Painted in the glory days of 1833, The Execution of Lady Jane Grey exemplifies the qualities of historical painting. It’s dramatic, technically exquisite, and a bit wrong on the factual details. These elements made history paintings popular in the 19th century and then passé soon after. I have a penchant for these artworks. History paintings remind me of the old timey ads for snake oil products. The portrayals often open a window into the hot controversy of a time period and offer one take on the topic.
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The Histrionics of History Painting
We see that in Delaroche’s painting The Execution of Lady Jane Grey. It has all the drama of Lady Jane’s tragic story but tells little truth of the matter. When Jane was 15 years old she was the Queen of England. But this only lasted nine days. Then a short time later, when she was still only 16 years old, the new Crown executed Lady Jane Grey. The details of how all this went down are confused in the Paul Delaroche depiction.
Artistic license like this was a common flaw in history painting. Delaroche gives us a glorious portrait in oil… largely thanks to the intensity of his lights and darks. But that contrast wasn’t likely possible in the actual setting of Jane Grey’s execution (outside). Delaroche seems to have set the scene in the Tower of London. This marks a significant setting throughout the story because Lady Jane stayed in the Tower while readying for her coronation; and then returned as a prisoner soon after.
Lady Jane Grey in a Black and White World
She was a teenager caught in the middle of a religious and political battle. Though her life hung in the balance between the two, Lady Jane Grey had little agency over any of it. She happened to be born into the royal bloodline and raised Protestant. These are the factors that prompted her accession to the throne. If it weren’t for Lady Jane Grey, the Catholic Mary Tudor would be Queen. So, Protestant sympathizers propped Jane onto the throne in order to quell the prospect of a Catholic England.
Jane didn’t last long as queen before Catholic Mary replaced her. Sadly, Lady Jane herself wasn’t long for this world either. The execution site was outside at the Tower Green, where a memorial sculpture stands today. This was the same spot where the English Crown executed Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard. That makes Lady Jane Grey the third queen to meet her executioner on the Tower Green. Unlike the other two, though, Lady Jane held an esteemed role as martyr after death. That resonates through Delaroche’s painting The Execution of Lady Jane Grey.
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Emotions as Spectacle
The pure white silk of Jane Grey’s dress gleams with her innocence along with her porcelain skin. Her martyrdom thus punctuates the center of the otherwise shadowy canvas. It feels operatic thanks to dramatic facial expressions and gestures on the three women present. Lady Jane spreads her hands at her sides with an awkward pose so that her fingers appear to tremble. Her face holds the sad spectre of resignation. While Jane’s maids show much more emotion. One throws herself against the wall in agonizing grief while the other closes her eyes and lifts her face as if she can’t bear the weight of the situation.
My eye always lands on the executioner to our right with his blood red stockings and vacant expression. He gazes at the scene from the side as if waiting for the drama to subside before he does his duty. The way he leans with nonchalance on his axe reminds us of institutional apathy.
This man’s here to do a day’s work and he seems to feel nothing more than any worker might, regardless of the job. The teenager at his mercy seems numb to the scene as well. But her detachment shows shock out of necessity. How can she know what to feel at 16 years old and facing death any minute? It’s the most significant moment of her life and just another day at the office for the executioner.
Although Delaroche gets the setting wrong in The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, his technical mastery imbues the painting with uncanny realism. That’s the magic of this history painting. Delaroche serves us shimmering silks, fluffy furs, and nubby velvet so that we’re in the execution room having a sensory experience. We can almost hear the maiden’s wail at the loss of her beloved Lady Jane. This was why history paintings were so popular in the 19th century. They transported viewers to dramatic scenes from their history books and made them feel real. It was the 19th century version of reality TV.
The Execution of Lady Jane Grey – FAQs
Why is Paul Delaroche an important painter?
Paul Delaroche was a French painter who often portrayed dramatic scenes from history in the 19th century. Although he was French, Delaroche often painted scenes from English history because they were popular with his customer base in France.
Delaroche had a strikingly realistic technique; portraying figures and objects with stunning accuracy. Yet his work, such as the iconic painting The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, often also contain factual flaws. This was a typical irony found in history paintings and led to their dip in popularity at the beginning of the 20th century.
Who was Lady Jane Grey?
Lady Jane Grey was the Queen of England for nine days in 1553. She was the great granddaughter of King Henry VII and her first cousin, Edward VI nominated her for accession to the throne. He was an ardent Protestant and knew that Lady Jane would carry that through her reign. This subverted the claim of his half sister, Mary Tudor who was Catholic but considered by many the rightful heir to the throne.
Only nine days after Lady Jane became Queen of England, the Catholics dethroned her for Mary Tudor. Soon after she was executed on the Tower Green in the same spot where Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard died. She was later considered a Protestant martyr by many. We can see this in the masterpiece The Execution of Lady Jane Grey.
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The Execution of Lady Jane Grey?
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Wright, Beth S. “The Space of Time: Delaroche’s Depiction of Modern Historical Narrative.” Nineteenth-Century French Studies 36, no. 1/2 (2007): 72–93.
Bann, Stephen. 1997. Paul Delaroche: History Painted. London: Reaktion Books; Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Bann, Stephen and Linda Whiteley. 2010. Painting History: Delaroche and Lady Jane Grey. London: National Gallery Company; Distributed by Yale University Press.
Duffy, Stephen. “Delaroche and Lady Jane Grey: London.” The Burlington Magazine 152, no. 1286 (2010): 338–39.