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Hippolyte Delaroche

Painter, b. at Paris, July 17, 1797; d. November 4, 1856

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Delaroche, HIPPOLYTE (known also as PAUL), painter, b. at Paris, July 17, 1797; d. November 4, 1856. A pupil of Watelet, a landscape painter of mediocre ability, and afterwards of Gros, a great painter but a very poor teacher and incapable of harmonizing his doctrines with his genius, Delaroche was consequently badly trained. Without any deep conception of mankind or of life, without style, and lacking even a novel idea along the lines of art or beauty, Delaroche was nevertheless gifted with a certain commonplace skill and aptitude which satisfied the public, and, whilst fully realizing his narrow limitations, he was astute enough to supply the want of artistic ability by an ingenious choice of subjects. Herein lay his genius, if indeed it may so be called. In this he appealed to the taste of the bourgeoisie which, devoid of artistic culture, had in the role of Maecenas succeeded the aristocracy of the old regime and definitively come into power during the Restoration and the July Monarchy. The artist’s debut in the salon of 1819 with “Naphtali in the Desert” passed by unnoticed. Another Biblical subject appeared in the salon of 1822, and in 1824 he won the gold medal. Delaroche discovered his vein and thenceforth, except for the occasional treatment of some current event (The Capture of the Trocadero, 1827), he worked upon that series of historical incidents, that vast repertory of anecdotes generally taken from the civil wars of France and England and which, when multiplied by the engravings of Goupil, the publisher, who thereby made a fortune, became equally valuable to the author in Paris and London. We must admit that Delaroche was admirably served by his engravers, of whom Henriquel Dupont was the best known. His inartistic painting gained much by being translated into engraving as, in this way, only the subject had to be reproduced. It must be admitted that, in all these works, Delaroche shows himself an incomparable scene-setter. In his masterpiece, “The Assassination of the Duke of Guise” (1835, Condo Museum), he is most realistic and furnishes, as it were, the retrospective photograph of a sixteenth-century drama. Therein accuracy of detail, naturalness of composition, and the extremely careful treatment of the decoration copied from the Chateau of Blois replaced, if indeed they do not equal, the impression made by real art. And yet the unique success of this small picture does not attend the larger ones, which do not so fully reflect the painter’s fancy.

In 1833 there was question of entrusting him with the decoration of the church of the Madeleine, but the large order was divided and the artist refused to accept half of the task that was to have been his in its entirety. By way of compensation he was commissioned to decorate the hemicycle of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. This work, completed in 1841 and which was for some time regarded as a masterpiece of decorative painting, is an ideal assemblage, or ecumenical council, of all the great artists from Ictinus to Bramante, from Cimabue to Velazquez, and from Phidias to Erwin von Steinbach, a composition in which the disconnectedness of the whole rivals the absence of character in each personage taken individually. Few great “machines” convey a more cruel impression of the utter lack of ideas and the incurable debility of the poetic or plastic conception. This frieze, officially praised, marked the decline of the artist in the eyes of competent judges and gave unmistakable evidence of his indigence. Delaroche endeavored to reinstate himself by working up different familiar and pious subjects. He also followed the vogue of the imperial cult and produced several scenes from the life of Napoleon. But even this ingenious idea did not restore the artist to his pristine glory. Then, as a last resource, he returned to his first subjects: “The Last Prayer of the Children of Edward IV” (1852); “The Last Communion of Mary Stuart” (1854), etc. His declining years were very sad. In 1835 he married the only daughter of Horace Vernet, but she died in 1848. At this time, although retaining popular favor, he was keenly sensible of the contempt of his fellow artists and realized not only that they would never regard him as one of their number but that, despite his glory, his fortunes, and his titles, he must ever remain in their eyes a Philistine painter. He exhibited nothing in the salon subsequently to 1837 and had not the courage to participate in the great manifestation of 1855, which was the dazzling triumph of the French School. His “Christian Martyr” (Louvre, 1855), so feebly delineated and poorly painted, nevertheless exhales exquisite sentiment and is, as it were, the last sigh of a Christian Ophelia. But the shortcomings of the artist should not blind us to the purity of his character and the uprightness of his life. Besides, faulty as his style may be, he nevertheless has the merit of being an inventor. He created anecdotal painting and the special order of illustrations to which we owe, among so many inferior works, the most creditable productions of J. P. Laurens. Delaroche had an “idea”, whatever its value, and this fact alone is unusual enough to be taken into account.



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