Artists of Romanticism showed a particular interest in history; they idealised it and drew inspiration from it. Their escapism and rose-tinted visions of the Middle ages and Tudor era produced some of the finest portraits of historical events – executions to be precise.
My interest in Joan of Arc sparked only after I heard Morrissey singing about her in the song Bigmouth Strikes Again from The Smiths’ album The Queen is Dead (1986). In the song, he identifies his own social faux pas with the fate of poor Joan of Arc who gave her life for the idea. Listening to Morrissey’s high-pitched voice in the background singing Now I know how Joan of Arc felt gives me goose bumps every single time.
“And now I know how Joan of Arc felt
Now I know how Joan of Arc felt
As the flames rose to her Roman nose
And her Walkman started to melt”
I was crazy about this song in last October and I thought these were the coolest lyrics ever, I still do. They stayed etched in my mind for days and weeks, and somehow, for the good or bad, drew my attention to Joan of Arc as a historical figure. Romanticists drew inspiration from history, particularly the Medieval times which they idealised because it was a radically different time than the one they lived in, and because it was a time period seen as ‘barbaric’ and highly disliked by the 18th century thinkers. Romanticists were rebels after all, and what appealed to them about the Medieval era were: “…stained glass in soaring cathedrals, tales of Robin Hood and his merry men, and–above all–the old tales of King Arthur and the knights of the round table“(source).
Joan of Arc, merely nineteen years old when they burned her at the stake, possessed such courage and idealism that she seems to have been a figment of imagination of some romantic poet rather than a real human being. This painting is part of a triptych painted in 1843 by a German painter Hermann Anton Stilke, well known for painting religious and romantic themes. In typical romantic manner, Stilke diminished the brutal aspect of her death and emphasised her spirituality. Her gaze is directed to the sky as she waits for the agony to end. Ominous sky, painted in dark blue shades, is pervaded with threatening clouds – the ‘skies are in accusation steaming’ (Shelley) and lamenting the death of this poor ‘maid of Orleans’.
Unfortunate life and death of Lady Jane Grey, also known as the Nine-day Queen, was another subject that appealed to romantic sensibilities in the first half of the 19th century. I was charmed by Lady Jane; an intelligent, well-read, but somewhat timid and self-sacrificing sixteen year old girl, ever since I watched the film ‘Lady Jane’ (1986) starring Helena Bonham Carter. In the film, Jane proclaims that ‘learning is her only pleasure‘ and she also says: “I would die to free our people of chains of bigotry and superstition“. The latter is quite a confident remark for a sixteen year old girl, but she was a devout protestant and that proved to be her undoing. Much of the film is romanticised, but so is the painting ‘The Execution of Lady Jane Grey’ by Paul Delaroche.
The painting shows the young Lady Jane just moments before her execution. She’s blindfolded, desperately stretching her hands to reach the block of wood – final resting for that pretty witty head. Delaroche painted her as a little romantic virginal maiden; in white bodice and satin petticoat, her hands porcelain white, her hair golden. In reality, the event must have been bleak and sad. Her last words were: “Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit!” I wonder what thoughts crossed her mind as she place her head on the block, waiting for her death to come. Seems like her ‘sweet sixteen’ didn’t end so sweet after all. I suppose that’s her greatest legacy, her devotion to protestantism, her integrity and willingness to stick to her ideas, despite being punished for it. Just like Joan of Arc, she was an idealist who sacrificed her life for the greater good.
Death was particularly attractive a subject for painters and poets of Romanticism. Not that much is known about Lady Jane’s life, not even her exact date of birth, and since her reign was short, she’s not politically important. So, naturally, artists were drawn towards the subject of her execution. Still, how come nobody painted her sitting by the window and reading a book, or, on the day of her wedding?