Exhibited: Royal Academy, 1879
Original caption: ‘On hearing the sentence of the military commission condemning him to be shot, which was his first intimation of the fatal verdict, he asked for a pair of scissors, which were handed to him by some men of the firing party. He cut off a lock of his hair and handing it, along with a letter and a ring, asked to have these last tokens forwarded to the Princess Charlotte Rohan-Rochefort, to whom he had been privately married’
Examiner, Royal Academy Supplement, 10 May 1879:
Execution of the Duc D’Enghien, 1804. The Duke is cutting off his hair, while the peloton is waiting to shoot him. His position is awkward, and it is difficult to discover where, in the grey dawn, the light comes from. Evidently not from the lantern on the ground, for that looks like a red brick.
Illustrated London News, 17 May 1879:
… Returning to the remaining works by R.A.’s or A.R.A.’s, we have to note no novelty of subject or treatment; unless it be in the case of Mr. Eyre Crowe, who represents the Duc d’Enghien cutting off, just before his execution, a lock of his hair for his secretly married wife (943), and Charlotte Corday about to enter the bath-room of Marat (301) – in both cases the unpleasantness of the themes being aggravated by excessive grimness of treatment; and why, we would ask, is the head of Charlotte Corday so disproportionately large and elongated?
Athenaeum, 31 May 1879:
By far the best of Mr. Crowe’s contributions is Execution of the Duc d’Enghien (943). A lantern placed on the ground close the fortress walls reveals the Duke, gallantly clad, in the act of cutting lovelocks from his hair to be sent to his wife, by the hands, we suppose, of an old officer who stands near and shows some compassion for the victim. The gaunt musketeers are seen in the broken light, one rank behind the other, and ready for their office. The figures tell the story capitally and in a moving way. We fail to recognise the redress of artificial light, but the picture is rich in tone, as it appears to us, with some lack of richness in the colour.
The Academy, 21 June 1879:
In spite of the devotion of our school to subjects of dramatic or emotional interest, the ability to deal effectively with such material is found to be quite as rare as in any other form of artistic power. Of painters with stories to tell there are in every exhibition enough and to spare, and if only they were allowed, after the fashion of Gillray or Cruikshank, to eke out their invention by the help of a few written sentences elegantly attached to the lips of the principal characters, much embarrassment would be spared both to themselves and to the public. For if we put aside for the moment all question of pictorial beauty, it will be found that very few of our painters possess even the resources of scenic art needed to give expression to their ideas. They are constantly mistaken in the extent of their own powers, and, what is still more unfortunate, they do not rightly understand the capabilities and limitations of their craft. Painting, as Sir Joshua Reynolds observed, “has only one sentence to utter,” and it is, therefore, the extreme of audacity to attempt to expound by the aid of lines and colours the details of an intricate story which is incomprehensible and unattractive without the aid of a page of description. It may, perhaps, be too much to expect that we should be able to decipher a picture as we read the words of a poem or a story; but it is not too much to demand that where the subject remains unexplained the result from a pictorial point of view shall not be wanting in beauty or charm. And yet this lack of beauty is sometimes all that can be alleged with certainty of works that are manifestly burdened with some important and particular story. We may select as a prominent example of what has been said one of the two historical pictures contributed by Mr. Eyre Crowe. The subject is the execution of the then Duc d’Enghien (No. 943), and the artist has set himself to illustrate with entire historical accuracy all that has been recorded of this melancholy event. From a quotation printed in the catalogue we learn that –
“On hearing the sentence of the military commission condemning him to be shot, which was his first intimation of the fatal verdict, he asked for a pair of scissors, which were handed to him by some men of the firing party. He cut off a lock of his hair and handing it, along with a letter and a ring, asked to have these last tokens forwarded to the Princess Charlotte Rohan-Rochefort, to whom he had been privately married.”
Now it must obviously have cost the historian far less trouble to describe what took place than Mr. Crowe has expended in trying to realise what is described. And yet, in spite of the greater labour, the result is by comparison insignificant and even ludicrous. Even if the painter possessed every charm of colour and grace of design which are here so conspicuously absent, he would still have been unable to escape from a failure that is in truth inherent in his subject. The pathos of such a scene lies not in what was actually visible to the eye, but in the knowledge of circumstances which art is powerless to render. Without this knowledge the situation becomes awkward and absurd. The figure of a man with a pair of scissors thrust into his hair in the presence of a company of soldiers is a pictorial enigma which the spectator has no means of solving. By no brush power, however finely exercised, by no pathos of expression that painting can command, would it be possible to indicate that this wretched man had been privately married, or that the lock of hair he is cutting from his head was destined for his wife’s keeping. And seeing that these facts cannot be made clear by the aid of lines and colours, it becomes impossible to understand for what reason such a subject was chosen at all. If the picture possessed a beauty of its own, we could well afford to wait for the explanation of its theme, but here, by a perversity of choice which is almost inexplicable, the picture is entirely unintelligible and ineffective so long as the design is detached from its legend. Its only claim to consideration depends upon its fidelity to a particular text, and it would perhaps be impossible to offer of any work of art a heavier condemnation than is implied in this simple statement of fact.
We have selected this particular work because it affords a capital illustration of the errors into which the painters of our school are sometimes betrayed in the search for subjects of keen dramatic interest. It would not be difficult to find in the Exhibition many other examples of this unfortunate tendency to confuse the resources of literature and painting in the mistaken belief that what has been expressed by the one can be directly reproduced by the other… [also] The illustrations of literature are often less potent than the images of art, and to follow the guidance of verse or prose with literal exactness may possibly betray the painter into painful exaggeration of sentiment and the most grotesque arrangement of scenic accessories.