The Assassination of the Duke of Guise

The Assassination of the Duke of Guise

Assassination of the Duke of Guise

© RMN-Grand Palais / Gérard Blot

Publication date: December 2019

Professor of modern history, Université Lyon 2 - Member of the Religions, Societies and Acculturation team

Historical context

This painting is a workshop replica of a work in the Condé museum at the Château de Chantilly. The replica was probably made to serve as a model for an engraving.

The 1830s were an important moment in the construction of a national historical imagination through pictorial productions commissioned either by the king or by the Duke of Orleans, who was a great collector and patron. The Palace of Versailles, which was transformed in 1837 into a museum dedicated "to all the glories of France", thus hosts many historical compositions, in particular the series of the great battles supposed to have made France.

Paul Delaroche (1797-1856) studied painting with Louis Étienne Watelet, then with Antoine-Jean Gros, the great painter of the Napoleonic epic. Not all critics are impressed by Delaroche's art, and Théophile Gautier himself executed it in the article he devoted to the Salon of 1834: “M. Delaroche, mediocre inventor, mediocre designer, mediocre colourist; mediocre is a polite term here. Rock ! The first is a painter, an artist in the broadest sense of the word, the other will never be, whatever you do, a talented worker, a fairly skillful arranger and nothing more. "

The era is passionate about historical anecdotes brought to life. We are interested in the tragic destinies of the princes and princesses of the Middle Ages and of the xvie and xviie centuries. Interest in the Wars of Religion began in the late 1820s, when Ludovic Vitet published a series of historical scenes - The Barricades (1826), The States of Blois (1827) and The death of Henry III (1829) -, but he was especially stimulated by the creation at the French Theater, in February 1829, of a drama composed by the young Alexandre Dumas: Henri III and his court. After having murdered his wife's lover, Saint-Mégrin, one of the king's cuties, the duke challenges the king in his last line: "Good! And now that we're done with the valet, let's deal with the master. The play was a triumph, and we know that Delaroche leaned on its scenography.

Image Analysis

The work is in an elongated medium format (about one meter wide, about fifty centimeters high), reminiscent of certain compositions by Gros. It has a very scenographic appearance: if the ceiling was not visible, you could imagine yourself on a stage in a theater, with its busy decor and hangings.

The eye is drawn to the group of figures to the left of the painting. King Henry III, pushing aside a red tapestry, enters the room. In front of him is a troop of armed men: they are members of the Company of the Forty-Five. The costumes are extremely elaborate, in accordance with Delaroche's taste for historical details. It feels like a gallery of theatrical figures.

The richness of the costumes and the setting could distract from the real subject of the scene, the death of Henri de Lorraine, Duke of Guise, but one of the Forty-five, to the right of the group, holds out his sword in direction of the corpse. Dressed in a pearl gray satin coat, the blue ribbon of the Order of the Holy Spirit around his neck, he lies at the foot of a four-poster bed, lit by a light falling artificially from above, which guarantees the effect theatrical stage. An overturned chair indicates the violence of the struggle. While there is hardly any blood on the victim's doublet, it symbolically looks spilled in the red of the curtain.

Interpretation

The assassination of the Duke of Guise took place in the castle of Blois on December 23, 1588. Delaroche leaves nothing to be said about the motives of Henry III and the causes of the Duke's killing. Nevertheless, in the background, on the back wall, a Crucifixion invites us to see an analogy between the sufferings of the Duke, who has his arms outstretched, and that of Christ. The Duke was indeed the leader of the League, that gathering of intransigent Catholics who did not accept that a Protestant could one day ascend the throne of France. Since 1584, the heir to the crown was indeed Henry of Navarre, and this prince was not a Catholic. The leaguers forced the king to reverse the edicts of tolerance in July 1585, and the kingdom sank into civil war. In May 1588, the Duke of Guise defied the king's orders by coming to Paris. Henry III brought troops into the capital, but the militia took up arms. The king, threatened, fled the next day. Hoping to regain some authority, he called the States General in Blois, but the majority of the deputies were in favor of the League ideas. While the Duke of Guise wanted to impose his control on the royal council, Henri III secretly prepared his assassination.

At the start of the 1830s, the troubles of the Wars of Religion were no more than a distant memory, but the fear of civil war, the dangers posed by questions of succession and dynastic legitimacy, or even the traumas caused by the political attacks were topical. The Duke of Berry (son of the future Charles X, and therefore likely heir to the crown) had thus been assassinated in 1820. The rumors of conspiracies or seditions multiplied after the accession of Louis-Philippe. Legitimists were planning to capture the king at a ball at the Tuileries, but the plot was blown out in early 1832. A few months later an attempted uprising in Vendée took place ...

Delaroche's painting was immediately admired for its highly theatrical quality. However, this success surprised some observers. Hilaire-Léon Sazerac, who published a series of letters about the Salon of 1835, was among the skeptics: perhaps in living memory, no one has seen anything like it and one so singularly expressed. The clappers of all the theaters of Paris and the suburbs are (the triviality of the word in favor of the correctness of its application) sunken by fanatic admirers who crowd around a small painting. The subject of this painting is one of those political crimes with which the family of Catherine de Medici was never stingy: it isAssassination of the Duke of Guise at the Château de Blois, and the author of this painting is M. Delaroche. "(H.-L. Sazerac, Letters on the Salon of 1835, "Second letter. March 5, 1835. General aspect of the exhibition ").

During the following years, the romantic taste for historical dramas did not falter. In 1836, Meyerbeer's opera, The Huguenots, achieved extraordinary success. Alexandre Dumas himself returned to this period in the 1840s with his trilogy Queen Margot, The Lady of Monsoreau and The Forty-Five.

  • Louis Philippe
  • Museum of the History of France
  • history painting
  • School of Fine Arts
  • Gautier (Théophile)
  • Middle Ages
  • religious war
  • Dumas (Alexandre)
  • Blois
  • Henry III
  • Henry IV
  • Catholicism
  • Protestantism
  • Charles X
  • theater

To cite this article

Nicolas LE ROUX, "The Assassination of the Duke of Guise"


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