In 1988, I lived in London for about 3 months after having attended a spring semester abroad at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. For the summer I was lucky to secure an internship at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, a small and splendid museum with an exceptional collection of seventeenth and eighteenth century English and European painting. For my internship, I often travelled around London doing research for an upcoming exhibition on Gainsborough. I had to go to the library at the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square several times where I would always first stop to contemplate French painter Paul Delaroche’s The Execution of Lady Jane Grey. Even when I wasn’t at the National Galley as long as I was somewhat close to it, I would quickly go in to see the Delaroche painting.
I was a continual witness to this moment before an execution that summer. The painting measures 8’1”x 9’9”, so as a spectator,I am metaphorically within the scene and part of the audience participating in the almost grisly event. And despite the painting’s academic nature or perhaps because of it, I was repeatedly engaged with both its content- a moment of exquisite psychological tension arrested in paint and its form- its almost photographic quality, it’s licked surface in the parlance of the nineteenth century.
The painting depicts an actual historical event that occurred in the Tower of London on February 12, 1554. On the orders of Queen Mary, daughter of Henry VIII, sixteen year old Lady Jane Grey, a member of a minor branch of the Tudor family, was executed for treason. After the death of Edward VI, Lady Jane had reigned as a Protestant Queen of England for only nine days and due to the historical circumstances of the ongoing hostilities between Protestants and Catholics in England, she had been deposed by her cousin Mary and eventually sentenced to death.
The Delaroche painting of the coming execution is organized compositionally into 3 parts which emphasize the central moment of the work, the impending beheading of Lady Jane. On the left of work are 2 ladies-in-waiting who are convulsed with grief. They are passive, emotional and feminine and stand in contrast to right side of the painting which is masculine and full of potential action- the act of beheading. The male official helps Lady Jane find the block and at the far right stands in the elegant contraposto stance of a Greek statue, the executioner who leans on his long-handled axe. A glint of the metal of the blade is just visible in the shadows. The executioner wears red tights as if foreshadowing the blood which will soon be spilled on the straw surrounding the block and on the luminous creamy white satin dress of Lady Jane.
This academic composition of 3 parts organized into masculine and feminine poles serves to emphasis the central figure of the subject, Lady Jane. She is also given prominence by the light which illuminates her against the dark gloom of the Tower of London. Her pale skin and creamy white satin dress seem to both reflect and emit light. This luminosity is further enhanced by the contrast of the black cloak of the official who maneuvers her hand. As the viewer, I am entranced by the beautiful smooth, liquid texture and brightness of of her satin dress and the pale, porcelain nature of her skin. I notice the other elements in the painting, but I continually return to this luminous figure and her impending fate.
Specifically, I focus on the essential and eternal act of the central figure of Lady Jane. The action in the painting is not the execution itself, but a moment or two before the act of beheading and it is a moment of quiet, yet extremely emotional movement- a simple and tentative gesture of the hand. A blindfolded Lady Jane reaches out her right hand in confusion in an attempt to find the wooden block on which she will place her head. But, she cannot do it alone. In order to find the block, she is assisted by the official who leans over and guides her hand.
It is this gesture of the hand that so arrests me when I look at this painting. It is a pathetic movement full of anxiety, fear, terror and bewilderment. It is a representation of the unknown. As a viewer, I see what Lady Jane who is blindfolded cannot see: the block, the straw, the grieving ladies-in-waiting, the silent executioner ready with his axe, the helpful official. She knows and does not know what is about to happen, but as the spectator I know and simultaneously I feel her terror. While I witness what is about to unfold, I also inhabit her blindfolded body ( I was 20 at the time I first saw the painting, so close to her age of 16) and experience the unknown and the blackness (metaphorically the official’s cloak) as she does: Where is the block? I cannot find it. Where is the executioner? When will his axe fall? Will I die swiftly? Will I feel pain? Will God save my soul? Why is this happening to me? I am only sixteen.
The tense, emotional and psychological nature of the painting is accompanied by its form which is a sumptuous display for the eye despite the horrifying subject. The subject of the painting is as much a historically accurate event as it is a feast of textures and colors rendered in paint. There is the smooth, luscious creamy white satin of Lady Jane’s gown, made even more so, since I, as the viewer, know it will soon be stained with blood. There is the grain of the block’s wood, the traces of its use, the hard iron rings on its side and the pale blue velvet of the cushion on which Lady Jane kneels. There is the crispness of the pale yellow straw surrounding the block and the soft fur of the official’s cloak and the fur sleeves of the dress worn by the seated lady-in-waiting.
The beautiful rendering of fabric, wood, metal and straw are almost photographic in their effect. There are no visual brushstrokes as if the painting just magically appeared. The Delaroche embodies what was called the licked surface in French academic painting. The brushstroke needed to be invisible in order to confirm the talent and work of the artist who produced it above a mere craftsman. A smooth surface while it physically hides the efforts of the artist was needed to paradoxically signify that the work was indeed full of work, toil and exertion as opposed to a work of rapid brushstroke exemplified by the later Impressionists.
In a sense, the licked surface is an anti-style as if the painting is a spontaneously produced illusion. A notion heightened by its life-size scale. The position of the straw and what is perhaps the executioner’s greenish cloak seem to extend beyond the picture plane or at the very least the stone box stage set in which the figures are set. These 2 elements, the straw and cloak, invite me the viewer in and connect the painting to my space making me a visceral witness to the scene. This connection serves to further hide the style of the painting and mask the visceral nature of its medium.
It is a work that is not idealized, but a historically correct vision of both clothing and architecture and a visually accurate rendering of texture and color that produces a scene which is supposedly neutral without comment, alteration or rhetoric. It magically and spontaneously materializes before the viewer. This argument, of course, is a false one, but it’s ideology is part of French academic painting. The painting with its issues of royal legitimacy, treason and punishment correlates with French history at the time of its rendering. In 1830, Charles X was deposed in favor of his Orléans cousin, Louis-Philippe and the painting could be further examined within this social and historical context.
The Execution of Lady Jane Grey is a good example of French academic painting because its visual feast in paint is supported and expanded by the exquisite and tense psychological moment of the scene. It is this correlation of form and content which I find so riveting and which continually prompted me to view this painting whenever I could. I have not seen this painting except in reproductions for over 20 years. I am returning to London this spring with great joy and I hope to find in the Delaroche what I saw then and enjoy a unique and rich visual and emotional experience. Perhaps, I will learn something new about Lady Jane and her impending fate.