Hippolyte Delaroche, who later took the name Paul, was born in Paris in 1797 and died in the same city in 1856. He entered the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1816, and first exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1822. He studied from 1817 to 1822 with Constant-Joseph Desbordes and Antoine-Jean Gros, whose studio he would later take over. In 1824 he exhibited Joan of Arc, and in 1828 he exhibited Death of Queen Elizabeth, the first of a series of paintings with themes taken from English history. This was followed in 1831 by The Children of Edward: Edward V, King of England, and Richard, Duke of York, in the Tower of London, and Cromwell opening the Coffin of Charles I, and in 1834 by The Execution of Lady Jane Grey (now in the National Gallery, London).
By the mid 1830s, Delaroche was the most highly acclaimed contemporary painter in France, both in art circles and among the public, and was acknowledged as the leader of a wholly new type of painting: the historical genre. His work was noted for its accuracy of detail and glossy finish, techniques derived from the older neo-Classical movement; however, his dramatic subject matter was more closely aligned to the Romantic movement, and he was seen as trying to steer a course between the two movements: the ‘juste milieu’ or ‘middle way’. Acclamation of Delaroche’s historical paintings did not last long: by the 1870s, he was being compared unfavourably with Delacroix, who had bypassed the ‘juste milieu’ in favour of more Romantic innovation. The advent of modernism and the avant-garde in the later 19th century depressed Delaroche’s standing among art critics and curators still further. However, the reaction of the general public to his paintings, which appeal to the emotions and are accessible in terms of their visual language and themes, has perhaps never shifted; certainly, Lady Jane Grey still attracts viewers in the National Gallery today.
In 1837, Delaroche exhibited his first painting on a religious theme, St Cecilia. The reaction from the public and the critics was hostile, a reaction which has been posited as one of the reasons behind Delaroche’s ceasing to exhibit his paintings from then on. In the late 1830s, however, he was busy with many other projects, and also no longer had a name to make for himself. In 1833, he had been appointed as a Professor at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and two years later he took over Gros’ studio. His atelier soon became the most highly regarded teaching studio in Paris, with well over a hundred students at any given time. In 1837, he began working on his most ambitious piece, the Hémicycle, or The Artists of All Ages, a 27 metre panorama decorating the newly-built Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The vast project represented over 70 painters, sculptors and architects from antiquity to the 18th century. Delaroche was assisted by four senior students from his studio, and the work was finished by July 1841 and opened to public acclaim.
Delaroche closed his studio in 1843, and went to Rome to study early Italian painting, accompanied by his students Jean Eugène Damery, Jean-Léon Gérôme, and Eyre Crowe. His art in his later years, back in France, was dominated by religious paintings and portraits; at the time of his death, he was working on a series of four scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary. After his death, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts arranged a retrospective exhibition, giving the public a chance to see his work since 1837. His large-scale historical genre paintings from before 1837 had already been extensively reproduced through engravings and lithographs, not only in France but throughout Europe, and it is these paintings for which he is best known now.
(c) Kathryn Summerwill 2009
Grove Dictionary of Art: From David to Ingres – early 19th century French Artists, ed Jane Turner (Grove Art, 2000)
Bann, Stephen, Paul Delaroche, History Painted (Princeton University Press, 1997)
Ziff, Norman D, Paul Delaroche. A Study in Nineteenth-Century French Historial Painting (Garland Publishing Inc., New York and London, 1977)
Tim Barringer, ‘Rethinking Delaroche/Recovering Leighton’ in Victorian Studies, Volume 44, Number 1