Ribner on Smyth (2023)

Smyth, Patricia. Paul Delaroche: Painting and Popular Spectacle. Liverpool UP, 2023, pp. 233, ISBN: 978-1-802-07021-7

At age thirty-five, four years after being named Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur, Paul Delaroche (1797–1856) became the youngest member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts. The following year (1833) brought a professorship at the École des Beaux-Arts, whose hemicycle he later decorated with an allegorical mural eighty-two feet in length, Artists of All Ages (1837–41). Jostling crowds gathered before his paintings at the Salon. By midcentury, internationally disseminated print reproductions made him perhaps the world’s most famous artist. Yet the stock value of Delaroche’s meticulously descriptive historical narratives plummeted in the twentieth century, when viewers in thrall to modernist formalism scorned storytelling, pathos, and illusionism.  

Even in the glory days, there was criticism. Commenting on the artist’s posthumous retrospective, Théophile Gautier—champion of l’art pour l’art—condescendingly noted of the eye-fooling straw scattered around the chopping block in The Execution of Lady Jane Grey (the sensation of the 1834 Salon): “plus d’un spectateur est tenté d’en tirer un brin à lui.” That large, astoundingly veristic tableau of a blindfolded innocent groping her way toward decapitation was bequeathed to the London National Gallery (1902). Mistakenly thought to have been destroyed by flood water while in storage, the canvas was accidentally located. Displayed in 1975 as a document of superannuated taste, Lady Jane Grey has since become a star attraction at Trafalgar Square. 

This resurrection coincided with an anti-formalist turn in scholarship in nineteenth-century art, accompanied by rediscovery of formerly esteemed figures. Norman D. Ziff’s doctoral dissertation on Delaroche (1974) exemplifies this new direction. Since the late 1960s, Ziff’s advisor, Robert Rosenblum, had pioneered study of late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century art invisible to modernism, co-curating with Frederick J. Cummings and Pierre Rosenberg the exhibition French Painting 1774–1830: The Age of Revolution (1974–5). That stunning ensemble demonstrated Delaroche’s range with the startlingly literal Portrait of the Marquis de Pastoret (1829, Boston, Museum of Fine Arts) and a heart stopping vehicle of pity and terror, The Children of Edward IV, also known as The Princes in the Tower (1830, Paris, Musée du Louvre). Impressive publications have since engaged myriad aspects of Delaroche’s oeuvre, including its resonance with contemporaneous historical writing and political opinion (Beth S. Wright); its narrative strategies and the response of viewers (Nina Lübbren); and the circulation of print reproductions (Stéphane Paccoud). Preeminent in Delaroche studies, Stephen Bann has illuminated the artist’s sources and creative process. 

To this line of research, Patricia Smyth’s thoughtful Paul Delaroche: Painting and Popular Spectacle makes a welcome contribution. Neither subject matter nor political context is central. At issue, rather, is the reception of Delaroche’s paintings by the recently broadened audience of professional critics and amusement seekers thronging the Salons of the Bourbon Restoration and July Monarchy.  Conversant with theoretical writing on visuality and extra-pictorial media, this closely-argued book is dense yet clearly written. Smyth lends it historical specificity through an impressively marshalled corpus of art and theater criticism extending back to Diderot. Aligning Delaroche’s art with the immersive media of his time—the panorama and diorama, popular melodrama, and Romantic theater—Smyth proposes a reevaluation of terms previously employed to describe the oeuvre—“transparent”, “theatrical,” and “literary.”  

Chapter one takes issue with the notion that, devoid of intervening style, the paintings provide transparent access to their motif. The author observes that the artist’s contemporaries held this naïve belief, and that it was essential to viewers’ emotional susceptibility. Smyth proposes replacement of “transparency” with “immediacy,” regarding Delaroche as a purveyor of illusion rather than a faithful copyist of the visual world. Immediacy’s prefix (“im”) elegantly signals that the artful aspect of Delaroche’s illusionism was invisible to his contemporaries. The term squares with the affective immediacy of the paintings and related immersive media. And immediacy, it could be added, fits countless uniformly descriptive paintings by Horace Vernet, the artist’s father-in-law and co-star of the art trend under Louis-Philippe conventionally, if controversially, known as the juste-milieu. Smyth’s nonjudgmental view of Delaroche as master of illusion makes salient the inadequacy of the moralizing, Marxian indictment of illusionism as an opiate of the nineteenth-century masses (4). 

Chapter two contests characterization of the paintings as “theatrical,” indicating that, since the mid-eighteenth century, the term denoted artificial, exaggerated physiognomic and anatomical expression—traits absent from Delaroche’s moving narratives. These, the author contends, are better served by identification with what, in Delaroche’s day, was valued as the opposite of theatricality—“authenticity.” In a fascinating section, we learn that the ostensibly unschooled and heart-felt method acting of Marie Dorval—a star of the Romantic stage who debuted in popular melodrama—was perceived as authentic, winning over audiences at the expense of the controlled, evidently professional performances of the tragediennes Rachel and Mlle Mars.  

Chapter three problematizes the notion that The Assassination of the duc de Guise (1834, Chantilly, Musée Condé)—whose lack of distinction between major and minor elements disconcerted some viewers—is “literary,” tactfully engaging its kinship with Alexandre Dumas père’s drama Henri III et sa cour (1829). Wary of analogizing Delaroche’s paintings to theatrical performance, Smyth proposes immediacy, rather than the painter’s use of stage conventions, as key point of affinity 

The final chapter concerns the concept of “remediation”—the attainment of immediacy through reliance on, and revision of, an antecedent image.  We see this dynamic at work in both Delaroche’s dialogue with his visual sources and in the continuation of his legacy by others, notably his student Jean-Léon Gérôme. Aghast at the smeared pigment of Monet and Renoir, Gérôme strenuously objected to State acceptance of the impressionist paintings bequeathed by Gustave Caillebotte in 1894. By that time, modernism had already relegated Delaroche to oblivion. 

For specialists in nineteenth-century painting, Smyth’s book provides new purchase on the criteria informing response to one of the most popular artists of post-Napoleonic France. Rethinking the vocabulary applicable to Delaroche’s emotionally-charged historical reconstructions, the book is germane to scholars focused on any mimetic genre—whether drama, cinema, or the novel—in which deft artifice masquerades as truth.  

Jonathan P. Ribner
Boston University