My fascination with an oil painting of La Jeune Martyre 1855 by French artist Paul Delaroche


witness by alexander james hamilton underwater figurative work referencing jean everett milais
Witness' , chromogenic print 180 x 135 cms. Pertwee Anderson & Gold Gallery, London.

I first saw this painting in Paris at the Louvre in 2008. It was completed in 1855 a year before the artists death, painted in the Romantic style and sized at 59 x 68cms. It has been held in the Louvre collection since 1890. The first version of the painting is from 1853 and is held at the Hermitage Museum, in Saint Petersburg.

The Young Martyr represents both Delaroche's emphasis on historical accuracy and flair for drama and emotion in painting as it depicts the historical martyrdom of a Christian woman, while, at the same time, an otherworldly halo, emanating above the Martyr's forehead, emphasises the painting's dramatic effect.

My fascination with a painting of La Jeune Martyre an oil painting by French painter Paul Delaroche
La Jeune Martyre by Paul Delaroche, courtesy The Louvre

Oil was Paul Delaroche's medium of choice when painting The Young Martyr, as oil allowed him to manipulate the precise details in the painting over a long period of time, and capture a high level of detail. This allowed for a striking effect of the chiaroscuro - from the black. The Young Martyr begins in the upper left-hand corner of the painting, where the figures of a man and a woman, embracing each other in terror upon seeing the drowned Christian, are barely visible. Although the identity of the figures is unclear. In the upper left-hand corner of the painting, a faint white star can be seen in the sky, just above the grieving couple. The presence of this star in the painting as its inclusion may allude to other historical or religious narratives. The faint star above the grieving parents may allude to the morning star, or Lucifer himself. Suggesting the presence of the Devil, or of evil (metaphorically) in the painting. The Martyr's hands are bound by rope, as she gently floats upon the surface of the Tiber. With her body erect suggesting the rigor mortis. She appears both dead and alive. Delaroche details around the Martyr's right hand where there are small, delineated ripples, barely emanating from around the crests of the Martyr's fingers enforcing the life like realism of the painting. Directly above the head of the Martyr is a halo. The Martyr's halo, precise and crisp, appears surreal in contrast to the rest of the painting helping to stage The Young Martyr as it exists as the primary source of light for the otherwise dimly lit Christian.

detail from plate 0189, from the scene 'Witness'

It was indeed a time for Christians to be in the shadows as their lives were in great danger from the Roman Emperor at the time. On the surface, The Young Martyr depicts the sacrifice of a young Christian woman into the Tiber River; hands bound and simply cast into the river. The painting alludes to the countless Christian martyrs throughout the centuries, but specifically the martyrdom of Christians under the rule of the Roman Emperor Diocletian who ruled in the 3rd and 4th centuries when they were systematically persecuted for their religious beliefs. 

For me the choice to depict the martyrdom of a young woman may, more truly, have been part of Delaroche's response to the death of his wife, Louise Vernet, in 1845, whom he was known to have included as a figure in many of his paintings, for homage. So for me the connection with this painting was complete, I now wanted to recreate this work using my sense of loss interpreted through my own process.

ophelia la jeune martyr
detail from plate 0184, from the scene 'Witness'

I had never attempted a figurative piece before, knowing full well the complexities of applying the medium of water to such a large scale work. To date I had been creating still life and Vanitas works underwater, documenting them on large format analogue cameras. To me attempting such a large and technically sophisticated piece would be madness.  

Personal events however did bring me to this tragic story and my wish to explore the subject and interpret it based on my experiences. The resulting works pay I believe respectful homage to the La Jeune Martyre by Paul Delaroche painting and indeed I exhibited them in 2012 at 'A beautiful announcement of death' Pertwee Anderson & Gold Gallery, London

I chose a similar direction by placing Ophelia alone in the scene surround by a deep dark void, this was my own choice to reference a profound sense of loss. However I wanted this maiden surrounded with flowers all the same, so in mindful reverence I created a large body of floral Vanitas works at the same time, to be hung all around my Martyr filling the space with floral tributes. 

riverbrook with flowers underwater floral vanitas
'Riverbrook with roses' dated 2012. 160 x 80cms chromogenic print.

There were two pieces, one as Ophelia the other the Martyr, one in each of the main gallery rooms. As before with my work every element of the scene is hand constructed from the pure gold halo to the fine wardrobe, 'Witness' in a simple silk blue double layered with white dress and below 'Turned from heavens door' in a lavish tulle silk gown with 1,000's of beads hand sewn into it with fine embroidery; the dress alone took over 500 hours to create by hand.

turned from heavens doors underwater fine art photograph ophelia
'Turned from heavens door', chromogenic print 180 x 135 cms. Pertwee Anderson & Gold Gallery, London.


'Riverbrook with peony' dated 2012. 160 x 80cms chromogenic print.
'Riverbrook with peony' dated 2012. 160 x 80cms chromogenic print.

The exhibition was complete with over 20 large format works and a 500 kilogram stainless steel vitrine case filled with water and inside a floating womans skull, veiled in a black silk. All around which, the space was filled with a series of intense Memento Mori underwater photographic works; completing a surreal installation within the space.

'Veiled skull with flowers' dated 2012 , Edition of 10, 120 x 90 cms.  Chromogenic print.


The exhibition catalogue for 'A beautiful announcement of death' is avai;able for pdf download. 

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