The Great Business

Nicholas Penny

  • Art of the 19th Century: Painting and Sculpture by Robert Rosenblum and H.W. Janson
    Thames and Hudson, 527 pp, £25.00, March 1984, ISBN 0 500 23385 3
  • Romanticism and Realism: The Mythology of 19th-Century Art by Charles Rosen and Henri Zerner
    Faber, 244 pp, £15.00, October 1984, ISBN 0 571 13332 0
  • Géricault: His Life and Work by Lorenz Eitner
    Orbis, 376 pp, £40.00, March 1983, ISBN 0 85613 384 1
  • Tradition and Desire: From David to Delacroix by Norman Bryson
    Cambridge, 277 pp, £27.50, August 1984, ISBN 0 521 24193 6

In the National Gallery you can look into a dark and very ancient stone chamber where there is a teenage girl of exquisite beauty, wearing white satin and kneeling upon a velvet cushion, blindfold. She is supported, tenderly, by a gentleman in a black cloak and looked on by a large man in red tights who holds an axe. In front of her, between her and us, there is a wooden block surrounded by fresh straw: behind, in the shadows, ladies-in-waiting, who have divested her of robes and jewels, sob and swoon. ‘The great business of painting,’ declared Jonathon Richardson the elder, echoing almost all earlier European writers on art from Alberti onwards, ‘is to relate a history or fable’ – to compete with the poet or dramatist, and best of all with epic and tragedy. The Execution of Lady Jane Grey by Delaroche reminds us that the ‘great business’ was not neglected in the 19th century, although by then there were those who argued that painting what could be seen, whether landscape or ‘modern life’, should be a higher priority. It was only in this century that theorists decided that for a painter to be concerned with narrative was improper and ‘literary’ (although writers were still permitted to be pictorial). By then the ‘great business’ had been lost to the ‘pictures’, as the cinematograph was popularly known.

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey and other similar pictures by Delaroche depart with bold originality from the earlier ways of painting history or fable on a large scale which were perpetuated by the more traditional Delacroix, most of whose paintings would not have surprised, although they would have delighted, Veronese, Rubens or Reynolds. Delaroche’s picture presents Robert Rosenblum with ‘the immediate illusion of a theatrical tableau enacted by costumed players in a crystal-clear space’. It was painted for – one might say took place at – the Salon of 1834. By then many paintings were designed primarily for the great annual public exhibitions and some of them exclusively for these, with no appropriate final destination. Special shows of one or two works of art, usually large ones, were also to be seen in Paris, although less often than in London, where the American artist Copley exhibited his Death of Chatham and his Death of Major Peirson in the 1780s. Thereafter an impresario was generally involved, such as William Bullock, who exhibited Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa as well as dwarfs, Eskimos and so on in the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly (which was later to serve as one of London’s first cinemas). Other French paintings, including a version of David’s Coronation of Napoleon, with its dazzling profusion of documentary details, were shown separately in London in the same period. By the mid-century touring exhibitions were taking some popular English pictures such as John Martin’s Great Day of his Wrath as far as America. Frith’s Derby Day even reached Australia. Hyperbolic publicity was circulated which boasted of the time consumed in making these pictures, the painstaking search for ‘authenticity’, the number of portrait heads included, and the record price paid for copyright (the profits from engravings being as important a factor in the whole undertaking as television rights are in film-making).

Art of the 19th Century is the first general history of its kind which gives proper consideration to these pictures and others like them. The intelligence with which Rosenblum discusses their significance will be granted even by those who regret that he is so tolerant of them as works of art. ‘Theatrical’ may suggest condescending praise but Rosenblum takes Lady Jane Grey very seriously. This will shock some people, but they will be relieved that Rosenblum does not recommend that we like everything. He shakes no established reputation – a pity to my mind since surveys of this sort should do more to discourage piety – but he is certainly right to accept Géricault’s painting as a masterpiece.

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