My Favourite Painting: Tracy Jones

The National Gallery's Tracy Jones chooses a haunting image painted by Paul Delaroche.

Tracy Jones on her choice: The Young Martyr by Paul Delaroche

‘I grew up fascinated by Millais’s Ophelia, which was reproduced in my Children’s Encyclopedia, so I think it was the similarities that made me stop in my tracks the first time I saw this painting at the Louvre.

‘What I love most is its mystery. I find myself contemplating: who was she? Why is she in the water? What happened to her? And the most vexing question of all: who are the shadowy figures on the bank looking down on her?

‘When The Young Martyr featured in the National Gallery’s 2010 Delaroche exhibition, I couldn’t resist visiting her most days and trying to puzzle out her story. I still don’t think I know the answers and that’s why I will always love looking at her.’

Tracy Jones runs the Arts PR company Brera and is head of press, PR and public affairs at the National Gallery.

John McEwen on Delaroche and The Young Martyr

Paul Delaroche was the son of a prominent Parisian art dealer and came from a family connected with the fine arts in every capacity, including as artists. At 19, he entered L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where his father insisted he study to be a landscape painter; his elder brother was already a history painter. He left after two years to become a pupil of Antoine Jean Gros, closest friend and successor to Jacques-Louis David, founder of neo-Classical art.

Classicism was a dogmatic and formal adherence to the study of Classical Greek and Roman sculpture, regarded by its advocates as beyond compare. Romanticism was the informal opposite, the accent on the subject rather than the prescribed rules of tradition, with passionate empathy a characteristic.

The word has led to many interpretations, a confusion personified by Gros, defender of David yet considered the father of French Romanticism, who wrote to an artist friend, ‘if only you were younger, we could crush these abominable Romantics’.

Delaroche had a foot in both camps, his fame resting on empathetic — dramatic or melodramatic, according to taste — pictures of past historical events. Pro-fessional admiration and the public popularity of his pictures led to his election to the Academie des Beaux-Arts in 1832, and a professorship at his alma mater the following year.

The Young Martyr, painted the year before he died, shows a victim of the Christian persecution of 303–311 imposed by the Roman emperor Diocletian. A couple, perhaps her parents, stand on the bank. An eternal halo, signifying sanctity, lights her face with posthumous glory.