Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The People vs. the Art Critics

Paul Delaroche was once a hugely popular painter, but it was his fate to represent the staid establishment of French art when the avant garde of Impressionism came along to sweep that establishment away. They were merciless to him. On seeing "The Execution of Lady Jane Grey" (1833), poet Théophile Gautier wrote,
I hated Paul Delaroche, whom I had never seen, with a savage and aesthetic hatred. I could have eaten him, and thought him good eating, as the young Redskin thought the Bishop of Quebec. . . Delaroche was not born a painter. He belonged to the middle classes. He tried to be interesting, which is a matter absolutely secondary in art.
But while the art world turned scornfully against Delaroche, the middle classes never ceased to love his sentimental history paintings. Tim Adams in the New Statesman:

With this verdict still in mind, therefore, it was with some trepidation and a warning from its then keeper of paintings, Cecil Gould, that the National Gallery finally brought the painting out of storage and put it on display in 1975. "The aim," Gould suggested, "is not to rehabilitate Delaroche. The only question concerning him which is likely to interest the current generation is why he was so successful in his lifetime."

Unfortunately for Gould, Delaroche's painting once again attracted too many visitors of what might still, in 1975, have been thought the wrong sort. The Execution of Lady Jane Grey - showing the teenage queen blindfolded and groping for the block on which she was to be beheaded - almost immediately became the most popular postcard in the National Gallery shop. The flooring in front of the painting was apparently the most scuffed and worn in the gallery; the "current generation", like those that had gone before, was not about to be told what it should like and what it shouldn't.

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