Paul Delaroche, a painter in history

2 February 2000 - 22 April 2000

Paul Delaroche was one of the most celebrated French artists of the late 19th century, known throughout Europe in his own lifetime and yet largely ignored today. His work is overshadowed by the towering figures of his contemporaries Ingres and Delacroix, the champions of the Neoclassical and Romantic movements. Delaroche was the subject of an important retrospective at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris in 1857, since when there have been no large-scale solo exhibitions of his work.

Paul Delaroche exhibited with the Paris Salons, at the Louvre, from a young age. His history paintings – Joan of Arc (1824), The Death of Elizabeth (1827) and Cromwell (1831) – represent a new, dramatic, narrative approach to the genre, very much in keeping with the Romantic vogue for historical subjects. His work shows great theatricality and psychological realism, and a careful balance of subjectivity and objectivity. Often, he chooses to illustrate the precise moment preceding the dramatic climax of an event, with a "freeze-frame" compositional style which played a key role in the development of a new type of history painting. His greatest work is the vast decorative cycle of paintings in the hemicycle of the Ecole des Beaux Arts (1836-41). The imaginary assembly of Old Master painters, sculptors and architects reads as a kind of personal artistic manifesto.

In 1837, at the height of his fame, Delaroche decided to stop exhibiting at the Salon, and to devote himself to a fine series of portraits and intimate family scenes inspired as much by Renaissance tradition as by the direct experience of happy family life. He developed a new pictorial language, strongly inspired by Raphael but with a dreamlike quality that heralds the advent of Symbolism: The Childhood of Pico de la Mirandola (1842) and The Young Martyr (1855) are excellent examples of his work during this period.