|The Execution of Lady Jane Grey|
by Paul Delaroche (1830).
(click to enlarge)
Because I started to appreciate art at so young an age, I’ve got a healthy promiscuity in my tastes, and lack any snobbery about what can be great art. Pop music or academic paintings, cheap industrial design or refined Swiss watches—it’s all good to me.
What I loved was the high you get from discovering a truly great work of art. I loved the familiarity that great art produces in you—the sense that you’ve seen this work before (when of course you never have), heard this music before (when of course you never have), heard this story before (when of course you never have). Few people can remember the first time they heard The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” or The Beatle’s “Yesterday”, or saw The Godfather or Casablanca—they can’t remember because they are such perfect works of art that they slip into your consciousness as if they’d always lived there. As if they are as much a part of you as breathing.
So I went to the Louvre today, the first of a six day exploration I have mapped out—and it was a bit disappointing: I’d seen everything already.
Certainly it was a thrill to see, say, David’s The Coronation of Napoleon in the flesh. The sheer size of the painting made it memorable—after all, all of the version’s I’ve ever seen fit on a computer screen or a coffee-table book. None of those versions could compare to the brilliance and life and sheer size of the 60 square meter original.
But there was nothing novel about that painting, or in fact, any of the other works that I saw: They were all paintings and sculptures that I’d either seen countless times before, or in fact had studied and memorized; or works which, though I didn’t know them, I recognized as part of a movement, or as a lesser example of so-and-so’s work, or as a—
—then I came across Delaroche’s The Execution of Lady Jane Grey.
It was overwhelming. I was overwhelmed. It was like stumbling on a scene I had always had in my mind, yet could not recall. The brightly lit, white central figure—helpless, as she reaches out to keep from stumbling—reaching out to the discrete executioner’s block, which will be the end of her. The grave men beside her, at once determined yet sorrowful. The wailing, duplicitous women. The plush velvet cushion—to absorb the weight of the young girl’s knees, and protect them from injury—contrasted with the coarse straw matting—to absorb the young girl’s blood, and protect the ground from its stain.
The longer I stared at the painting, the more its beauty overwhelmed me.