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The National Gallery
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Programme 5

The Pictures

Title: The Execution of Lady Jane Grey
Artist: Delaroche
Medium: oil on canvas
Date: 1833

This painting shows the moment before the execution of Lady Jane Grey, who had a distant claim to the English throne. After Edward VI died, the supporters of Jane’s rival Mary, the daughter of Henry VIII, had Lady Jane arrested and tried for treason after she had reigned for only 9 days. She was executed at Tower Hill (nearby the Tower of London) in 1554.

By showing us the moment before the execution, Delaroche encourages us to imagine the event itself. By including details such as Jane’s white clothes, or the clean straw in front of the executioner’s block, he prompts us to wonder what these will look like in a few moments, after the axe has fallen?

This execution was a historical event, and Delaroche is said to have used contemporary historical sources to help him represent it accuarately. But we know he changed the location of the execution, which would have been outside, to a dark interior, most probably for dramatic effect.

This painting proved highly popular when it was exhibited at the Salon exhibition in Paris in 1834.

Paul Delaroche (1797–1856)

Delaroche was born in Paris. He had great popular success at the Salon exhibitions between 1822 and 1837. Viewers liked his large, realistically- painted scenes from the history of the previous few centuries.

Title: Perseus Turning Phineas and his Followers to Stone
Artist: Giordano
Medium:oil on canvas
Date: early 1680s

This is the largest mythological painting in the National Gallery. It was one of three huge canvases that decorated a reception room in a palace in the Italian city of Genoa.

The story is taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The princess Andromeda was engaged to Phineas, but instead married Perseus, who had rescued her from a sea-monster as he returned from his mission to cut off the Gorgon Medusa’s head. At Perseus’ and Andromeda’s wedding celebrations, Phineas and his armed followers burst in to claim back Andromeda, but Perseus held up Medusa’s head and turned them to stone.

Giordano has painted the most dramatic moment from the story, when Phineas and his followers are being turned to stone. Perseus is marked out as the principal character by the bright ultramarine blue and his isolated position on the right: he turns his head away from Medusa to avoid being turned to stone himself. Phineas is shown as the villain by his cowardly position behind his men. The composition is balanced in terms of colour (the blue and yellow on Perseus and one of his opponents) and posture (Phineas’ posture is similar to that of Perseus, but turned around. The strong diagonal formed by the upturned table is balanced by the left-right diagonal of the rays of light.

The commission of this painting demonstrates a seventeenth-century taste for room decorations showing violent and bloodthirsty scenes.

Luca Giordano (1634–1705)

Giordano was born and died in Naples, but he studied in Rome, Florence and Venice and worked at the Spainish court for ten years. He was famous for the great speed with which he painted (his nickname was ‘Luca fa Presto’ – ‘Speedy Luke’) and for his large ceiling and wall paintings (although he also made small-scale works).

Title:The Adoration of the Golden Calf
Artist: Nicolas Poussin
Medium: oil on canvas
Date: 1634–5

This painting tells a story from Exodus. The Israelites were wandering in the Sinai desert after leaving Egypt where they had been slaves. Their leader, Moses, left them when he climbed Mount Sinai to receive the two stone tablets on which were written the Ten Commandments, and they began to be restless. They asked Moses’ brother Aaron to give them idols to worship. Aaron melted down their gold jewellery and ornaments and made a golden calf which he placed on an altar. When Moses returned to find them worshipping the calf, he furiously destroyed the calf and threw down and broke the stone tablets.

Through clever composition, Poussin has shown two moments from the story: the Israelites dance around the calf; but towards the background on the left a line of faces looks anxiously towards the figure of Moses coming down the mountain holding the stone tablets. In a similar position on the right a group of tents suggests the Israelites’ status as exiles.

Poussin may have made little clay figures as models for the figures in this painting: another of his paintings in the National Gallery, A Bacchanalian Revel, has an identical group of dancing figures, but in mirror image. Poussin was deeply influenced by the art of classical Greece and Rome, and these dancing figures are similar to those from antique relief sculptures or painted vases.

Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665)

Poussin’s family were peasants in Normandy. He trained in Paris, but spent most of the rest of his life in Rome where he painted for aristocratic and scholarly patrons. He painted religious, historical and mythological subjects in a style that was influenced by classical antiquity and the art of the Renaissance.

Title:Bacchus and Ariadne
Artist: Titian
Medium: oil on canvas
Date: 1522–3

Bacchus, the god of wine, leaps from a chariot towards Ariadne who has been searching for Theseus, her lover who has abandoned her. Bacchus asks her to marry him, and offers her, as a wedding gift, the sky – in which she will become a constellation of stars at her death.

This story from Greek mythology is recorded in several Latin poems. Extracts from these poems would have been sent to Titian by his patron, the Duke of Ferrara, who commissioned Titian to make a painted version to hang in a room in his palace. Bacchus is followed by a group of satyrs and maenads (wild women who worshipped him).

Titian refers to three parts of the story: the ship in the distance reminds us of what has already happened (Ariadne’s lover, Theseus, abandoned her and sailed away); the meeting of Bacchus and Ariadne and their reactions to each other is the main subject; and the ring of stars in the sky takes us to the future, the end of the story, when Ariadne is turned into a constellation.

As models for the cheetahs, Titian may well have used a pair of the animals belonging to the Duke of Ferrara.

Titian has used rich colours to tell this lively story: the blue is high-quality ultramarine; he puts orange next to its complementary blue in the cymbal-playing woman’s clothes; and draws our attention to his signature, ‘engraved’ on a vase in the foreground which he has placed on a bright yellow cloth.

Tiziano Vecellio (Titian) (active about 1506–1576)

Although Titian spent most of his life in Venice, he was an internationally famous painter who worked for several European monarchs as well as for most of the leading families of Italy. He used colour richly. He is particularly famous for his poetic portrayals of scenes from Greek mythology, but he also painted religious works and portraits.