Medium: Oil On Canvas
Size: 88.9 x 106.7 cm
New York, Private Collection.
N. Ziff, Paul Delaroche, 1983, p. 280; J. Ingamells, The Wallace Collection Catalogue of Pictures, vol. II, 1986, pp. 99-100; (identified as autograph by T. Ziff, 1991).
From his first great success at the 1824 Salon with Joan of Arc in Prison to the 1857 retrospective exhibition at the École des Beaux-Arts following his death Paul Delaroche was one of the most popular and respected French painters of the nineteenth century. He was trained first by the landscape painter L.-E. Watelet and then by Baron Gros, who influenced his development as a history painter and later called Delaroche “the glory of my school.” Delaroche’s historically accurate and technically skilled style of history painting seemed to some a stylistically neutral compromise in the raging battle between classicism (exemplified by Ingres) and Romanticism (exemplified by Delacroix) and for that he has been named the leader of the “juste milieu”.
Delaroche treated history from a wide range of periods, but he became particularly associated with British history, following his sensational picture of The Death of Queen Elizabeth of 1828. Delaroche was included in the most important decorative program of the Restoration, the decoration of the Louvre’s Musée Charles X, for which he painted the sixteenth-century French history subject, The Death of Duranti. During the July Monarchy Delaroche continued to receive official commissions; a major work was his Hemicyle mural depicting the history of art for the École des Beaux-Arts, commissioned in 1837. In 1832, at the age of 35, Delaroche was the youngest artist of the nineteenth century to be elected to the Institut National des Sciences et des Arts, a sign that the official hegemony of classicism was waning.
Delaroche painted his large version of The Children of Edward (Paris, Louvre) in 1830, at the age of thirty-two, and submitted it the following year to the Salon. It was enormously well-received by the painters Gros and Ingres and the writer Alfred e Musset among other critics, and by the general public who clamored to see the picture. Set in 1483 in the Tower of London, the painting depicts the moment before the young King Edward V and his brother Richard, Duke of York (the sons of King Edward IV), are to be assassinated at the order of their ambitious uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who had usurped his nephew’s throne as Richard III. The scene is taken from the Shakespeare play, Richard III, Act 4, Scene 3, where it is described in the words of Sir James Tyrell, who had commissioned their murder from Dighton and Forrest:
The tyrannous and bloody act is done –
The most arch deed of piteous massacre
That ever yet this land was guilty of.
‘O thus’, quoth Dighton, ‘lay the gentle babes’;
‘Thus, thus’, quoth Forrest, ‘girding one another
Within their alabaster innocent arms.
Their lips were four red roses on a stalk,
And in their summer beauty kissed each other.
A book of prayers on their pillow lay,
‘Which once’, quoth Forrest, ‘almost changed my mind.
But O, the devil’ — there the villain stopped,
When Dighton thus told on, ‘We smothered
The most replenished sweet work of nature,
That from the prime creation e’er she framed.’
The painting is a psychologically sobering study of the minutes before the childrens’ execution, evoking an anxious and suspenseful mood. By intimating danger, through the expression of the Duke of York and his dog’s apparent awareness of people approaching the door, rather than by crudely illustrating the actual murder Delaroche enhanced the drama of the moment. To increase the air of veracity, he furthermore set the spectator’s point of view extremely close to the scene and meticulously rendered details of period furnishings, costumes, and jewelry, gave the frail Edward V a sickly appearance, and included the book of prayers described by Shakespeare. So convincing was Delaroche in his attention to documentary verisimilitude that several critics were prompted to compliment him as Historian as well as Painter.
Considering the very favorable reception of this picture, it is not surprising that Delaroche chose to paint other versions. A small version of the subject dated 1831 was acquired by 4th Marquess of Hertford in 1843 and subsequently inherited by his son, Sir Richard Wallace, the founder of the Wallace Collection where it hangs today. Another even smaller version, dated 1832, is in a private British collection. While the early history of our painting is unrecorded, the painting has been examined by Dr. Norman D. Ziff, the principal authority on the artist, and author of Paul Delaroche (New York, 1977), who believes that it was painted by the artist contemporaneously with the Louvre version.