For most of the 20th century the National Gallery in London kept Paul Delaroche’s The Execution of Lady Jane Grey (1833) rolled up in its vaults, like a guilty secret. The painting had caused a sensation at the time of its initial exhibition in Paris in 1834, when it was sold to a Russian aristocrat for the highest price ever paid for a single work. Perhaps as a result, on seeing it in later years, the revolutionary poet Théophile Gautier delivered one of art history’s more damning reviews: “I hated Paul Delaroche, whom I had never seen, with a savage and aesthetic hatred,” he declared. “I could have eaten him, and thought him good eating, as the young Redskin thought the Bishop of Quebec.” Gautier’s verdict, published when Delaroche was the starriest painter among Europe’s nobility, stuck. Delaroche was a history painter when such painting was becoming history. He was subsequently and universally characterised as a bourgeois dead end at the birth of the radical lineage of modernism that went from Delacroix through Manet to Cézanne and on to Picasso. “Delaroche was not born a painter,” Gautier wrote. “He belonged to the middle classes. He tried to be interesting, which is a matter absolutely secondary in art.”
more from Tim Adams at The New Statesman here.