In the National Gallery you can look into a dark and very ancient stone chamber where there is a teenage girl of exquisite beauty, wearing white satin and kneeling upon a velvet cushion, blindfold. She is supported, tenderly, by a gentleman in a black cloak and looked on by a large man in red tights who holds an axe. In front of her, between her and us, there is a wooden block surrounded by fresh straw: behind, in the shadows, ladies-in-waiting, who have divested her of robes and jewels, sob and swoon. 'The great business of painting,' declared Jonathon Richardson the elder, echoing almost all earlier European writers on art from Alberti onwards, 'is to relate a history or fable' - to compete with the poet or dramatist, and best of all with epic and tragedy. The Execution of Lady Jane Grey by Delaroche reminds us that the 'great business' was not neglected in the 19th century, although by then there were those who argued that painting what could be seen, whether landscape or 'modern life', should be a higher priority. It was only in this century that theorists decided that for a painter to be concerned with narrative was improper and 'literary' (although writers were still permitted to be pictorial). By then the 'great business' had been lost to the 'pictures', as the cinematograph was popularly known.
LRB 21 March 1985 | PDF Download