THE GREATEST narrative paintings of the nineteenth century are operas on canvas. The Execution of Lady Jane Grey by Paul Delaroche is a stunning example. Although Delaroche was French, he specialized in scenes from English history. Christopher Wood writes in Victorian Paintings that Delaroche and others helped launch a craze for narrative history among the Victorians.
These pictures all caused a sensation at the time, with their combination of accurate costumes, realistic settings and a strong sense of drama. The Execution of Lady Jane Grey could indeed represent the final scene of an opera. The success of these pictures sent English historical painters scurrying off to study their history books, consult costume experts and pore over books of old engravings… Victorian history paintings did for the nineteenth century what the epic film was to do for the twentieth.
These historical paintings were distinctive in that they tended to focus on intimate moments in the lives of the famous, rather than grand scenes, and were in accord with the Victorians’ love for what Thackeray called “a gentle sentiment.” What is most interesting in Delaroche’s painting of 1833 is the way he portrays a child-like quality of the blindfolded Jane Grey, who is illuminated by gold light and reaches out into the darkness with her hand as if to grasp at support or something solid, and the emotions of those who were with her. One feels as if one is viewing an intensely private moment.
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Hurricane Betsy writes:
I read the analyisis on Wikipedia, which describes several serious inaccuracies in the details of the execution scene. You may find this an interesting read. Yes, I know, I know, the artist might have done this intentionally. Or maybe not. In any case, this is pretty unnerving stuff. She was just a girl, for God’s sake. So many things to look at in this painting.
That’s a good point that I should have mentioned originally. This is not an historically inaccurate scene, just as historical operas are rarely true to the details.