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Paul-Hippolyte Delaroche, 1797-1856

Study for "Louise Vernet on Her Death Bed"

Description:Read An Essay On This Drawing

Paul-Hippolyte Delaroche created a convincing and transcendent image of his dead wife in Louise Vernet on Her Deathbed. Louise lays blissfully in profile, as both her mouth and right eye remain slightly open. Her elevated head rests on two pillows, as locks of her hair fall vertically to her shoulder and drape diagonally across her bosom. Delaroche carefully defined each curl, delineating individual hairs and shimmering highlights, in Louise's palpable coiffure. Her pale skin and her lifeless body indicate that she is deceased. Rather than present the sordid details of death by fever, Delaroche conveyed Christian triumph over death, as a halo emerges from the dark background to encircle his wife's beautiful head. This drawing is an angelic effigy.

Delaroche first depicted Louise as an angel in a small portrait completed shortly after their wedding in Rome on 28 January 1835. Recently elected to the Académie des Beaux-Arts and appointed professor at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the painter embarked on his trip to Italy in 1834 with the intention of studying frescoes from the early Renaissance in preparation for his commission to decorate the church of La Madeleine in Paris. Once in Italy, he renewed his acquaintance with Louise, who was the twenty-one-year-old daughter of Horace Vernet (1789 -1863), director of the Académie Française in Rome. During their decade of marriage, Delaroche focused much of his artistic energy on his family, often employing Louise's distinctive traits in his works and painting his two sons, Horace and Philippe. For instance, his painting A Mother's Joy (1843, Musée Pescatore, Luxembourg), which takes its tondo form from Renaissance prototypes, transforms the theme of the Virgin and Child with John the Baptist into a family portrait of the artist's wife, including her remarkable curls, and his two sons.2

fig 1, Auguste Lemoine after Léon Cogniet, Tintoretto Painting His Dead Daughter, crayon lithograph with scraping, after 1843. The Baltimore Museum of Art, The George A. Lucas Collection, 1996.48.7888.This drawing is a highly finished preparatory study for a painting recently acquired from the Delaroche-Vernet family by the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Nantes. Delaroche's image relates to a long tradition of deathbed scenes that commemorate the loss of a hero, an artist, or a loved one. Louise Vernet on Her Deathbed, however, most strongly recalls Léon Cogniet's painting Tintoretto Painting His Dead Daughter (fig. 1, shown here in a reproductive print by Auguste Lemoine), exhibited two years earlier at the Salon of 1843, where it drew much praise. Delaroche undoubtedly saw Cogniet's image, either the painting or a reproductive print, and perhaps knew that the premature death of one of Cogniet's female students had inspired his picture. Moreover, Tintoretto's daughter, like Delaroche's wife, died in her early thirties.3

Delaroche in fact reversed Cogniet's composition, and, as in his model, elevated the figure's head and depicted her in profile with a slightly open mouth and eye. Delaroche retained the dark background around the dead woman's head but eliminated the dark shadows on her face, preferring to invest his image with a sense of transcendence rather than melodramatic loss. Finally, Delaroche, unlike Tintoretto, is absent from his composition, which suggests a sense of contemplative reverence, as the act of looking testifies to the miracle of her transformation. John P. Lambertson

1. An invoice from Goupil & Cie. in the Walters archives lists "1 dessin par Paul Delaroche 350 francs," but it does not indicate a title or size.

2. For discussion and illustration of these works, see S. Bann, Paul Delaroche: History Painted(Princeton, 1997), 233-39.

3. On Cogniet's painting, see Le Temps des passions, exh. cat., Musée des Beaux-Arts d'Orléans (Orléans, 1997), 192-97.

Medium: graphite on slightly textured, moderately thick, cream wove paper with watermark
Dimensions: height: 14.9 cm, width: 17.1 cm.
Date: ca. 1845
Category: portrait | historical
Subject: death | woman
Inscriptions and Markings: "Paul Delaroche" in graphite, lower left, recto; "Paul Delaroche" in graphite, right side, verso; "6467" in graphite, center, verso; "27" in graphite, upper right, verso
Bibliography: Bann, Stephen. Paul Delaroche: History Painted. London (?): Reaktion. 1997.: pp. 138, 140, 317.
Related Works: Unfinished painting in Mus?e des Beaux-Arts, Nantes, illustrated in Bann 2000, no. 72.
Provenance: William T. Walters (1819-1894), Baltimore, May 18, 1867 (?), by purchase from the artist [350 francs].
Collection: The Walters Art Museum
Credit Line: Acquired by William T. Walters, 1867 (?)
Object Number: WAM 37.1379