, peinture d'histoire and historical genre painting differ greatly in emotional tenor, gestural repertory, and temporal implications. …

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